I’ve been continuing to indulge my obsession with Jeremy Irons’ voice by listening to his unabridged narration of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 15-minute bursts during my morning commute. This of course made me want to see Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of the book staring Irons, but I waited until I was finished with the audio book before watching. I had seen only part of when this premiered on HBO, having had an extremely limited theatrical release due to the controversy surrounding using a 16-year-old actress in the role of Lolita. I hardly remember the film from that TV screening, but I do remember it was followed by a live segment of Lyne defending the film against viewers calling in.
Seeing the film again today, it is remarkable how much better it is than Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the same book. Kubrick transplanted the setting of the novel from the ’40s to the early ’60s without really considering how a less innocent social milieu would effect the story. Although there is some dark humor lurking in Humbert Humbert’s narration in the novel, Nabokov certainly did not write the kind of comedy that Kubrick put into the film. Kubrick obviously loved working with Peter Sellers, and transformed Claire Quilty from a character menacing in the background of Nabokov’s novel into the most important part of the film.
Lyne does a lot to right these wrongs. The film is set in the same time as the novel, and the costumes, sets and look of the film all work well to evoke the era. There is also a beautiful, morose score by Ennio Morricone, as well as some brief snippets of pop songs from the ’40s. All the parts lend themselves to a somber tone that underscores the tragic nature of Nabokov’s novel, which is largely lost in Kubrick’s film. The wonderful lyric prose of Nabokov is present only in a few spots of voice over narration by Irons, but their is a lyric quality in the cinematography which is an adequate translation.