A subject that was acceptable on film in 1962 is proving too hot to handle 35 years later. That's the paradox at the heart of the controversy over the new screen version of 'Lolita', Vladimir Nabokov's classic tale of forbidden love
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It was autumn 1958 in an America that now seems antique. To prove its will, the country was exploding mighty bombs in the Pacific. Though the man was dead, the sway of Joseph McCarthy was far from over. The Russians were "ahead" in space; the Chinese were bombarding Quemoy; the atomic submarine, Nautilus, had sailed under the polar ice cap; the plot to oust Batista in Cuba was underway - a kid named Castro was growing his beard. The world was ruled by Nikita Kruschev, Harold Macmillan, Mao, Hendrik Verwoerd, De Gaulle, Nixon and Dwight D Eisenhower. Gigi would win the Oscar for best picture. America took pride in being a robustly decent nation inhabited by clean-cut families. An American movie couldn't show a breast. Although some regarded Elvis Presley as a moral threat, few of those threatened truly knew why.

That autumn a relieved, suddenly prosperous and unshakeably wise Vladimir Nabokov opined that "America is the most mature country in the world in this respect". Happy days, even if when, in Gigi, Maurice Chevalier sang, "Thank heaven for little girls", a few cads exchanged knowing, nasty grins.

Since December 1953, Nabokov had been the happy, if wary, author of Lolita: he called it a time bomb - though he never dreamed how far ahead the timer was set. The few publishers allowed to read the manuscript doubted it could ever see the light of day. Nabokov may have been hurt, but hardly surprised, to hear that his superior friend, Edmund Wilson, had shown Lolita to Jason Epstein of Doubleday with the warning "It's repulsive, but you should read it". Among those who regarded themselves as the most sophisticated minds in America, Lolita was marked down as "a dirty book" (when that phrase meant something). This was a novel in which a grown and educated man (with a fancy prose style, to rub it in) had sexual congress with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores.

Or, to be more tenderly precise, in room 342 of the Enchanted Hunters hotel in Briceland, after Humbert Humbert had spent a sleepless, tremulous, imaginative night beside Lo, she woke, rolled over, kissed him and whispered thunder in his ear. "Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved ... My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of- fact manner as if it was an insensate gadget unconnected with me. While eager to impress me with the world of tough kids, she was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kid's life and mine."

That, more or less, was and is it in Lolita; do you feel the distant charm of the 1950s, let alone the spell of the writing?

For several years the book was unavailable to decent society. An edition was published by the Olympia Press in Paris, and border-running copies were confiscated by indignant but suddenly bookish authorities. Graham Greene went so far as to name Lolita one of his books of the year in the Sunday Times round-up for 1955. Publication came to New York in August 1958. The daily New York Times declared it "dull, dull, dull" yet also "repulsive ... highbrow pornography". The novel went to number one. Dorothy Parker said it was "a fine book, a distinguished book - all right, then - a great book". The Cincinnati Public Library banned it - but Cincinnati has a tradition in such things. Then Stanley Kubrick bought the movie rights for $150,000.

Kubrick was apprehensive. He suggested to Nabokov that the movie might have a different ending, one in which Humbert and Lo ended up married! The author was politely unimpressed. Calder Willingham wrote a script along such lines and no one was happy with it. Whereupon, Kubrick and his partner James Harris prevailed upon Nabokov to come to Los Angeles and do the screenplay himself.

By then, Lolita had sold over 300,000 hardback copies in America. It had been published in Britain. No action had succeeded against it. Still, Kubrick was clear that no early 1960s movie could show Humbert's "life" or Lo's efforts with it. Agented by Swifty Lazar, and ensconced in the Hollywood hills, Nabokov wrote his script in the morning, and pursued butterflies in the afternoon, amused by the hysterical din of disturbed rattlesnakes. He got $75,000 for the screenplay so long as he kept sole credit.

That is how the titles read, though Kubrick and Harris rewrote the very lengthy, very ingenious and high-mindedly cinematic script offered by Nabokov (he believed in film). They murmured privately that not only could you not film his script, you couldn't lift it. Kubrick wanted Nabokov's name for literary respectability and reader trust. He was also keen to have the coup of a Lolita chosen by Humbert's creator. He introduced Nabokov to the 17-year-old Tuesday Weld. In a round of parties, the novelist met John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Then in due course he picked Sue Lyon's photograph out of a pile - "She is the one", he was reported as saying. That was September 1960, by which time James Mason had signed on as Humbert, with Peter Sellers as Quilty. Quite late in the day, Kubrick decided to shoot the film in England, at Elstree. Lyon would be 15 by the time the filming was done, and nearly 16 when the movie opened in June 1962.

That first Lolita is surprisingly good, too long, but smart, funny and an inducement to anyone to read the book. Peter Sellers was indulged by Kubrick, but he has sharp moments. Shelley Winters is ideal as Charlotte. James Mason makes us believe he has a scholar's mind and a lover's needs. And Sue Lyon does very nicely as an all-American girl ready to humour, tease and see the forlornness in Humbert's great love for her. The gravest defect in the film is not censorship, but the decision to make misty English suburbia serve as Nabokov's vibrant American road.

The film did modestly. "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" the ads asked, above a would-be seductive Lyon in heart-shaped shades, sucking a lollipop. "They didn't" said one reviewer. And they hadn't. They'd made a movie to cash in on a literary event, a picture in which a middle-aged man made wordy flirt with a teenager old and worldly enough to look after herself. (12 was never attempted.) Years later, Kubrick confessed that, if he'd foreseen the censorship limits, "I probably wouldn't have made the film".

Fade-out - fade-in. In 1990, for $1 million, the rights to remake Lolita were purchased for Adrian Lyne, the English director of Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. He loved the book - why not? And he bought into the notion that Kubrick had not done it adequately, or fully. But he foresaw that, in the Nineties, audiences might find it hard to like Humbert. He reckoned to put him in prison, just so that everyone would know the wages of sin.

The script proved elusive. James Dearden (writer of Fatal Attraction), Harold Pinter and David Mamet all had a go at it, without satisfying Lyne. Then he heard that a New Yorker writer, Stephen Schiff, loved the novel and had done some scenes for an earlier attempt at a re-make. Schiff was hired and he produced a script that Lyne felt comfortable with. By all reports, it is a good script, and a skilled adaptation, but it called for several flagrant sex scenes between Humbert and the 12-year-old girl.

Principal photography went from September 1995 to February 1996, with a cast that included Melanie Griffith as Charlotte, Frank Langella as Quilty, Jeremy Irons as Humbert, and a 15-year-old Malibu unknown, Dominique Swain, in the central role. The movie was financed by the French company, Chargeurs, and the daring decision was made not to secure an American distributor in advance (that's how Lyne sold 9 1/2 Weeks). Still, he was contractually bound to deliver an "R"-rated movie in America (one that 12-year-olds, say, could only see with adults) - as opposed to NC-17, which bars children and is regarded as box-office death.

Lyne wanted to make a masterpiece - why not? He made a good artistic decision to shoot in sequence, while travelling - but that put an extra load on the budget. By early autumn, 1996, an hour-long version (not the whole film, but a digest, including the frankest scenes) was toured around the Hollywood distributors, trying to prompt bids. No one responded directly. Some said they admired the film; others saw it as a $40m art movie without much audience appeal.

The America of 1996 might have shocked the Nabokov of 40 years earlier; in so many ways, it was not just freer, but naked and abandoned. However, in one crucial respect, it had grown guarded and paranoid. In the 1950s, say, the sexual abuse of minors was likely all the easier in that it was not "known" or talked about. It was regarded as exotic or eccentric even, and the original Lolita was protected by that innocence. Today, we are much more conscious of the realities, and far more scandalised at the "example" likely in its public display.

So the distributors looking at the digest were fearful of public qualms as much as they doubted the economic chances of so dark a romance. Films today may be made for Lolita's age-group; but they're not interested in exploring her awkward emotional life. Dominique Swain has been quoted as saying she didn't act very well in the sex scenes because she didn't understand them - something that promises uneasy viewing. Lyne re-cut the movie, reducing the heat of sex scenes that had sometimes employed a body-double. That was the only way to ensure an "R". But the impasse meant that the interest payable on the investment kept mounting. Today, Lolita is more like a $60m art movie, with less skin.

By now, the film has been nearly a year on the shelf. Time for Irons and Lyne himself to give vent in frustrated public utterance, and time for the American public to meet Ms Swain in Face/Off where she seems nervy, bitter and as unsmiling as someone with a headache. She isn't Sue Lyon or Lolita - and Nabokov's kid was cute, sweet, funny and ap- pealing. Indeed, one of the most adroit things in Kubrick's film is to leave us liking both Lo and Hum. In the stills that have appeared, Irons and Swain do seem horribly burdened by guilt and an absence of fun, let alone love.

What will happen? It's most likely that the picture will open in Europe first. It's written off in advance as a failure, and the cuts may have made it far less than Lyne wanted. It's almost certain that the picture will face hostility in America. And this much should be admitted: the book is very restrained, very literary, very much in the head and the words. And it is a love story. Nabokov always mocked the notion that he was himself drawn to nymphets. He was an artist. But he had taught at Cornell and Wellesley (a girls' college), and no one ever thought he suffered from sensory or imaginative deprivation. Lolita is great literature, yet it centres on a relationship that is and should be illegal in every society. That the book is in no danger is because books are so indirect, metaphorical, playing upon the imagination, while movies have to hire in real flesh and its celluloid substitute. The great error in making Lolita, I suggest, is not in degrees of fidelity to the book, but in the helpless surrender to dumb bodies. And sex on the screen is rarely loving - and seldom erotic. The great advantage Kubrick had was a culture of censorship such that imagination had to enter in. Nothing else so stimulates a sense of love and ardour in the movies: the most desired thing must never be shown. If you read Lolita again, it's clear that Nabokov knew that, in 1958.

! 'Lolita' has yet to secure a British release.