Lolita: minor masterpiece or a scandal over a minor?
Adrian Lyne: Interview
Friday 12 December 1997
For once, Adrian Lyne is lost for words. The British director, no stranger to controversy, is trying to sum up his frustration at the realisation that Lolita may never be released in the US.
"It's a depressing thought," says Lyne, who considers the film to be his best work. "There have been so many setbacks that I'm fairly immune to it all now."
The major studios have all balked at distributing Lyne's retelling of the sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl. They fear retribution by a hyper-sensitive American public, which is still reeling at the brutal slaying of five-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, and applauding President Clinton's crackdown on child pornography and tougher sentencing for convicted paedophiles.
"My timing wasn't great, was it?" the director says wryly.
Hollywood's top brass seem to agree with him. Despite a unanimous vote of admiration for the latest adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, every studio passed on the opportunity to screen the film in the US, including Paramount, where Lyne's previous movies grossed more than $500m. "Seen it, loved it, was the typical response," says Lyne. "But there were no takers." Warner Bros, Sony, Fox and even the usually open-minded Miramax Films all shied away from Lolita because they thought it wouldn't be profitable in this political climate. "How can you blame them?" says one former studio head. "I certainly wouldn't touch it. First of all, you're remaking a classic, directed by Stanley Kubrick, one of our most revered film-makers, which means the critics will kill you. And without the critics on your side, you have no defence against the charge that it's kiddie porn. Adrian told me he intended to be absolutely faithful to the novel. For Christ's sake, it's a 12-year-old girl!"
"It was doomed from the outset," says Lyne. "It's such a bloody marvellous book that no matter what you do, you're in trouble. But I thought, OK, why not have a go."
His interest in the destructive power of sexual obsession is itself almost an obsession. After working for several years as a director of television commercials in his native England, Lyne burst on to the Hollywood scene in 1983 with Flashdance, which featured Jennifer Beals - welder by day, erotic dancer by night - scantily outfitted as a male fantasy in torn sweats. Then came 91/2 Weeks, starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, which only just broke even. Then, in 1987, there was the torrid Fatal Attraction, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director. By 1993 he again tapped into movie audiences' sexual fantasies with the phenomenally successful Indecent Proposal, in which Demi Moore struggles with the complex proposition of sleeping with Robert Redford for $1m.
When he set about raising the $50m required for Lolita, Lyne, perhaps sensing the trouble ahead, avoided going to Hollywood, begging bowl in hand, and teamed up instead with the French industrial group Chargeurs, who were confident of finding an American buyer after the film wrapped. Despite some acquisitions at Cannes in May, there are still no offers from the major territories - the US, Germany, Japan and the UK - each presumably waiting to see how the other is going to react before jumping on the bandwagon if the film becomes a hit. "Whether I like it or not, America is the key," admits Lyne begrudgingly. He still has one more ace to play, but it comes with a price. "It might mean I sign a deal to make two more movies, but that would be all right. I just want to get Lolita into theatres because I'm proud of it and I think there's a big audience out there who'll enjoy it."
His confidence in Lolita is underlined by his willingness to show it to anyone who'll watch it. He had arranged a screening for some foreign buyers at his office in New York, where he has been working round the clock to complete the finished print and tone down the sex. The footage he shows, after introducing Humbert Humbert (Irons), and his child enchantress, ends in the bedroom.
There, Lolita is seated on Humbert's reclining form, facing away from him, wearing only a pyjama top. She is reading the comic strips from a newspaper, biting her lip and giggling. It gradually becomes evident that she is also making love. Soon Lolita has dropped the comic and her pyjama top. Her hair and forehead are beaded with sweat. Her budding breasts, bare belly, and shoulders heave and glisten. "It's beautiful, just beautiful," says Lyne proudly.
Even allowing for the fact that the breasts and bare belly belong to Swain's 19-year-old body double, the scene is discomforting and troubling.
"I really don't think there's anything in there that will shock people," says Lyne.
Nabokov had great difficulty getting his novel published in America in 1955. New York publishers were wary even though Nabokov relied on his masterly command of language for shading, slyly and poetically burying his characters' lewder actions in such deft phrases as, "I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the sceptre of my passion." Fellatio was veiled in this way: "Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed - during one school year! - to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three and even four bucks."
Kubrick had to be even more demure when it come to tackling the novel's sexual content, so much so, in fact, that it is virtually absent from his movie. Lyne, however, attempted no obfuscation. Stage directions for the sexual encounter read: "The fly settles on her belly, which is glistening with sweat, and wanders up toward her breasts... Lolita's face, reading the comics. She is breathing hard, and her eyes are very bright. She moans again. There seems no dividing line between her sexual pleasure and the pleasure she takes in the comics."
The key to a US distribution may ultimately lie in how much sex remains in Lyne's final cut when, and if, it is shown to the Motion Picture Association of America for a rating.
The question they, and every movie-goer, will ask is: "Is it dirty?"
Lyne is adamant it's not an issue. "To me that was a line that wasn't interesting to cross," he says. "The line between a story that has an erotic component and one that is porny. It wasn't hard to define that line."
Perhaps Lyne has, in fact, crossed that line. While he was shooting Lolita in 1996, President Clinton signed the Child Pornography Act, which banned so-called computer-generated child pornography, where children's heads and adults' bodies are graphically fused to give the impression that viewers are actually seeing children engaged in sex acts.
Using a body double to simulate a minor having sex in a movie might fall within these parameters. "That would clearly apply to Lolita," says Robert Peters of Morality in the Media. He believes that Lyne may have overstepped the bounds of decency and the law. He would bet his " bottom dollar" that somewhere in the footage of the film there exists real child pornography.
Maryam Kubasek of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families says: "Our concern would be that, however artistically it is done, it really panders to the paedophile community. "
When I put this argument to Lyne, he becomes incensed. "I could make a movie about a 12-year-old girl getting chopped up and eaten and no one in America would say anything," he says, adding that he and a lawyer spent weeks going over the finished print to ensure it did not break any new laws.
As it now stands, Lyne's version now rivals Kubrick in the fact that there's very little sex left on screen. For Lyne, the experience of hacking back his film has been painful. What made it worse was that he believed he'd got a mesmerising performance from Swain in her feature film debut, particularly in the heated exchanges with Irons.
"Film-makers hate to be compromised," he adds, "especially when they feel they've accomplished what they set out to achieve."
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