Lolita: should this film be banned?
Art or pornography? The debate continues as a new 'Lolita' prepares to hit the big screen. Paul Vallely reports
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Wednesday 25 March 1998
I am not so impatient. True, it is over 40 years since the original row over the publication of Vladimir Nabokov's first-person novel about by a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who becomes obsessed with a sexually precocious 12-year-old girl and takes her on a sexual caravan of seedy American motels. And, true, it is more than three decades since the controversy over the first cinematic adaptation, scripted by Nabokov himself, starring James Mason and directed by Stanley Kubrick, even though the film did not include explicit sex scenes. Aren't the heaving carnal sweatings of Adrian Lyne's new version starring Jeremy Irons nothing more than an updating for our desensitised times?
There's the rub, if you'll pardon the expression. You cannot divorce a work of art from the cultural climate in which it locates itself. And today child sex abuse is not the sad perversion of a handful of obscure individuals but a national obsession. The dead children of Belgium, the children's home scandals of Wales and the kidnapped children of Florida remain with us. Child pornography on the Internet is said to be a $5 billion industry. Paedophilia has become a plague and those who will not concede it are told they are in denial by those very newspapers which nurture the nation's fascination with youth and sex and harness it to sell almost everything under the guise of choice, information or simple prurience (like the News of the World's report at the weekend on a director of Newcastle United's lusting after the girlfriends of his 12-year-old son). "Artists should make society question its perceptions," Jeremy Irons has said. But is that a justification or a mere excuse?
I first read Lolita as a schoolboy looking for the dirty bits. There weren't any. The novel - by a middle-aged Russian professor at Cornell University, whose only known passion thitherto was collecting butterflies and moths - was oblique and opaque.It took refuge in thickets of dense poesy with extravagant images about snakes. Its arch syntax gave rise, if you will excuse the pun, to phrases like "I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the sceptre of my passion". It was not the place, I discovered, to learn more of the facts of life. Nabokov's description of fellatio consisted of: "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." Not much ankle-sock smut here. No wonder that Nabokov insisted he saw no danger in turning a 12-year- old girl into a powerful sex object; this was a story, he said, designed for people like himself who were intelligent enough to know right from wrong.
All of which explains why the novel is now an exam text in schools and studied widely at universities. Indeed it is now one of the 250 books of classics which the Millennium Commission is paying pounds 4 million to place in the library of every secondary school in the country.
But what is acceptable in a book by no means retains that status when transferred to film. Such is the banality of most use of the movie medium that there are no poetic thickets in which to hide. The landscape is altogether more explicit and brutal.
When a young girl's head goes down on an older man's trousers there is little ambiguity about what comes next. Indeed Adrian Lyne plays with such expectations, as in the scene in which Lolita is seated on her stepfather's lap, facing away from him, wearing only a pyjama top. She is reading the comic strips from a newspaper, biting her lip and giggling. But the image of innocence is disturbingly inverted as the camera pulls back to reveal that he is having sex with her. Next Lolita drops the comic and her pyjama top and, in the words of one critic: "Her hair and forehead are beaded with sweat. Her budding breasts, bare belly, and shoulders heave and glisten."
The unambiguity is not just intended. It is spelt out. The script directions for the 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." No Nabokovian indirectness there.
The dishonesty at the heart of this is underscored by the fact that - since Dominique Swain, the actress who plays Lolita, was only 15 years old, and therefore below the age of consent - Lyne used a 19-year-old body double to film physical scenes.
He was worried with reason. While he was film-
ing President Clinton signed the Child Pornography Act, which banned computer-generated child pornography, where children's heads are grafted onto adults' bodies to give the impression that viewers are actually seeing children engaged in sex acts. It was a climate heightened by the brutal killing of five-year-old beauty queen in which Clinton's crackdown on child pornography and tougher sentencing for convicted paedophiles was widely applauded.
So afraid was Lyne that when the young Dominique sat on Irons' lap there had to be a cushion between them. To prevent protesters prosecuting him or Irons, under obscenity laws, he insisted that all the sex scenes were videoed so that the tapes couldbe produced in a court if necessary to show that nothing illicit had really happened.
Yet Lyne refuses to see the grey area in using the body of a19-year-old to create images of sexual fantasy centring around a character who purports to be not yet a teenager. "I could make a movie about a 12-year-old girl getting chopped up and eatenand no one in America would say anything," he protested in one interview. Yet the key question is whether a film like Lolita can - even where it does not corrupt or endorse - nonetheless legitimise child sex abuse in a way which violent films do not legitimise violence.
To make the movie work, he told Irons, the viewer has to have some sympathy with Humbert. Lyne used the various skills at his disposal to do that. They are considerable. He was the director of Flashdance (whose heroine was a welder by day and an erotic dancer by night), then in 1987 he made the torrid Fatal Attraction, and in 1993 more sexual fantasies in Indecent Proposal. But, perhaps just as significantly, he was, before all that, a successful director of TV commercials.
In Lolita he combines the techniques of the ad and the erotic to produce what critics have called lush emotional visual style. "When he films a milk-shake in one scene he makes you want to go out and get one," said one previewer. "The sex scenes are
gorgeous. They make you say "Oh Boy, that looks good." They are very attractive, said another "I'm gay and I wanted to fuck her." It is beautifully filmed, according to a young woman who saw the film recently in Italy: "It poeticises the disgusting parts. You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself what is actually happening."
This is clearly the director's intention. His moral justification is that the film lures the viewer into identifying with Humbert, and then shows the consequences of the acts and the damage they do. And indeed the ending is as moral as any majoritarian might want. Humbert goes mad, murders another paedophile, goes to prison and dies, while Lolita ends life a pauper in a shack who dies in childbirth. "It handled its subject responsibly by showing the relationship as both wrong and disastrous," saidthe new film censor, Andreas Whittam Smith this week, justifying his decision not to ban the film after taking the advice of two child psychiatrists that the movie was unlikely to create new paedophiles.
But we are concerned not with corruption so much as legitimisation. After the film is over, what lingers in the minds of its audience - the moral catastrophe or the indulgent sensuality? The reservations then are as much artistic as moral. Had a director other than Lyne been responsible for the latest adaptation it might not have ended awash in erotic soft focus. Rather it might have conveyed something starker and dirtier and the moral punchline of the book might not have been lost. Had that happened it might have been rather easier to resist the arguments that the film should now be banned.
Island of Lost Souls (1932) The horror is more intellectual than graphic in this Charles Lawton film in which a perverse doctor carries out evolutionary experiments.
The Wild One (1953) Marlon Brando starred in this tale about juvenile delinquents who overtake a small town which was initially banned in Britain.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) The film version of the classic exploring the freedom to use violence as a means for self expression was withdrawn by the director, Stanley Kubrick.
Last House on the Left (1972) A story of rape and revenge thought too explicit was banned on video.
Visions of Ecstacy Depicting the life of Christ this film was banned because of its blood imagery and the associations with sadomasochism.
Reservoir Dogs (1991) A whole year elapsed before this film, criticised for its violence, was released on video.
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