Our study group read Lolita. Last night I saw the old film, with James Mason as the pedophile Humbert Humbert, and this afternoon the group saw the newer film, with Jeremy Irons as Prof. Humbert.
The book never portrays Humbert as anything less than pathetic, and doesn't hold back from showing him to be a monster. It is not a sympathetic portrayal. We debated why Nabokov wrote the book. The best sense I can make of it is that he saw the project of making a pedophile intelligible as a great challenge to his skill as a writer. It is magnificently written. The book is also full of the kinds of puzzles that English majors enjoy.
Still, the moral trumps the literary for me. Nabokov said he was not trying to prove a moral, but I will look for one, anyway. Humbert has what I gather is the usual pedophile's dream of finding a child who is a willing participant in his sexual fantasies. Humbert finds that dream child. Yet he is not fulfilled, or happy, or satisfied. His life is not made meaningful. In fact, his consuming lust seems more ridiculous and humiliating to him because it is regularly satisfied, and yet still does not fill the void in him.
I was surprised at my reactions to the films. I had not seen either before, but had heard that the James Mason/Stanley Kubrick version was better. For one thing, Nabokov himself collaborated on the script. Yet I thought the show was stolen by Peter Sellers as the mysterious Clare Quilty, who occupies a larger part of the story than he should. And the decision to cast a Lolita who looked 16 - not 14, as she was supposed to be in the film, nor 12, as she was in the book -- undermined some of the necessary loathesomeness from the outset. The new version, directed by Adrian Lynn, had much more of the book in it, and was visually much richer. Jeremy Irons was about perfect as Humbert Humbert, and Quilty had a more proportionate role.
Both girls cast as Lolita have had a rough life afterwards. Sue Lyons turned into a famous mess, and has retired, hermitlike, with her fifth husband. Dominque Swain, who was 16 when she made the movie, was already a drug addict and alcoholic by 21. This story is not uncommon for child stars, and neither blames "Lolita" directly. Still, Natalie Portman says she is glad she turned down the role when it was offered to her.
The moral creepiness of Lolita endures.