When Jeremy Irons attended a Q &A after a media screening of Lolita in Sydney (Feb
18, 1999) at Planet Hollywood, most of the 20 minutes was taken up by an exchange between
one female journalist and Irons. She was questioning the film’s feminist credentials
with reference to its point of view, to its visual style (too romantic and lyrical), to
its portrayal of the women as suffering no pain - and the male protagonist portrayed in a
way to seek our sympathy, etc.
"The two male figures... are not great male role
Irons answered her questions with well mannered and well articulated, thoughtful
responses. He pointed out that the story was seen from Humbert’s point of view, of
course, because it was written in the first person in Nabokov’s novel. But Irons
disagreed that only Humbert felt pain: his actions ruined both the lives of the central
characters. (As well as the mother’s and Quilty’s, of course.)
Had there been time I would have been tempted to ask why we had to endure (yet another)
a film in which men are the ones made to look like bastards. Glad I didn’t, because
it would have been a facetious remark, rather than a genuine question; but if I had, I
would have pointed out that the two male figures – Humbert and Quilty – are not
great male role models, after all. Humbert is an emotionally crippled middle aged man who
has sexual relations with a minor. Quilty is an amoral and pitiful sexual eccentric.
I deduce from Irons’ remarks that he, like myself, regard women as equal. Women do
not have an exclusive claim to impeccable morals, or indeed pain. Women, too, can be
sinners. I suspect it is Lolita’s self-serving complicity in the affair that triggers
such a negative reaction (perhaps subconsciously).
"A beautifully made portrait of an impossible
Maybe the said female journalist could take a moment to catch up with illustrious
writer Erica Jong’s review in the New York Observer: "A brilliant, politically
incorrect movie. A beautifully made portrait of an impossible love. . . It shows the stark
contrast between obsession and love. . . Lolita is an elegy to lost love, not an
exploitation movie. . . Mr Lyne has come smack up against the same misunderstandings that
bedeviled Nabokov in the 50s."
In 1988, Jong recounted the book’s difficult passage to publishing fame in the New
York Times. Nabokov began writing what was to become Lolita in 1939, as a novella in
Russian, titled Volshebnik - The Enchanter. The following year he and his wife Vera and
son Dimitri, migrated to America. He didn’t finish the novel until 1954, when the MSS
was rejected by four of the major publishing houses. It was a French publisher* Olympia
Press, who gave it a run (a cautious 5,000 copies or so) – in English. The novel was
debated in the British Cabinet but publication proceeded without legal impediment. But a
New Zealand ban came later.
In 1955, Graham Greene, writing in The Times, pronounced it one of the three best
novels of the year, effectively ensuring its ultimate success, with publication in
Britain, US and Canada. The book made it to No 1 on the New York Times best-seller lists
in January 1959, six months after it US publication.
"is not a film that will corrupt its viewers"
Lolita – talking about the film now – is not a film that will corrupt its
viewers; if anything, it serves as a warning to anyone who contemplates embarking on an
affair with a minor. Lyne’s film deserves at least to be seen - and preferably with
no gender agenda.