Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Watching Lolita in Connecticut

(Happy Halloween! I really ought to be posting over at Things that Go Bump in the Night today, but the blog-posting demon that possesses me has insisted on this post today instead, and, of course, the exorcist is way too busy with far more important matters on a day like this to be of any assistance.)

Shortly after I wrote this, Becky (who also listened to the recorded book) and I decided we were going to have a Lolita party. The idea was to rent both versions of the movie, neither of which we'd ever seen, and to watch them back-to-back. One thing moving away has taught me is to quit assuming I have all the time in the world to instigate such plans and that when I come up with such an idea, the weekend immediately following is a good one to implement it. Needless to say, Becky and I never got around to having our party, and then it was too late. Happily, I came back, and we were able to implement half our plan.

I spent last week up in New England, mostly at the office in New Hampshire, but I stayed in Connecticut at the weekends going up and coming back. Becky was my gracious hostess as I made my way back down to Pennsylvania (if you’re ever in New England in the fall, go stay with Becky. She lives on a lovely old farm, where the trees are spectacular in their golden and amber glory, especially from the porch, and she has a very cozy guest room, with beautiful old hardwood floors, where she’ll bed you down with flannel sheets and a gorgeous hand-made quilt, making it very difficult to get up and leave in the morning). We decided to watch the Jeremy Irons version of the movie this weekend, since his reading of the book had been so perfect, had so mesmerized both of us.

When I studied Lolita in college, I remember a lengthy discussion about how no one wants to read a love story that is all roses: happy and uncomplicated (having been through what seemed like nothing but very unhappy, complicated love stories of my own at that tender age, I can remember thinking, “yes, sometimes they do,” but I kept that thought to myself). We were encouraged to take note of the fact, while reading, that Nabokov’s book, among other things, was a satirical take on that, providing readers with a truly impossible “love story,” one that was doomed from the get-go, a perverse story, given to us from inside the mind of a man in prison, who was trying to garner our sympathies. It was perverse, but it provided all the elements of a more standard love story. I loved the book for that, for its satire and irony, and for ultimately being the quintessential love story, as the genre is defined (I also loved myself for being clever enough to see that, for not dismissing it as “sick” the way, you know, all those people who read it on a superficial level and wanted it banned did. Forget the fact that this “cleverness” probably would not have been there without the course and our TA and that, without that, I very easily might have read it on such a superficial level and labeled it “sick”). And I came to realize that no, I was wrong. I’m just like everyone else: I don’t really want to read a love story in which there are no complications, in which everything is happy (first of all, because there’s no such thing, but second of all, because, as we all discussed, it would be very boring).

I wish someone would invent something I could take every time I watch a movie based on a beloved book, a magic pill that would prevent me from spending the entire length of the movie comparing it to the book. I am fully aware of the fact before I sit down to watch a film that this does nothing but make for a disappointing movie-watching experience, yet I can’t seem to help myself. I have been disappointed by movies based on books ever since I was a child. Nevertheless, I have over and over again found myself saying, “[Fill in the blank] has been made into a movie! I must go see it!” every time some fantastic book is translated on film.

I’ve been waiting years for What Makes Sammy Run? to be turned into a movie (seriously. I discovered and read the book, -- a terrific one. Read if, if you haven’t -- because of an article written in some magazine circa 1990 about how it was going to be made into a movie). As I read The Golden Compass, I found myself wondering how certain parts of it will be handled in the movie version. I’m thrilled to find The Time Traveler’s Wife is being made into a movie. Why? I will come away from these movies as disappointed as ever, I’m sure. I think it’s something called “hope.” I always hope that someone will make the movie version of the book as magical as the book was for me. Most of the time, nobody can, but every so often, a movie does manage to live up to the book. I loved The Remains of the Day (or, wait a minute, is it just Anthony Hopkins I love?), and I’d read that book twice before the movie was released. I actually thought the movie version of The Firm was better than the book (despite the fact I hate Tom Cruise). The Cider House Rules was a wonderful adaptation of the book (can't think of a parenthetical aside for this observation, but am adding one for the sake of parallelism).

This go around, I was glad to be watching the movie with someone else who’d read the book and was making the same comparisons I was. It was, really, an extraordinarily good movie: beautifully-filmed and well-acted. I was amazed to see an almost unrecognizable Melanie Griffith who was not her usual whiny, weak, baby-voiced self. Jeremy Irons was perfect for the role of Humbert Humbert. Dominique Swain did a wonderful job of portraying a sexually-knowing teenager. That was the problem, though. Lolita should not have been a sexually-knowing teenager. About fifteen minutes into the movie, Becky and I both looked at each other and said, “She’s too old to be Lolita.” We’re not told how old she is, but looking at her, we both agreed that she could be anywhere from fourteen to sixteen. At some point, her age is mentioned as fourteen, and All Movie Guide informs us she’s meant to be thirteen at the beginning. That’s too old. The whole point of the book is that by the time a girl begins to actually become an adolescent, Humbert begins to lose interest. His perversion is with undeveloped, pre-adolescent girls.

I don’t know why I was so disappointed by this. Becky and I discussed the fact that if the book-reading public was so shocked by a book about a man and his love affair with a pre-pubescent child, the movie-going public would have been in a complete uproar. It stands to reason that she had to be older, that to actually see a relationship between a middle-aged man and a child portrayed on screen would have been too disturbing. But then, I think it would be best not to try to make the book into a movie at all. Yet, we have two movie versions. Apparently, the first version is the same in this regard, with an even older Lolita.

All right, so she had to be older, and we do have two movies. She still could have, with the use of voice overs and cleverly-filmed scenes, been a figment of his imagination. The scenes of her trying to be too child-like with her bubblegum and gobstoppers, scenes she didn’t pull off very well, right after she’d just come onto him in a way I’d find nearly impossible to do even at my advanced age, could have been cut. She could have been an adolescent, truly gawky and awkward in her crush on the older man, an inexperienced teen, flirting (like a colt learning to walk) in the way teens will with men, a way that most men recognize for what it is, knowing not to act on it. Instead, we get the girl who would have been labeled the class slut by her peers. It’s a fine, interesting story (you might even call it a quintessential love story), and the movie does a lot to explore the power dynamics between women and men. It just isn’t the story I wanted it to be, and I stubbornly refuse to believe that it couldn't have been if someone had been a little more willing to take a risk.

Will this keep my from watching the original version? Of course not. It’s on our list of things to do next time Becky and I get together. It’s got to be good, right? After all, it's Stanley Kubrick, and Nabokov adapted it himself.


Rebecca said...

You were entirely welcome, Emily, it was great to see you. I've since discussed the Kubrick version with Lisa, who says she likes it but it also has little to do with the book.
I don't know how Lolita could be made, or even if it should be made with an appropriately-aged child actor. How could a director possibly explain to them? But I do think more could have been done to cut between Lolita's unknowing actions, and HH's perverse interpretation of them.

Froshty said...

I liked the original movie, Emily. Even though it was filmed in a time when such subjects were taboo, I found Lolita to be a more believable character.

Unknown said...

This is great to read as I am coming to the end of reading the book itself, which I am enjoying immensely. I am arming myself with a LOT of theory for Sunday's workshop discussion of the book. I know just what you mean about books into movies, too - I read that Brad Pitt has the rights to Beach Music and I keep WAITING and WONDERING what he's doing with them. And Becky and I have been discussing the recent adaptation of LeHane's latest...

Anonymous said...

Movies of books are rarely as satisfying as the books themselves. But, like you, I can't help but fall for going to the movie every time. Then afterwards all I do is complain until the next book to movie comes out to give me something else to complain about.

Rebecca H. said...

Oh, I must see these! Perhaps I should just re-read the book, though. I'd be frustrated, too, with a Lolita who is too old -- it misses the point entirely. But Nabokov is such a writer's writer, filming his work period kind of misses the point.

Anonymous said...

The only one I can think of that didn't disapoint me was the movie version of Persuasion. All the rest send me into tirades about details that were left out and meant so much to me that make the poor people who brought up the subject wish they hadn't.

litlove said...

I'm wondering how much the decision to make Lolita older is concerned with making men innocent. The younger Lolita is, the more Humbert is responsible for his behaviour, but the class slut is asking for it, right? Well, I have my cynical suspicions. And by the way, it's Anthony Hopkins who makes anything wonderful (see also Forster's Howard's Way on film and When Eight Bells Toll, after which I succumbed to the most massive crush on him - you'll not be surprised to know...).

Emily Barton said...

Becky, you're right. It would be very difficult to use an appropriately-aged actress, but maybe it could be filmed in such a way that she wouldn't have to know what was going on. The explicit sex scenes would have to go, of course.

Froshty, I have a feeling I'll like the original movie better, too.

Court, most recently (which was about six years ago now) Iread that Ben Affleck had the rights to What Makes Sammy Run?, and I've been doing the same waiting and wondering. Wish I could be there for your workshop on Sunday.

Stef, it's amazing people will go to the movies with us, isn't it?

Dorr, you're so right: translating Nabokov to film can't possibly do him justice.

Linser, of course, we have no idea from whence this trait of ours comes, because both parents are so unvocal about such things, huh?

Litlove, absolutely! I think what upset me the most was that the movie fed into the whole notion of "man as victim."