Lolita, Lewinsky, and Adrian Lyne: Lessons
in Love Gone Wrong
Adrian Lynes Lolita finally opened in
American theaters after more than a year of play in Europe; the long delay results
from a story line deemed too controversial by commercial distributors in this
It turns out that this film is not so much
about pedophilia, as about an obsessive love that can poison marriage as well
as a relationship between an older man and a child.
the film on its opening night in New York, and was attracted to it by a program
on public radio several months earlier featuring an interview with leading man,
Jeremy Irons, and a reading by Irons of passages from the 1955 Vladimir Nabukov
novel on which the movie is based. Nabukovs prose is powerful and lyrical,
and Irons knows how to read!
When the movie finally opened
in theaters across the US, the evening news was filled with coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky
sex scandal, as well as the Ramsey murder case in Colorado. Despite some obvious
similarities between these news stories and the plot of Lolita, the thing that
strikes me is the contrast between this work of fiction and the so-called "realities"
of the evening news. The movie, like the novel, is narrated by the Lyons character,
Humbert Humbert, who falls fatally in love with the 12 year old Lolita (Dominique
Swain). Though it is told as a recollection from the perspective of a middle aged
college professor who has suffered the consequences of a disastrous, obsessive
relationship with a child, the narrator makes the obsession seem both credible
and compelling. Which, of course, is one of the reasons Lyne had difficulty finding
a way to have the film shown in this country.
There is obviously
some risk involved in promoting a movie that makes pedophilia seem in any way
appealing. Of course, Adrian Lyne has dealt with explicitly sexual themes before:
9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal. Of the series, this is his
most serious. In this film it is clear, the attraction of the middle aged man
to the child, is about something far more powerful than mere physical desire.
Its about recapturing the zest and vitality of youth at the very point in
ones life when one feels it slipping away.
have pointed out that the real theme of Nabukovs novel is not pedophilia
or incest at all, but rather Nabukovs love of language, and in this case
an Englishmans love of the expressive vitality of an American culture so
vividly represented by Lolita.
While many of the wider themes
suggested by the novelists prose do not make it into the movie, still this
adaptation is far removed from anything resembling child pornography. There is
far less salacious content in this movie than there was in Kenneth Starrs
report on the Presidents relationship with Monica Lewinsky. There is very
little nudity in Lolita, and the sex act is suggested and implied, but never depicted.
What is depicted most graphically is the downward spiral of
two characters who are involved in a relationship which ends up destroying them
both. In fact, this movie might very well be included in a course on pedophilia;
it could easily be listed among resources to be used within a sex education curriculum.
For it speaks more powerfully than any sermon could of exactly what can happen
between two people when their relationship become obsessive.
if the truth be told, the same negative dynamics that are at work between this
college professor and this adolescent, can be equally destructive within a relationship
between persons of any age.
The fact that self-destructive
obsessions can be masked within the respectable veneer of a marriage does not
make them any less lethal. In addition to its profound lessons about the nature
of love, Lolita is beautifully photographed and features a compelling sound track.
In Lolita, Dominique Swain emerges as an actress of considerable talent.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.