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Lolita, Lewinsky, and Adrian Lyne: Lessons in Love Gone Wrong

Adrian Lyne’s 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 country.

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.

I saw 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. Nabukov’s 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. It’s about recapturing the zest and vitality of youth at the very point in one’s life when one feels it slipping away.

Some critics have pointed out that the real theme of Nabukov’s novel is not pedophilia or incest at all, but rather Nabukov’s love of language, and in this case an Englishman’s love of the expressive vitality of an American culture so vividly represented by Lolita.

While many of the wider themes suggested by the novelist’s 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 Starr’s report on the President’s 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.

And 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.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.