Erica Jong Screens Lolita With Adrian Lyne

When Adrian Lyne was shooting Lolita in North Carolina in 1995, he succumbed to the stray fear that “some redneck sheriff might cart us off.… After all, we were in Jesse Helms’ territory.” Given the hell he has been put through for daring to make this brilliant, politically incorrect movie (one that even Vladimir Nabokov might have loved), lynching at the hands of the redneck sheriff perhaps would have been preferable.

For the assorted sins of being faithful to the classic novel–daring to present “every little girl’s fantasy of replacing her mother,” said my 19-year-old daughter, Molly, who watched the movie with me–Mr. Lyne and his $58 million feature film have been given the booby prize of going straight to cable in the all-important American market. In August, Showtime’s Sundance Channel will broadcast for the first time in America a film that begs to be shown on the big screen. Lolita has, of course, already been seen in theaters in England, France, Italy, Spain, Russia and plenty of other places that are historically no strangers to censorship, but Americans are being “protected” from it by a combination of movie studio paranoia and a troglodyte misunderstanding of the fact that art is not advocacy and advocacy is not art.

If you present the story of a wretch who seduces his stepdaughter, that does not necessarily make you a pervert or an advocate for perverts.

Mr. Lyne has come smack up against the same misunderstandings that bedeviled Nabokov in the 50’s and led him to publish Lolita with Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press in Paris after the manuscript of the masterpiece was turned down by Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and every other U.S. publisher–even in the halcyon days when they were all independent companies.

“You can make a movie about cannibalism. You can make Silence of the Lambs . You can make a movie about necrophilia– The Kiss . But pedophilia is the last taboo. I think probably because it’s too close to home. People want to believe that sexuality flies in conveniently at the legal age of 18, and it’s just not true. I think back to myself as a kid. You’re kind of an ungainly mess of sexuality at 14.”

Adrian Lyne and I are sitting in a caffeine emporium on Lexington Avenue at 11 o’clock on a weekday morning. We are getting loaded on Perrier (Mr. Lyne) and cappuccino (me) amid the Upper East Side’s well-heeled mothers and well-heeled toddlers in Italian strollers and English prams.

It’s nothing short of amazing that we have actually met up, since Mr. Lyne is coming from a dentist’s appointment and is still distracted by a tooth emergency, and I have given him both the wrong name and the wrong address of the restaurant. I stagger up Lexington Avenue on my butterfly-embroidered platform clogs (in honor of Nabokov the lepidopterist), talking on the portable phone to my assistant, whom I am alerting to the news that a lost Mr. Lyne may very well call her, simultaneously asking every likely looking man on the avenue, “Are you Adrian?”

Suddenly, a shaggy-looking guy with a loping walk wanders up to me and squints quizzically.

“Erica?” he asks.

“Adrian?” I ask.

“I find it amazing that you’re talking on the phone and talking to people on the street at the same time,” Mr. Lyne says as we continue up Lexington to Payard, which I have remembered as “Bayard” and placed two blocks farther uptown than it actually is.

“Six years ago, when I started,” he says, referring to when he began working on Lolita , “there really wasn’t this sort of obsession with pedophilia that there is now. The JonBenet thing hadn’t happened, the Belgium thing hadn’t happened, and you weren’t reading about it on a daily basis.… I almost feel that the movie invented it.”

The deaths of child beauty-pageant princess JonBenet Ramsey and of the two young girls starved to death by the Belgian pedophile, Marc Dutroux, were met with disgust but also a sick fascination in the media and the country. And then, Mr. Lyne says, “halfway through the cutting [of Lolita ]–1996–there was this child pornography law … aimed chiefly at the Internet [the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996], which prohibited putting a child’s head on an adult body. That meant I couldn’t use any shots taken with a body double, so I sat with a lawyer for six weeks and I took out those shots.”

Painful as the process may have been, Mr. Lyne doesn’t regret it, because he knows that certain things are better left imagined in movies.

But what he does regret, what wounds him, is the way a film he believes to be his best work since Jacob’s Ladder has been treated by the Hollywood studios which Flashdance, Fatal Attraction , Indecent Proposal , 9 1/2 Weeks , all of them his films, helped to enrich.

“The movie was rated R over a year ago, and people came and saw the movie,” Mr. Lyne says. Industry reaction to it was initially strong. Various studio heads praised Lolita to Mr. Lyne’s face and then faded away into the woodwork. All the suits seemed to agree that “this is not something we want to be involved in.”

The excuse they gave was predictable: “They rationalize by saying the movie is an art film and we wouldn’t have had our money back, but underneath was a feeling that nobody wanted to stand up and be counted.… Nobody wanted to be perceived in the industry as supporting pedophilia–it’s as simple as that. These people make a living saying No.”

And where are the artists’ protests against this subtle, de facto censorship? Mr. Lyne wants to know. “What depresses me is that from my peers there hasn’t been an outcry,” he says.

Yes, there was a screening last December at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles, with a respectful outpouring of praise and an interesting question-and-answer session. But where is the sort of manif a French director would have received from his peers–the stopped cars in Paris, the orchestrated protests by Bernard Pivot on Bouillon de Culture ? American directors are oddly silent. Do they fear that with the financing entities in fewer and fewer hands, they dare not express outrage in case they may be silenced themselves? I suspect the answer is Yes. Directors don’t picket movie studios for the same reasons that authors don’t picket publishers. Call it cowardice or pragmatism, the result is the same.

“The real danger is self-censorship,” Mr. Lyne says. “It’s a hideous danger. I don’t think I’d get the movie made now.”

What is it about the movie that has occasioned this display of institutional cravenness and reticence on the part of fellow auteurs? It is a beautifully made portrait of an impossible love whose principal tone is elegiac. It is a movie that paints the American landscape Nabokov chronicled with a surreal visual style that often evokes Diane Arbus’ photographs, yet is perfectly faithful to the novelist’s outsider’s vision of a 40’s America of sad trailer parks, dusty diners and lonely desert gas pumps.

It is a movie whose eye can linger now on a fly caught on flypaper, now on a girl sucking a banana as if it were a cock, now on a chocolate soda with a large white turd of vanilla ice cream falling into it, now on a holocaust of moths in an electric zapper–while never letting us forget that the real enemy of Humbert Humbert and his Lolita is time itself. The lovers are doomed because Lolita must grow out of the very nymphage that attracts her lover. Besides, Humbert doesn’t really love anyone living; he is obsessed with a long-dead girl, his baby love from the South of France when he himself was a child of 14.

It is a movie that often evokes dreams–particularly nightmares–whose dominant tone is sadness and loss, a movie that accomplishes the almost impossible feat of making a pervert sympathetic enough for us to want to spend a whole evening with him, yet wretched enough to make us understand what a dead-end obsession is. Obsession, Lolita makes clear, can lead to nothing good. So this is a moral movie in the deepest sense of the word. It shows the stark contrast between obsession and love. It does not–like so many other movies–confuse the two.

Lolita ‘s two principal actors–Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain–will break your heart in different ways because neither gives you an easy escape from personal identification. Mr. Irons as Humbert is a vile pervert, but he is also everyman, doomed to love what cannot last. He is the fly caught on the flypaper. He is fated to make a fool of himself for an inamorata who cannot reciprocate his passion, though she learns to manipulate him skillfully.

Ms. Swain as Lolita is at once a preternatural seductress unaware of her own powers and an ordinary adolescent worrying about zits and ice cream sodas. What Mr. Lyne does here is what Mr. Nabokov does in the novel: He makes the ordinary extraordinary. Lolita and Humbert pursued by Quilty are any lovers pursued by time and mutability. The misty 1940’s look of the movie becomes another character in the story, as does the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The supporting actors are very nearly perfect. Melanie Griffith as Charlotte Haze manages both shrill maternal nagging and lovesick mooning over Humbert. Frank Langella is a simply horrific Quilty–yet altogether different from Peter Sellers’ interpretation in Stanley Kubrick’s less faithful adaptation.

Amazingly enough, Mr. Lyne has also succeeded in capturing Nabokov’s verbal humor. Stephen Schiff’s screenplay deftly uses verbatim monologues from the book which Mr. Irons makes come alive in voice-overs. Visual and aural jokes abound–from Quilty’s voice on the radio, half-heard by Humbert at the start of the movie, to the brief glimpse of a sign outside a motel where Humbert and Lolita stay which reads: “Children under 14 free.”

Lolita ‘s maddening combination of childish bubble gum-popping and siren gestures (learned from the Photoplay magazines she constantly reads) is also true to Nabokov’s vision.

The movie has none of the overstatement of Mr. Lyne’s $156 million-grossing Fatal Attraction . It is a restrained, understated piece of work on a subject we are no more allowed to address in 1998 than we were in 1955.

Here is the astounding thing about Lolita . Its theme still has the power to shock. The Oedipal myth it portrays is as much a subject for denial today as it was in the 50’s–or for that matter in Sigmund Freud’s day.

We continue to deny the reality of underage sexuality. With unconstitutional forays like the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, we combat the very idea such a thing exists. But we are still finding excuses to censor works of art while we let all sorts of trash fly free. Lolita is an elegy to lost love, not an exploitation movie. If it showed an adolescent girl carved up by cannibals, it would have been released in hundreds of theaters two years ago with remarkably little fuss. But because it deals with incest–that universal, yet universally denied phenomenon–it has been subjected to the dunderheaded ministrations of the politically correct.

It is not an apologia for pedophilia, as the geniuses at the Daily Mail would have it, nor absolution for JonBenet Ramsey’s unpunished killer. It is simply the story of a man driven mad by an obsession and of a motherless little girl who is trying wanly to grow up while captive to a deranged stepfather. As in the novel, Humbert elicits Lolita’s most corrupt instincts–not for sex, interestingly enough, but for money. An increasingly desperate Humbert eventually has to bribe Lolita to have sex with him.

Strictly speaking, a girl between the ages of 13 and 17 is not a child, though legally she is a minor. If we are going to claim that girls between 13 and 17 have no interest in seduction, we will be hard put to explain the existence of all the industries that feed on their fascination with it: from music videos and CDs to makeup magazines and movies. Teenage girls are constantly exploited commercially in far worse ways than any Lolita may threaten. These forms of exploitation raise no eyebrows.

“What is awful is this atmosphere of fear which they rationalize by saying the movie is an art movie,” Mr. Lyne says. And the irony is that a genuine work of art is being pushed to cable when it clearly belongs on the big screen.

“[François] Truffaut said years ago that American directors like to make movies about heroes, while European directors like to make movies about people with weakness and vulnerability, and that’s what fascinates me really,” says Mr. Lyne. He has made such a movie, and he has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Lolita is a tragicomedy, as Nabokov intended.

Neither lover is completely innocent nor completely corrupted, and the audience is finally overwhelmed by the way both lovers doom each other to disappointment and death. Lolita is hardly an advertisement for the joys of sex with minors.

“You couldn’t make Taxi Driver now,” Mr. Lyne muses over his second Perrier. “I don’t think people are interested in taking risks.”

Then we moved on to happier subjects like the scent of wild thyme in Provence, where Mr. Lyne lives most of the year and will be hatching his probable next project, based on Rafael Iglesias’ The Murderer Next Door .

Mr. Lyne, like many artists, is obsessed with obsession.

Despite his understandable advocacy for his own film, his story checks out with other sources. Last September, attorney Martin Garbus was contacted by American distributor Brad McEvoy and Adrian Lyne’s agent, Jeff Berg, of International Creative Management. Mr. Garbus was asked for his opinion on whether Lolita would run into legal problems in the United States.

JonBenet Ramsey’s murder was very much in the news then, and Milos Forman’s film about Larry Flynt ( The People vs. Larry Flynt ) had encountered protests from Andrea Dworkin, Patricia Ireland and the National Organization for Women. The same group was also threatening to boycott Lolita for supposedly making the victim of incest appear as the aggressor. (If they honestly thought that, they could not have seen the movie.) According to the Dworkinite fringe of feminism, all female adolescents are utterly pure of mind and only evil stepfathers can possibly corrupt them. Any book or movie that attempts to treat a young woman as a creature of ambivalence, of sexual longing, or of Oedipal confusion, is bound to be on their see-no-evil list. We can only depict happy feminists on tractors selling Girl Scout cookies and/or recovering lost memories of sexual abuse by horrid male relatives. In the world according to Ms. Dworkin, women are always tabula rasa, stamped with corruption by the ever-corrupting male.

It was Adrian Lyne’s ill luck to have made a $58 million art movie in such an atmosphere. If the Mormons didn’t boycott the movie, the Dworkinites might.

Even though Mr. Garbus declared “the film was safe” from a legal point of view, the combined Dworkinite-Mormon threat was chilling enough to scare distributors away. Of course, distributors wouldn’t honestly cop to their fear, but despite Mr. Garbus’ legal assurances, the film never found theatrical distribution. Sometimes a threatened boycott is more effective than a real one.

As Mr. Garbus told me, “Censorship today comes from both the right and the left–from private pressure groups–some feminists, regional censors like the Christian right, and conservative communities that bring pressure to bear on state and Federal prosecutors. The struggle is very different from the 60’s. It’s more complex and more dangerous.”

Few people are aware, Mr. Garbus said, that “Federal prosecutors left over from ‘Operation Porn,’ a legal unit put together by Edwin Meese, give legal support and encouragement to state and local prosecutors. Groups like the American Family Association stage demonstrations to kill films like The Last Temptation of Christ and threaten manufacturers with boycotts if they use people like Madonna as spokesmen. Utah, Alabama and Georgia will prosecute materials that are perfectly safe in urban areas. The country is being broken down into pockets of safe and unsafe [areas].”

The saddest fact of all is that even the most literate audiences believe censorship to be a thing of the past–a problem faced by James Joyce and Bennett Cerf, Henry Miller and Barney Rosset, but absent from the cultural equation today. This is simply not true. Censorship is creeping back in a more insidious way. Fear, self-censorship, and state-by-state prosecutions succeed where Federal laws never completely could. If there were an American James Joyce ready to write a contemporary Ulysses today, it might not get published, let alone defended in court. So go out and see Godzilla or Deep Impact this weekend, while Lolita bides her time.

Titanic swept the Oscars in a year when Lolita should have. You can see that fake jewel dropped into that fake ocean in any suburb. As for Lolita , you’ll get to see it on the Sundance Channel whenever the powers that be get around to showing it.