No story has gotten me angrier than Nabokov’s Lolita–not because of its subject matter but because of the pseudo-intellectual fanfare and the romanticizing that fans of the novel and first movie have heaped upon both.
Now granted, it’s been years since I’ve read the book so my impressions are a little rusty. But what I remember when I finished it was that the novel was kind of a droll “joke”. The joke is that a pathetic pedophile by the name of Humbert Humbert “falls in love” with a 12 year old girl, Dolores Haze aka “Lolita”, who he thinks is the perfect “nymphet.”
What’s a nymphet? In his mind, she is a woman’s sensuality inside the body of a child, a perfect combination for someone looking for a submissive and doting sexual partner who is easily controlled and slavishly devoted to you no matter what. You can just screw her at your convenience and do anything you want to her and she’ll happily comply, then come back for more like an adoring puppy coming back for more belly rubs.
Now, the concept of a “nymphet” may sound nice and dreamy to a pedophile, but there’s just one problem–it’s not based in any reality whatsoever. It’s an idealized sexual fantasy, like the Submissive Asian or the Hot-Blooded Latina or the Italian Stud. In short, it’s fantasist bullshit of the worst, most delusional kind. So, to believe in the “nymphet” is to set oneself up for major disillusionment and crushing disappointment.
Why? Because a nymphet is not a “child-woman.” She is a child and being a child, she will have the emotional and mental capacity of one. That means that she’ll act out in childish ways that you, as an adult, will find infuriating. She will have temper tantrums when you don’t give her what she wants and rebel if she is forced to do things she doesn’t want to do. She will cry when upset and seek solace from you like a dependent offspring. She will act bratty. And she will, more importantly, be fickle; her loyalties and devotion will go whichever way the wind blows that day. She will never be this idealized fantasy in which she will be free of the annoying and demanding behaviors of a young child.
Worst yet, unless you emotionally and mentally manipulate her or use fear to get her to do what you want, she will never be this easy lay that you can keep screwing over and over at your leisure and convenience without protest or rebellion. That is especially true considering that though children are immature, they’re also not stupid or lack awareness. Even if they don’t have the emotional and mental capacity to understand what you’re doing to them, they do know on some level that something bad is happening and will call you out on it or rebel against it.
This is the punchline to the joke of Lolita, the fact that at night, Humbert has his way with this sexual fantasy but in the daytime has to put up with all the annoying, needy, obnoxious actions of an immature child who is also keenly aware that he’s a bad person and lets him know it. Not only does she become more than he can handle at times because of her behavioral issues, Humbert even has to act as parent to her instead of lover and console her after her mother dies (ugh…how inconvenient!). To make matters worse, because children are by nature fickle, Lolita proves to be no more loyal to Humbert than she is to any other adult, so has no problems dropping him on a dime to be with Clare Quilty. Humbert is unable to deal with the cold, hard reality of what Lolita is and in the end of the novel, we are made to laugh at this idiot, who thought he had found the perfect child to seduce and control to satisfy his perverted sexual desires.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, many pseudo-intellectuals have latched onto Lolita and ascribed so many qualities that it never had. One of the most disturbing things they’ve done is romanticized Humbert Humbert as a tragic figure, some even going so far as to make him into a victim. Crazy, because if anything, the novel paints Humbert as a pathetic ass clown who never, ever seems to get that Lolita is emotionally and mentally a child. But a lot of pseudo-intellectuals, some of them possibly pedophile apologists, have come to romanticize him.
Which leads me to Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997). I didn’t see the movie when it first came out but I had heard a lot of negative press about it. Some of the negativity came from die hard fans of the Kubrick version, seeing the remake as an affront. But a surprising number came from some people angry over the movie’s “tone” and its portrayal of Humbert as “pathetic” and having just seen the movie finally, their reactions tickled me pink.
Now, don’t get me wrong– Lolita isn’t perfect by any means. Melanie Griffith is horribly miscast, and the movie tried too hard to play up Lolita’s immaturity. However, what was brilliant about it was that it was trying to do two things at one–be more faithful to the book than Kubrick’s version, but also strip the story of all the romanticized interpretations that its fans have given it over the years.
In Lyne’s Lolita, we don’t get a charming, handsome man who just happens to be a pedophile. We see a pathetic pedophile who happens to be a charming, handsome man. And this pedophile is so pathetic that even as his “nymphet” acts like the dopey, gawky, stupid, rebellious 12 year old that she is, he insists on seeing her as a submissive child-woman. It doesn’t matter what she does. She can throw her retainer in his drink like an idiot. She can put wads of gum on his notepad. She can walk into his room with only one shoe. She can rebel against her mother over and over again, refuse to do anything she says and whine and complain the entire time. She can throw things at him while he’s driving and think it’s funny when they almost crash. But nope–Lolita is the perfect child-woman to him, even though it’s blatant as hell that she’s just a child through and through, and a rebellious, disobedient, fickle one at that.
Besides showing how pathetic he is, the movie also gets us to see Humbert Humbert for the sociopath that he is. He grows increasingly abusive towards Lolita, becomes more mentally unstable as he loses his control of her, and finally snaps and kills a man in cold blood out of a psychotic rage. And, in case there’s any room for doubt that Humbert is an irredeemable sociopath, Lyne made sure to show Quilty’s murder in as gruesome and horrifying a way as possible so we aren’t left to sympathize with his pain of having lost Lolita.
With all the romanticizing of Nabokov’s Lolita, no wonder “fans” hated this film! In Lyne’s film, there is no charming, cuddly pedophile to identify with, sympathize with or feel sorry for, there are no redeemable traits about him. He’s a pathetic fool no matter which way you slice it, which is what he always was in Nabokov’s novel and what he and all pedophiles in truth are–pathetic. Not sympathetic. Not tragic. Not victims of their own desires and past traumas. Pathetic men harboring equally pathetic, unrealistic and stupid sexual fantasies about little girls.