Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How Did I Ever Get By Without Reading or Seeing LOLITA?

My relationship with books is probably similar to most Americans. I read, sure, but I'm not reading all the time, like say, when I'm home and don't feel like watching TV or something. Mostly I read when I'm in transit, which is about for 30 minutes every day and then again on planes or trains or whatnot. I enjoy reading, no question; a good book can be more satisfying than a great movie sometimes and considering that reading a book is such a personal experience, when you really love a book it's a bit like having a personal relationship with it, and that's something special. But a veracious reader I am not. I always need to be in a certain mindset to read and it's not always something that I'm willing to jump into, especially if I'm outside on a sunny day or something. Unless a book is simply too good to put down (and I've devoured a few of those) I'm going to read it in my little allotted reading time. Sounds lame, I know, but I suppose I'm a creature of habit.

In terms of the books I do read, I'm particular to character studies, pulp, comical novels, westerns, and the occasional potboiler (like The Oscar), but when it comes to "the classics", I'm afraid I'm more than a bit behind. A lot of those books I was supposed to have read in high school were enjoyed via Cliff Notes and I usually navigate away from Jane Austin while I'm in the book store. But earlier this year, while searching for something to accompany me during my commute, a book hit me: Lolita. I should read Lolita. It's supposed to be a masterpiece. People still read it, rave about it, and it's still fresh after 50 years in print. And it's relatively short; that's not always part of my criteria, but it can be a deciding factor at times, you know? So I picked up Mr. Nabokov's little nymphet opus and, no surprise, I loved it. You'd have to be a dope or a prude not to, and since I am neither (at least, no one has yet told me I am), I was truly taken by it. Now, I'm not going to review Lolita for you because that would be a fool's errand; it just happens to be one of the most famous novels ever written, so I think there's little point. But what I do feel like pointing out was that I got it all pretty well; not the whole nymphet-loving thing, but the idea of an overwhelming sexual or romantic obsession taking you over and eventually destroying your life. That need, that desire, I've been there. You're not really human if you haven't, I think, and while I can't quite relate to Humbert Humbert's love for 12 year-old girls, I understand how obsessed he became. Just as Ahab had his Moby Dick and Humbert had his Dolores, I've had one of those, too; I'm not giving out the name by any means, but I'm just saying that I can relate. This is pretty much the essence of the book's greatness, taking an otherwise unspeakable act and putting it in a fashion that makes the reader at least understand (but not sympathize with) Humbert on a basic human level. It's also beautifully written and a heartbreaking story, but if you ask me why I liked it so much, that's the reason why. So there you go.

Just as I'd never read Lolita, the book, I'd never seen Kubrick's LOLITA, either. Calling one's self a film lover and having never seen LOLITA (or at least every single Kubrick film) is considered an Internet crime by many, but I had my reasons. Since Kubrick's passing, I've been holding on to LOLITA, as a way of keeping Kubrick alive and giving me at least one more "new" Kubrick film to see, other than FEAR AND DESIRE, which pretty much no one has seen. Having now read the book I was able to watch the film as not just my last new Kubrick film, but also as an adaptation of the novel, giving me two different levels to appreciate it under. Much has been written about the differences between the book and the film, and the numerous changes there are don't necessarily lessen the film (especially when you consider that Kubrick was a master of adapting novels to screen) and are mostly understandable considering the subject matter and era it was shot in. The most obvious of these changes being the increased presence of Claire Quilty (Sellers is brilliant, of course) and of moving the book's final scene to the opening of the film, which at first I thought was a mistake; too much information too early on could be a problem and instead of the novel's rather lyrical, heartbreaking and humorous opening (a true marvel to read) of Humbert's obsession with nymphets and his first marriage we get something alternately jokey and tragic. But it sets the mood for the rest of the film; Kubrick treats much of the material as comedy (the book is certainly not without its humor) and it works completely on its own terms. This is Kubrick's LOLITA, not just Nabokov's, and I felt like I wasn't just watching LOLITA but also the birth of DR. STRANGELOVE, with the wheels in Kubrick's head asking himself, "Just how far can I go with this?" It remains a risky film, a pretty deft juggling act of subject matter, adaptation and director, and is completely admirable. But it's not the book.

The phrase "The book was better" is usually a pretty easy pass-off when you say you don't like a film or if you want to sound like a smarty-pants, but in this case I think it holds true. They're both excellent, but if you're going to give one the edge, the book wins easily. I see the book as a tragic romance while the film is more of a comedy of manners (with a touch of tragic romance) and I was easily more moved by Lolita, the book, than LOLITA, the film. Certainly, almost all books have more to them than the films made from them, but when you take the two approaches to the same material, I simply preferred Nabokov to Kubrick. Both approaches are artistically legit and it's impressive what Kubrick has done considering how much he was forced to rework the material. But I was more moved by Nabokov's take on desperate love and obsession, while Kubrick's merely amused me, though it amused me greatly. It's interesting to note how he revisited the theme somewhat in EYES WIDE SHUT many years later and the tone had become more solemn; it was a different piece of material in the first place, but Kubrick decided to look at this theme in another manner and the results, I thought, were brilliant. I also want to point out while I find Kubrick's LOLITA to be comical, it's not immature; he obviously understood the tragedy of it but chose not to make it the focus. It would have been interesting if the later Kubrick of EYES WIDE SHUT had tackled Lolita, but I suppose we'll never really know. Either way, you've got two excellent variations on the same story, and a great story it is. If you're late to the party like I was, you should certainly sample both.

1 comment:

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

I'm not quite sure I understand your assertion that there is a connection between Kubrick's theme in EYES WIDE SHUT and that in LOLITA. Are you referring to his "Just how far can I go with that?" attitude or the sense that both are tragic romances? True in both counts, I suppose, yet I believe the themes of the 2 films are actually diametrically opposed. I find LOLITA to be more of a reflection of a progressive 1960's intellectual who so desperately needs to break through the petrified, regressive social straight-jacket of "modern" society - so, the strongest weapon (internal, of course)is make a strike against the sexual taboos of the time by daring to pursue and rationalize sex with a 13 year old girl. This, being that he is human and not a perfect, emotionally disassociated machine, backfires, leaving Humbert a wreck bent on lashing out at Quilty, a perfect, emotionally disassociated machine. EYES WIDE SHUT is the opposite, a '90's man who is entirely a product of his era -- shallow, self-absorbed and dull -- even his jealous fantasies of his wife screwing another man are banal to the point of ridicule -- who becomes attracted to the secret lifestyle of taboo breakers. However, Kubrick's irony here is that the taboo breakers are practicing Libertines from a repressive era from nearly 200 years ago - and even another continent! And equally as banal in their idea of sexual/social defiance as Cruise's character is at the present. If anything EYES WIDE SHUT shares more of a theme with THE SHINING, with the Overlook hotel acting in the same capacity as New York and Long Island do in EYES WIDE SHUT -- time changes nothing when people (society) do(es) not allow themselves to progress. LOLITA seems to cuddle up closest to 2001 where the protagonists in both attempt to break out of accepted protocol of the day and take matters into their own hands, utilizing their progressive intelligence, only to transform into something even more human, into a pre-natal state of innocence and vulnerability. At the end of EYES WIDE SHUT, as in the end of THE SHINING, the protagonist is doomed to his own self-absorption and re-absorbtion into the shallow-mindedness of his era. None are meant to be optimistic, but act instead as intellectual comedies -- cautionary tales of man's eternal battle (sometimes destructive, sometimes self-destructive)with his own ego.
And none are meant to represent accurate or even comparable adaptations of their source fiction.

Interesting post, Matt, as is the always the case with this blog -- always written to provide ample food for thought.

Oh, if you need FEAR AND DESIRE, just ask and it shall be yours...