New 'Lolita' Does Terrible Disservice to Nabokov--and to Our Children

Sunday night Showtime was scheduled to air the television premiere of Adrian Lyne's "Lolita," a tragic story of pedophilia based on the 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

No U.S theatrical distributor had been willing to release the film nationally since its completion in early 1997. The American entertainment industry initially called this one right. Why? Because the enduring message of this film version of "Lolita" is an outrage: that young girls who are molested are somehow "asking" for it.

Indeed, many joined the movie industry in shunning the message of this film: Women's groups fight the image of women as willing sexual prey; groups like the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families seek to curb material that will be a danger to children and families; literary purists object to the liberties taken with what is considered one of the masterpieces of the English language.

Now, Showtime has demonstrated that it is out of step within its own industry and indifferent to the dangerous misinformation in this distorted version of "Lolita." And the Samuel Goldwyn Co. has announced its plans for a national theatrical release later this year.

I saw "Lolita" in Los Angeles during its Academy Award-qualifying theater run. The film is troubling, not because a director decided to make another film from Nabokov's dark novel, but because this new version strays from the book in substantive ways. Nabokov's novel, although not on our family bookshelf, treated the story of a predatory pedophile with grim reality, portraying Humbert as a sick monster, preying on the vulnerable 12-year-old Lolita, who has become his stepdaughter.

But Lyne changes Nabokov's basic story by making Humbert a troubled but sympathetic figure who unsuccessfully battles forbidden desires, and ultimately yields to the aggressive advances of Lolita, whom Lyne depicts as a 14-year-old seductress. This not only strays wildly from the book's portrayal, but it casts pedophilia and incest in a totally different light: the child as a willing, even aggressive, participant; the molester as a passive and sympathetic victim.

The cable network is touting its airing of "Lolita" with the predictable self-congratulatory paean that "Showtime breaks through again." The magazine ads tout the praise from various publications, including "Programming moves don't get any gutsier" and "artistic bravery in the face of ignorance." The defense of material that offends our commonly held values and standards always follows these lines: position the offensive material as a stand for the 1st Amendment and as a triumph of art over small-mindedness.

The film's screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, has said the movie's critics in America come from a "very jumpy, keep-it-in-the-dark-maybe-it-will-go-away kind of culture." Lyne says the film won't encourage pedophiles because Humbert "comes to an awful end" and that "if you make a film about a murderer, you're not advocating murder" (Parade, July 26, 1998). It is comments like these that demonstrate the ignorance of "Lolita's" defenders concerning the horrors of pedophilia and the impact of film on behavior.

The problem with the new "Lolita" is not that it brings pedophilia to light, but that by changing the title character from a victimized little girl to a sexually aware and aggressive young woman beyond her years, the predator becomes a victim and the film provides solace, even inspiration, to those for whom young girls are objects of sexual desire.

Jeremy Irons, the film's star, told the Boston Globe that the movie is a victim of "very bad timing," as recent years have seen a growing awareness of pedophilia. On this, Irons is right. And because we are more aware of its pervasiveness, we must object to its portrayal as a form of forbidden but understandable passion.

After spending $58 million to bring the film to the screen, the filmmakers--and now their distribution partners--are trying very hard to convince us it's OK.

It's not.

A film about a grown man having sex with his young stepdaughter is repulsive. By trying to capitalize on a film that will ultimately endanger our young people, Showtime is not displaying artistic bravery but pure corporate greed.

It is not too late to stop this regrettable mistake in its tracks:

* Showtime should demonstrate true bravery by canceling its three scheduled repeat airings. This would be a strong statement on the position of Showtime, and its parent, Viacom, against pedophilia and child molestation.

* Should Showtime carry on about creative license and air the repeats, Hollywood should condemn the company for its corporate irresponsibility. We don't believe the government should be policing film content, but the film industry can hold itself accountable and affirm that careless portrayals that put our children in danger are not permissible.

* Finally, we urge the industry to call on Goldwyn to scrap its plans for national distribution.

Parents should be alarmed by "Lolita." Lyne has irresponsibly portrayed the pedophile as the passive victim and the child as the aggressor. This misinformation can give parents a false sense of security, concealing the fact that pedophiles are predatory, seeking out children to satisfy their twisted desires. Unfortunately, this version of "Lolita" not only does disservice to Vladimir Nabokov, but more importantly, to our children. That's the real tragedy.

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