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False Start





On page 48 of Section One of the November 20 Reader, your film reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum, discussing older films' influence on later films, wrote, "the action in Schiff's version [of Lolita]--like the action in Kubrick's and unlike the action in Vladimir Nabokov's novel--begins at the very end of the story [right after or right before the murder, respectively], so it's hard to believe that Kubrick's movie played no part in the deliberations."

I had other things to do this morning, but I could not let this pass. The very first and second sentences of Lolita are:

"'Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,' such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it preambulates. 'Humbert Humbert,' their author, had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was scheduled to start."

Clearly the book, like both films, is beginning the story at the end. Moreover, after the fictitious foreword, the remainder of Lolita purports to be edited first-person recollections of the protagonist. But even there, the events at the end of the narrative are clearly indicated on the very first page, where, in the last sentence of the third paragraph, we read, "you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."

It is true that the Schiff version of Lolita departed from the book by depicting Humbert's arrival at the burnt-out McCoo residence, but Rosenbaum should know that Nabokov had originally intended to write that scene into the book, and that when Nabokov later contributed to the screenplay of the Kubrick adaptation, he did write that scene, but Kubrick cut it from the film. The Schiff version is in fact more faithful to the book than the Kubrick version by beginning, like the book does, after the murder, showing us the events of the last chapter. The Kubrick version begins--and ends--by depicting the second-to-last chapter (which is understandable when you recall that Nabokov was the major contributor to the screenplay, and that Nabokov wrote chapter 35 of part two first, and then wrote the rest of the book around it).

Elsewhere in the November 20 Reader, on page ten of Section Two, Rosenbaum concluded his review of Lolita by advising, "Your time would be better spent reading or rereading the novel than seeing either film version." Although I agree with these sentiments, your film reviewer's opinions would be more credible if there were any evidence that he had read the book himself with any care.

Jay F. Shachter

N. Whipple

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

The crucial word is "action." The story of the novel may begin at the end, but the action proper begins "I was born in 1910, in Paris," a passage that immediately follows the foreword and the introductory four paragraphs in part one. It's true that Nabokov's unfilmed screenplay--which I reviewed in Film Comment when it was first published in the mid-70s--begins rather like the Schiff version, but it isn't correct to call Nabokov "the main contributor to the screenplay" unless you count the novel as his main contribution. As James B. Harris, the film's producer, told me about a year before Nabokov's screenplay was published, it's a brilliant piece of work but it isn't a movie, and Nabokov was assigned sole credit for Harris and Kubrick's script only as a public relations maneuver. They did, however, adapt certain elements from Nabokov's script, including the idea of starting the film near the end of the novel's action. In any case, the only point I was trying to make was that the new film version of Lolita was more of a remake than Schiff admits. Maybe all the other evidence Shachter offers makes this a dubious example of a remake, and if that's so, I apologize.

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