The Modernization of a Postmodern Humbert: Lolita and American Beauty – Part 1
Adapting popular short stories, plays, and novels to celluloid is an inevitable phenomenon. For some pieces of literature, it takes years to produce a film; for others, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it takes just months to go from page to screen. Various obstacles appear in adapting literary works, especially those known the world over, so certain choices are made in order for the film to be produced and reach the global market. This means that changes are unavoidable. One must remember that making films is a business, thus films must be made in order to appeal to the widest ranging public as humanly possible—at least for the larger studios. This is ever so much the case in the various adaptations of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita. Nabokov’s novel details thirty-something Humbert Humbert’s pedophilic obsession with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” the eponymous Lolita. Humbert’s constant obsession with this young girl is fascinatingly intriguing in the novel, but is less apparent in the first film adaptation. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1962, the Humbert of this film, played by James Mason, is a simplified version of Nabokov’s psychologically complex Humbert. Humbert’s obsession with Lolita (Sue Lyon) seems to be the first of its kind, and he appears more as a father figure rather than an older lover; while their relationship is present in the film, Humbert’s obsession is less of a focus. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Nabokov’s novel presents a more “faithful” depiction of the novel’s plot and of Humbert (Jeremy Irons) and Lolita’s (Dominique Swain) relationship, but it is devoid of the novel’s romanticized passion; unlike the novel’s Humbert, this Humbert does not seem fully entranced with this Lolita. Perhaps a more accurate illustration of Humbert and Lolita’s relationship is seen in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999). While neither character directly appears in the film, they are equivalently portrayed in the characters of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). While there are several differences between Nabokov’s Lolita and American Beauty, the relationship between these two characters, as depicted through Mendes’ poetic visuals and obsession-obvious first interactions, illustrate a comparable relationship.
One may question whether or not American Beauty actually is an adaptation of Lolita; and, yes, it does seem difficult to define it as such. Yet, it also seems remarkably uncanny that Lester Burnham is an anagram for Humbert Learns and that Lester falls in love with a girl with the last name of Hayes. American Beauty is undoubtedly inspired by Nabokov’s novel, if only when one considers the relationship between Lester and Angela. The novel Lolita focuses mainly on the relationship between Humbert and the titular character, and this central focus returns in the form of Lester and Angela’s relationship; more precisely, it is the obsession Lester has with Angela that is undeniably similar to that of Humbert’s obsession with Lolita. Mendes’ film, however, incorporates other factors and characters that complicate the notion that it is an adaptation of Lolita. Lester’s life is in shambles and he is having a mid-life crisis. He is in a crumbling marriage with Carolyn (Annette Bening) and his relationship with his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is, to put it mildly, distant. He quits his magazine-writing job of fourteen years and finds employment at Mr. Smiley’s, a fast-food restaurant. While Humbert is married a few times, his marriages are relatively short and do not cause any immediate consequences; additionally, Humbert does not have a biological daughter, just a stepdaughter, Lolita. These differences certainly complicate the Humbert/Lester parallel.
Thus, more direct comparisons between Humbert/Lolita and Lester/Angela should also be considered in viewing American Beauty as an adaptation. In the novel, Lolita is twelve—a definitive nymphet, a maiden “[b]etween the age limits of nine and fourteen” (Nabokov 16). However, Angela is not technically a nymphet. While her exact age is not given, she is in the latter part of her high school career. Even though Angela is older and is more cognizant of her flirtatious advances toward Lester, she is still a virgin, which places her in the realm of youth and innocence. While Humbert has had an obsession with nymphets for decades—beginning with the Poe-etic Annabel in his early teens—this is, to the best of our knowledge, Lester’s first occurrence of loving or fantasizing about a minor. Furthermore, Lester and Angela never end up having sex, which is in complete contrast to Humbert and Lolita. Casey McKittrick, in his essay “‘I Laughed And Cringed At The Same Time’: Shaping Pedophilic Discourse Around American Beauty And Happiness,” posits that these changes are too drastic to identify Angela as Lolita’s double. McKittrick writes:
The specularization of her body, combined with her adultlike knowingness, may tip the scales from perceiving her as a ‘woman-child’ to identifying her as a woman. Finally, the sexual relationship never comes to fruition; Angela’s ‘deflowering’ never takes place. Thus she remains an object of erotic fantasy, but her (filmic) body remains untouched or, at least, unpenetrated. (6)
McKittrick is correct when he states that a viewer may identify Angela as a woman, far removed from the cusp of initial puberty; yet, since Angela is not “deflowered” by Lester, she actually retains her innocence, which essentially tips the scales back to perceiving her as the “woman-child” figure. Nevertheless, Angela does remain “an object of erotic fantasy” for Lester, which undoubtedly signals the immoral obsession he has for her. While the novel’s Humbert is morally ambiguous—a trait indicative of postmodernity—Lester seems to have more of a moral compass, exemplified in his fight with Carolyn, who threatens him with divorce: “On what grounds? I’m not a drunk, I don’t fuck other women, I don’t mistreat you, I’ve never hit you, or even tried to touch you since you made it so abundantly clear just how unnecessary you consider me to be” (American Beauty). This not only illustrates Lester and Carolyn’s marital problems, but it also depicts that Lester has moral obligations to his family, even when his family members are unresponsive to his desires. Similarly, the fact that Lester does not end up having sex with Angela—he refrains from acting upon his obsessive desires—further demonstrates his morality, widening the gap between Humbert and Lester. Even with all of these notable differences, Lester’s obsession with Angela is easily correlated with Humbert’s obsession with Lolita. The obsession itself is the crux of interpreting these characters as a single unit. All of the noted factors play a role within American Beauty and the character of Lester, but the obsession seen within the film outshines the same depiction in direct adaptations of Nabokov’s novel—that is, the films directed by Kubrick and Lyne. The base of the novel is Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, and this is beautifully illustrated in Mendes’ film. Thus, American Beauty is not an adaptation of Nabokov’s entire work, but strictly of the obsession Humbert has for Lolita.
American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari. DreamWorks Pictures, 1999. Film.
McKittrick, Casey. “‘I Laughed And Cringed At The Same Time’: Shaping Pedophilic Discourse Around American Beauty And Happiness.” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal Of Film & Television 47 (2001): 3. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 May 2014.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1955. Print.