The Modernization of a Postmodern Humbert: Lolita and American Beauty – Part 3

Part 1    Part 2

The Modernization of a Postmodern Humbert: Lolita and American Beauty – Part 3

Lolita - Novel American Beauty - Film

In comparing these first encounters between the novel and the film, through the poetic prose and the visual surrogate of it, it becomes undeniably clear that both Humbert and Lester are obsessed with their respective nymphets. This is the core aspect that has been adapted from the novel to Mendes’ film; true, American Beauty is not a visualized replica of Nabokov’s novel, but the heart of the novel is translated seamlessly into this particular film—much more seamlessly than the two previous adaptations of Lolita. There are obvious parallels between the two texts, and each character acts in rather similar ways. The descriptions of the events, though the events themselves are different, are constructed in a way that elucidates the protagonists’ obsessions. Humbert’s obsession for younger girls remains whereas this is obsession is a singular occurrence for Lester and it does eventually end. Although there are distinct parallels between the two texts, this is a notable exception that must be addressed.

Lester Burnham is representative of a modernized version of the postmodern Humbert. While both Humbert and Lester are obsessed with young females—equally latching onto these girls as ideas of love that they believe will fulfill their desires and fantasies—the former acts on his obsessions whereas the latter does not because his morals stop him in his tracks. Lester transforms into this modernized character when he realizes that the flesh-and-blood Angela is not the Angela he constantly envisions, and he is no longer fascinated or in love with her. Humbert does not make this transformation. When Humbert visits Lolita at the end of the novel, he sees her as “hopelessly worn at seventeen” but that he still “loved her more than anything [he] had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet [he] had rolled [himself] upon with such cries in the past” (Nabokov 277). Yes, Lolita is his sin, but he still loves her and he cannot erase the various sexual encounters he had with her. When Lester attempts to have sex with Angela, he is struck by an epiphany and knows that his love for Angela is a farce. Angela is not who he thought she was; he cannot continue in his quest of youth-attainment and sexual fulfillment and recognizes that he must stop. The real frailty and innocence of Angela is seen and this reminds Lester of his estranged daughter, Jane, the one person he wants to reconnect with. He senses that if he were to consummate this fantasy relationship, he would essentially be harming Jane. “Lester’s seduction of the girl at the film’s end, thwarted by the realization that she is a virgin, gives way to a more paternal posturing, where he feeds and covers her and uses the opportunity to inquire about the well-being of his daughter” (McKittrick 6). Lester must grow up and he tries to connect with his daughter through Angela. She is no longer Lester’s obsession and he attempts, in a roundabout way, to reform his broken family; he discovers that happiness lies within his family, and he desires to reclaim that happiness (as seen when he is staring at a photo of Carolyn, Jane, and himself directly before he is killed). The process of fragmentation he slowly spiraled into, sparked by his sexual obsession with Angela, is now reversed, and Lester becomes a modernized version of his postmodern counterpart, a morally “improved” character who is appropriate for contemporary cinema-goers.

There are entirely too many factors present within Sam Mendes’ American Beauty to state that it is a direct film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Yet, there is an interesting and obvious comparison when one focuses solely on the relationships between the two central characters of each text—Humbert/Lolita and Lester/Angela. While Lolita remains in the postmodern present, Mendes reimagines the characters in the modern past; Lester has specifically been transformed from a postmodern character to a modern character. This is certainly not revelatory, but this modification can be seen as an “improvement” for modern-day audiences. American films, generally, like to present obstacles and come to a solution. This adaptation of Humbert to Lester does not simplify the character, but bases him within a moral confine that is, perhaps, easier for 21st century viewers to handle. Adaptation is tricky, and changes must be made because of the two differing media. In saving only the core relationship between Humbert and Lolita in this adaptation, there is a lower risk of Mendes “betraying” his audiences who have read the novel and a higher risk of accepting this film as its own, with obvious influences from Nabokov’s novel of course.

Works Cited

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.


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