Waiting For Humbert

THE CLOSEST VLADIMIR NABOKOV'S ironic, ambivalent "Lolita" gets to wearing its heart on its sleeve comes when Humbert Humbert, having lost the young stepdaughter he'd sexually exploited, hears the sounds of children at play. "The hopelessly poignant thing," he says, "was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord." This must be how the backers of Adrian Lyne's much anticipated film of the 1955 novel feel this season as they hear the cash registers ringing for every movie but theirs. "Lolita" was supposed to be out in late 1996 and to cost no more than $40 million. As of last week the tab was rumored to be some $60 million. (No way, says the film's publicist.) Lyne was still editing, reporters were asking what was up and anonymous sources were telling them. "What the press really wants," Lyne told NEWSWEEK, "is a tale of abject woe." Well, this won't be that. But whenever Nabokov's many-minded masterwork rubs up against big money and mass audiences things get weird. (In 1971, there was even a musical.) Why should this story be different?

The tale of woe that everybody connected with the film is denying goes like this: no distributor will touch "Lolita" because of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, passed in October as Lyne was editing away. Or simply because today Americans are more sensitized to child abuse, and the notion of a grown man having sex with a young girl no longer suggests even the soupcon of saucy fun it did in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film version. (His Lolita, Sue Lyon, looked even older than the 15 she was.) As our anonymous studio executive says, "How do you market a movie today about a pedophile?" But in fact, no American distributor has turned "Lolita" down: they haven't seen the whole movie yet. And while the new law, which bans anything that even looks like underage sex, could apply to scenes Lyne shot with Jeremy Irons (Humbert) and a body double for 14-year-old star Dominique Swain, the film has now been vetted by a lawyer. Lyne was worried but now says he can live with the suggested cuts. "In some cases, ironically, I think they helped the scenes."

The buzz that's hardest to silence is that Lyne has been dilatory and self-indulgent and is spending a blockbuster budget for art-film returns. The movie, financed by the French production company Chargeurs, has had four different screenwriters (including Harold Pinter and David Mamet). After New Yorker writer Stephen Schiff gave Lyne a workable script, 20th Century Fox wanted to sign on as the American partner, but during the first week of shooting, in September 1995, executive producer Richard Zanuck walked off the project, telling friends he was "too old and too rich" to put up with Lyne; Fox, Zanuck's home studio, bailed, too. "Lolita" could end up the most expensive coterie film ever made.

Lyne seems either a natural to direct "Lolita" or a sure bet to defile it. His hit movies ("Fatal Attraction," "Indecent Proposal") show he has sufficient interest in sexual obsession, but he's not known for his high-mindedness. "I've never been the critics' darling," says Lyne. "It's very easy to say, Oh, the man who gave you "9 1/2 Weeks.' Hopefully I'll prove them wrong. And I believe I have, actually." Lyne has the blessing of the ultimate Nabokov purist, the late novelist's son Dmitri, and the project seems to be a long-term labor of love: he became "entranced" by the novel 10 years ago. One reason "Lolita" has taken even longer than Lyne's usual snail's pace is his anxiety to approximate the book's headsnapping shifts in tone--from erotic to satiric to pathetic to high camp. "How the hell do you do this stuff quickly?" he says. "This is not a conventional movie."

A main character as complex as Humbert makes it an almost impossible movie. "Part of his tragedy, and his comedy," says screenwriter Schiff, "is that this enormous intelligence is defeated by this obsession through which everything is filtered. His world is completely internal--it's all language and fantasy. But film is about surfaces." In an interview, Nabokov once called Humbert "a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear "touching'," but most readers feel an exquisite tension between revulsion and reluctant empathy; that's what Schiff and Lyne say they're after. Will single-minded moviegoers used to bad guys and good guys sit still for a hero both engaging and unforgivable?

Lyne is often accused of sensationalism, but anyone who's decoded Nabokov's metaphor-intensive prose knows parts of "Lolita" are more graphic than a mere Adrian Lyne film. And by his account, he's making a "Lolita" less outrageous than either the book or some of his own previous work. He shot the notorious sofa scene in which Humbert brings himself to orgasm against the unknowing Lolita's buttock, but says he's pretty much decided to cut it so a tender moment soon after won't seem repellent. If this sounds suspiciously like artistic discipline and restraint--well, we told you this was a weird story.