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Lolita’s Metamorphosis: An Intertextual Analysis of the Novel’s Adaptations

Texts, and the way we read them, evolve over time whether we want them to or not. Theorists from Mikhail Bakhtin to Julia Kristeva have explored the theoretical realms of dialogism and intertextuality, notions which often comprise the network of how certain texts relate to both earlier and later ones. James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, owes its existence to Homer’s Odyssey and invokes the ancient poem in both its content and its form. This type of intertextuality is fairly linear but can grow into an interconnected web depending on the breadth of the text in question’s allusions and its later use as a referent. Adaptation, like translation, provides interesting case studies for intertextuality because we can explore not only how the source text connects to its adaptation but also how that adaptation handles the preexisting intertextual network when moving across media. For these reasons, Vladimir Nabokov’s screenplay adaptation of Lolita, the novel he had completed some five years earlier, is a particularly appealing test case because it was adapted, at least ostensibly, by the original’s author. In this way, the screenplay genre can serve as a missing link for better understanding cinematic adaptations. Nabokov, as one with intense command over his prose, aims to control Lolita’s transmutation to a different medium through his screenplay. Publishing the script years after the 1962 film’s release is his attempt to recapture what Stanley Kubrick had fundamentally changed about the story; furthermore, Stephen Schiff’s later Lolita screenplay also posits itself in relation to Kubrick’s film, with Schiff dismissively calling it a guide of “what not to do” (xiv). Each adaptation, then, is an attempt to “get it right” and claim its reading of the source text as the correct one. I will argue, however, that instead of detracting from the original novel, each subsequent iteration of Lolita only enhances and expands the vast intertextual network of Nabokov’s creation.

Such a network has grown quite large over six decades—too large to analyze completely in the scope of this essay. The story of Lolita, which is to say the story of Humbert Humbert’s obsession with and subsequent sexual abuse of a child named Dolly Haze,1 has been represented textually or visually over a half dozen times in published or performed media since 1955. In addition to the screenplays, films, opera, and stage musical, there are three unpublished screenplay versions and at least two unpublished stage play iterations of Nabokov’s tragic tale. After the author himself attempted an adaptation for Stanley Kubrick’s film, skilled playwrights such as David Mamet and Harold Pinter each wrote their own screen versions of Humbert’s story, although only journalist Stephen Schiff’s was filmed. By tracing the similarities and differences among some of these various forms of Lolita, we can see that each of them expands the meaning of Nabokov’s novel through the web of intertextuality. According to Graham Allen, author of Intertextuality, an exploration of the history and theory behind the term, we have a “tendency to presume that texts possess a meaning unique to themselves,” when we actually create meaning by funneling a text through all the others we have read before it (37). He explains that for Kristeva, who coined the term, various ongoing cultural influences are as bound to the fabric of a text as its words are (36–37). One of the implications of this, at least through Kristeva’s poststructuralist point of view, is that a text’s meaning cannot be endowed by its writer. As I will explore later, Nabokov holds a much different opinion and attempts to restake his claim of primacy following Kubrick’s adaptation. Another implication of Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality is that each reader—and in fact, each reading—of a text draws a different meaning, one filtered through infinite combinations of prior texts and experiences. Depending on where one stands in this debate, such myriad readings provide either a wealth of opportunities or a major problem when it comes to adaptation.

Intertextuality and Adaptation

Proponents of poststructuralist conceptions of intertextuality see adaptation as a process which finds the adapter’s reading being shaped into a new text that invokes the earlier one as a referent. Those critical of this line of thinking, by contrast, suggest that a text’s meaning is fixed, and that the role of the adapter is to identify and carry that meaning across the borders of media as faithfully as possible. Although I will advocate for the former notion favoring individual readings as the basis for adaptations, I acknowledge some of the issues that may still arise. For example, while it is natural to compare the meaning of an adapted text to its forebearer, we are less likely to see the “original” as the result of a series of influences. Intertextuality argues that we should, because even if a text were to be created in a vacuum, we would still read it through the lens of our own experience. Importantly, there is also no need to elevate an “original” text over its adaptations, as each can contribute to the overall meaning. André Bazin theorized that a novel adapted into both a play and movie could be thought of as “a single work reflected through three art forms, an artistic pyramid with three sides, all equal in the eyes of the critic. The ‘work’ would then be an ideal point at the top of this figure, which itself is an ideal construct” (26). A more modern conception would imagine the structure as an n-sided pyramid to account for adaptations beyond the screen and stage, such as television, video games, graphic novels, and any future storytelling media. I aim to use Bazin’s pyramidal structure as a model for thinking about the various forms of Lolita and suggesting how each of them contribute to the idea of the text in an accretionary fashion rather than a competitive one.

First, however, it is important to note some of the general concerns with the adaptation of novels to film. Chief among these is our tendency to forget that films are not directly adapted from literature; rather, they are adaptations of screenplays, which in turn are adaptations of books. As the “missing link” in film adaptations, screenplays are crucial to understanding the intertextual relationship between page and screen. Indeed, many of the problems with translating a work across media are addressed by a screenwriter before a director is attached.2 Such issues as how to represent interiority or which scenes to include or omit are first the responsibility of the screenwriter, whose task is to create a blueprint that allows the rest of the creative team to “see” a film in their mind’s eye before production can start. Though some of these points are theoretical and others are practical, Nabokov’s unseen original version of the screenplay—which Alfred Appel Jr. tells us was 400 pages and would run seven hours if filmed—seems to insinuate a lack of regard for such considerations as feasibility (Dark Cinema 231). A film script must also represent a visual world textually and therefore must include a clear point of view for the world that the story inhabits. In this way, a screenplay constitutes a reading of the original text: it looks to its antecedent for signs that are to be interpreted and reorganized in order to make them representable on camera. How the director, production designer, or costume designer then interprets the screenplay in order to add his or her creative vision to the film is yet another reading. Suddenly, we have an intertextual web of readings that must be consolidated in order to create a new text—the film. The more that a screenwriter obviates potential issues of representability in the screenplay, the more likely it is for a unified vision of the film to emerge in the metamorphosis from individual work to collaborative effort. In the case of Lolita, as we will see, the opposite can also be true.

Humbert’s first-person voice, styled as a confessional memoir, provides the famously unreliable narration in the novel Lolita. Since the narrator’s bias is the filter through which we must read the text, adaptations that attempt to go beyond mere plot dramatization must reconcile this subjectivity with the relative impersonality of a camera’s lens. How that reconciliation gets represented in either a screenplay or a film provides a keen insight into each adapter’s reading of Humbert’s character and his or her understanding of narrative devices. In this case, an intertextual reading of the adaptations illustrates how variations on this crucial rhetorical aspect of Lolita’s story serve to deepen meaning more than an analysis of the novel alone could. By considering secondary texts and allowing for multiple readings, the intertextual framework lets us find meaning outside of the somewhat limiting parameters of a single text.

Nabokov’s Screenplay

Lolita was not Nabokov’s first attempt at a screenplay; over three decades earlier, while living in Berlin, the author tried his hand at them under the lure of easy money. Richard Corliss explains, “By 1924 he was writing movie scripts, hoping modestly for a $1,000 – 3,000 pay-off per script. But even he realized the task demanded at least a craftsman’s dedication … [N]one of Nabokov’s Berlin scripts became films” (54). Whether due to Lolita being his first screenwriting effort in English or his intervening years as a novelist, Nabokov overwrites some aspects of the screenplay and muddles others in his attempt for control over the narrative. Though initially “the idea of tampering with [the] novel caused [him] only revulsion,” as Nabokov writes in the screenplay’s foreword, he eventually accepted Kubrick’s and producer James Harris’s second offer to write the script (vii). Part of the author’s rationale for deciding to “tamper” was a fear that someone else’s vision would be inferior. Before the film’s premiere, Nabokov said to reporters, “I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would, and I also knew that at best the end product in such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretation.” (qtd. in Corliss 64). Of course, his desire to influence the reception of Lolita to prevent such a collision was not a new phenomenon.

In 1956 Nabokov wrote an afterword that has been included as part of the text of Lolita ever since its initial publication in the United States. The essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” is the first of many attempts by Nabokov to control the narrative both surrounding the novel and of the book itself. In it, the author defends Lolita against charges of pornography and anti-Americanism, decries the publishers who initially declined to print it, and hypothesizes on the various ways readers may misread the text, while praising “a number of wise, sensitive, and staunch people who understood [his] book much better” than others (Nabokov, Lolita 315). While overtly he may be contextualizing and defending his novel, Nabokov also insinuates that there is a correct way to read Lolita. Unconcerned with the author’s reading, Stanley Kubrick ultimately used the Nabokov screenplay as a skeleton rather than as a shooting script. In the foreword to his screenplay, Nabokov recalls:

I had discovered … that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used. The modifications, the garbling of my best little finds, the omission of entire scenes, the addition of new ones, and all sorts of other changes may not have been sufficient to erase my name from the credit titles but they certainly made the picture as unfaithful to the original script as an American poet’s translation from Rimbaud or Pasternak. (xiixiii)

Nabokov unironically raises the issue of infidelity to his script without recognizing the screenplay’s own deviations from the novel, which range from structural (e.g. opening with the killing of Quilty) to representational (e.g. “Lolita” is no longer Humbert’s private sobriquet for Dolly, but the name she goes by). Earlier in the foreword, the writer posits that he would be an authoritarian if granted the chance to direct, so instead, he attempts “to grant words primacy over action, thus limiting as much as possible the intrusion of management and cast” (x). Nabokov seems here unable to accept the possibility that everyone will interpret the screenplay differently and his using a word such as “intrusion” to speak of cinematic collaborators reveals how little he values alternative interpretations.

Some of those interpretations can cause a significant reverberating effect on the story or characters. For example, Kubrick’s deletions (including Annabel Leigh, Humbert’s first wife Valeria, and the first road trip) make Humbert less of a serial pedophile and more a man completely obsessed with a single child, which is a significant departure from Nabokov’s pathology of the character. Whether or not Kubrick’s edits were made to navigate censorship is irrelevant in light of the fact that this reading aligns with those critics who suggest that, in fact, Lolita seduces Humbert, who would otherwise never act on his basest desires. Both Nabokov’s screenplay and Kubrick’s film omit Humbert’s declaration of this inversion: “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! … I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me” (Nabokov, Lolita 132). The Nabokov screenplay also eliminates voice-over except in the prologue and conclusion, where it is used as a framing device by Dr. John Ray and Humbert himself to contextualize his nympholepsy and inform his character.

The film, by contrast, employs Humbert’s voice-over throughout to advance the plot and removes elements alluding to his earlier obsession with nymphets. Consequently, Nabokov’s screenplay assumes we will understand Humbert’s sexual interaction with Lolita as an inevitability due to his pathology, while Kubrick’s Humbert appears as a victim of circumstance too weak to resist the girl’s temptation. The implications of this latter interpretation are significant. By removing Annabel Leigh as her antecedent, Kubrick’s Dolly becomes an original character, not a copy predestined to fill the role Humbert wants for her. Furthermore, when Humbert does not have his own childhood trauma to justify his behavior, he actually becomes more relatable. No longer is he “horrible,” “abject,” or a “shining example of moral leprosy” from the outset (Nabokov, Lolita 5); he is simply a man pushed too far who illustrates the dangers of falling prey to one’s desires. Instead of Dr. Ray coloring our understanding of him with his foreword (in the book) or his narration (in the screenplay), the film opens by showing Humbert as a broken man who kills Quilty and invites us to find out how he got there. Unbound from their limitations in the novel, Kubrick’s characters tell a different kind of story. Recalling Bazin’s artistic pyramid model, we now have another side to the “Lolita” model—one that suggests, for better or worse, that the monster springing from Humbert’s depths may be lurking inside all of us if we are too weak to contain it. Such a reading not only expands the scope of interpretation for Nabokov’s novel, but it also links Kubrick’s Lolita to the director’s later films with similar themes, such as A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Importantly, however, Kubrick’s is also the only iteration of Lolita that allows Dolly the possibility of her surviving her childbirth, as its title cards only reveal Humbert’s death, even if they do so suggestively, over a portrait of a girl that Humbert has shot through to kill Quilty (see Figure 1). The film, even when it departs from the tone or plot of the novel, uses Nabokov’s characters to both reveal new insights and “achiev[e] a blend of sophistication and kitsch that captures some of Nabokov’s most important effects” (Naremore 102).

Lolita’s Metamorphosis: An Intertextual Analysis of the Novel’s Adaptations
, Myles Jeffrey
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Kubrick's end title card reveals Humbert’s fate. His adaptation is the only one that leaves Dolly’s future uncertain.

Nabokov, although he claims to have liked Kubrick’s film, makes it clear that it does not represent his understanding of the story. In fact, James Naremore points out that the author had an agreement with Kubrick allowing him to publish his script “long after the movie had played in theatres” (98). By publishing his version of the screenplay, which comes with the caveat that it is not the MGM film but “the purely Nabokov version,” the author posits that this version is the one he would have preferred audiences to have seen, despite his assertion that it is not a “pettish refutation of a munificent film” but rather a “vivacious variant of an old novel” (Screenplay iv, xiii). Of course, Nabokov’s decision to release his screenplay, which is a revised and abridged form of the one he delivered to Kubrick, begs to be seen as a refutation of the film. The majority of screenplays, even award-winning ones, are never formally published—a fact that was as true 50 years ago as it is today. Those that are typically serve as archetypes for fledgling screenwriters or as commercial tie-ins to lucrative franchises like J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Whatever the purpose of Nabokov’s decision to show his screenplay to the public, that choice allows us to see just how unconventional of a script Lolita is. Nabokov includes passages lifted straight from the novel itself when he prefers their lyricism to straightforward action lines; some quotations even come with suggestions such as, “It might be a good idea at this point to film the extended metaphor of the next paragraph” (Screenplay 40). He also “tells” far more often than he “shows” in an almost comical way, going as far as to transpose Mr. Beale’s diagram of how he came to run over Charlotte Haze into a brief scene in which a group of policemen listens to an instructor lecture about how the accident is more plausible than it sounds while pointing to an enlarged photo (Screenplay 87). The script also fails to excise various scenes, characters, and pieces of dialogue that contribute nothing to the story. This forces us to ask if Nabokov was simply too close to his own material to “kill his darling” for the sake of streamlined storytelling. Kubrick, for his part, had no trouble doing what the author could not, as illustrated earlier. Perhaps nowhere is this divide between script and screen as evident as in their handling of the novel’s unconventional narration.

For Kubrick, the novel’s narration is more about tone and style than presenting a limited worldview. Accordingly, Dan Burns argues that the director skillfully preserves the spirit of the novel through visual references that “function in place of the dense texture of verbal punning and allusion,” such as the late Mr. Haze’s pistol or Charlotte’s promise of “cherry pies” (246). Returning to Kubrick’s use of voice-over narration in the film, we see a key difference in its function from the novel. Robert Stam writes:

The voiceover is generally only informative, providing basic exposition rather than glimpses into Humbert’s feelings or imagination… What is lost, unfortunately, is the novel’s shrewdly constructed gap between the elegant, courtly style of the narrator and the sordid behavior of the child-abuser, … hiding, as it were, in the interstices of the prose. (121)

Stam is warranted in his praise for the book’s deft use of Humbert’s narrative voice; however, by now we have seen that the film’s Humbert is not directly representative of the novel’s. Kubrick is decidedly less interested in visually representing the partiality with which Humbert narrates. By contrast, Nabokov’s published screenplay calls for various surreal elements in order to posit that the film’s point of view might be Humbert’s own biased one. Rather than explicitly write the film from Humbert’s perspective, Nabokov approximates an unreliable narrator by including assorted visual cues. From his mother’s floating soul floating away after being struck by lightning (4), to Annabel Leigh being portrayed by the same actress “that plays Lolita but wearing her hair differently” (66), to the hallucinatory sequence that morphs Humbert into a professor, Hamlet, and Poe while he reads Charlotte’s letter (73), Nabokov represents the unreliability of the narrator though moments that bend (or break) the suspension of disbelief. Perhaps this is no better dramatized than in the scene with Nabokov’s own appearance as a lepidopterist. Dolly tells Humbert to get directions from “that nut with the net,” and then we see the Hitchcockian cameo in an action line: “The Butterfly Hunter. His name is Vladimir Nabokov” (127–28). The metafictional moment, which has no impact on story or character, appears more as Nabokov having fun writing in a new medium than as an element he expected to be filmed. Although I have not found a record of which scenes were omitted or added between the first draft and the published screenplay (one likely exists at the Stanley Kubrick Archives in London), it is possible that Nabokov originally included this scene as a reminder of Lolita’s “true” author.

If we theorize that Nabokov’s published screenplay constitutes the author’s own reading of the novel (as well as a response to the film), we can see also certain instances where the profile of a scene is raised in attempts to reconsider overlooked moments. One important consequence of Humbert’s subjective narration of the novel is its silencing of Dolly’s voice—an issue that inspires debate even today. Though Humbert conceals the experience of her trauma throughout her captivity, with his monstrous nature “hiding in the interstices of the prose” as Stam says, one moment emerges to provide heartbreaking context at the end of Part One. Humbert, in the rarest admission of remorse, tells us, “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (Nabokov, Lolita 142). While this can be read as the twisted boasting of a sadistic abuser, it seems possible that it is an early recognition on Humbert’s part that he has stolen Dolly’s childhood from her. In the screenplay, the moment is underscored through repetition, with Lolita telling Humbert directly, “There’s no place to go back to,” “Leave you? You know perfectly well I have nowhere to go,” and “I’ve nowhere to go,” in consecutive scenes (Nabokov, Screenplay 119–23). Without Humbert’s narration to filter out her experience, Dolly regains a bit of her dignity at this moment. Our intertextual reading allows us to map these instances back to the correlated scene in the novel with greater understanding and empathy. While this does not prove Nabokov’s intent, which arguably should not matter in Kristeva’s poststructuralist framework, such a reading does illustrate the reciprocity that an intertextual approach affords us.

Schiff’s Screenplay

Three decades removed from Kubrick’s film, Lolita again found itself destined for the movies. After years of trying to find a workable screenplay that fit his reading of Lolita, English director Adrian Lyne eventually found a partnership with journalist Stephen Schiff in 1994, saying, “We both came to this book with the same respect and understanding, though we came from very different angles—his largely literary and even scholarly, mine visual and emotional; he a first-time screenwriter excited by the novelty of writing … in a new form, the screenplay” (ix). Lyne is also responsible for commissioning the alternate screenplays by James Dearden, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet, as well as giving Schiff, Pinter, and Mamet a detailed outline from which to work (Schiff xxix). Of these, only Schiff’s was commercially published, although as more of a coffee table book replete with photos than a literary analog to the film. Schiff’s screenplay features an introduction that details the writer’s process of adaptation, comments on the competing scripts, and offers opinions on both the earlier film and the book itself—all features that make it ripe for intertextual analysis. In addition to the answers found in the introduction, the screenplay also raises various critical questions. Why adapt Lolita again? What does Schiff’s reading add to our understanding of the work? And finally, is there a need or even room for another adaptation?

Perhaps following in the trajectory of Nabokov himself when he decided to publish his screenplay, Lyne and Schiff also seem to be responding to Kubrick’s film—to be offering their own “pettish refutation” by choosing to adapt it. Though contemporary critics may have called it as much, Schiff is quick to point out in his introduction that, “Right from the beginning, it was clear to all of us that this movie was not a ‘remake’ of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation … In fact, most among our company actually looked upon the Kubrick version as a kind of ‘what not to do’” (xiv). Whereas the term “remake” connotes an adaptation that uses a previous film as its antecedent, Schiff considers Nabokov’s novel to be his only source material and claims not to have seen Kubrick’s film for over a decade before starting on his version of Lolita (xiv). However, Schiff’s claim that the earlier film served as a guide of “what not to do” means that his screenplay is both an adaptation of the novel (by what it includes) and of the film (by what it does not). Furthermore, Schiff provides an explanatory note before the screenplay stating that he “was allowed to use, and even asked to use, material from the three earlier screenplays,” but rejected most of it except for “several moments [that] came from Harold Pinter” (xxix). While not an adaptation of the earlier screenplay, we must recognize Schiff’s lifting of a half dozen lines of Pinter’s dialogue as an essential intertextual element.

Despite Schiff and Lyne’s implied desire for us to see their Lolita only in response to the novel, the existence of Kubrick’s film in the intertextual fabric of the story makes this impossible. We are drawn to hold the two films up for comparison because they differ in so many ways. Perhaps none is pithier than Stam’s double critique: “If Kubrick misses the style of the novel, Lyne misses its humor” (127). Indeed, the 1997 film is shrouded in a dreamy melancholy that largely omits Humbert’s jokes to himself and his audience. To Schiff’s credit, more of these moments occur in the pages of his script than make the final cut of Lyne’s film. We can see the transformation of one such joke with Humbert’s reaction to a motel sign during their first road trip. Nabokov’s narrator writes, “I derived a not exclusively economic kick from such roadside signs as TIMBER HOTEL, Children under 14 Free” (147). The screenplay dramatizes the joke to include both characters:

SEA HORSE MOTEL – PARKING LOT – DAY Their car pulls in. A sign reads, “Children Under 14 Free.”

To do what, I wonder?
Oh, stop it! (Schiff 123)

In Lyne’s film, this moment is reduced to a panning shot that follows the Haze family station wagon from a sign that says, “Sea Horse Motel” to one that advertises, “Children Under 14 Free” (00:58:39) (see Figure 2). The first iteration of the joke is subtle and sophisticated, the second is a more of a sitcom-style setup/joke/reaction, and the film’s depiction of the moment barely registers as a sight gag. Schiff’s take on the joke would fit in with the dry wit of Kubrick’s film, but has no place in Lyne’s, because the mutation of the joke from novel to script to film has less to do with the medium and more to do with the adapter’s overall reading of the text. Lyne sees Lolita as a tragic romance and excises most of Nabokov’s dark humor, while Schiff ends his thorough introduction with a call for the reader to “at least laugh once in a while” (xxviii). Both men, however, believe “that we have to sympathize with and, yes, love [Humbert] even though his deeds revolt us. After all, that is very much what Nabokov accomplished” in his telling of the story (Schiff xvi).

Lolita’s Metamorphosis: An Intertextual Analysis of the Novel’s Adaptations
, Myles Jeffrey
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. Lyne’s 1997 film transforms Nabokov’s “Children Under 14 Free” joke into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gag.

Schiff’s screenplay largely succeeds in this regard, even before Jeremy Irons lent his charisma to the role. But, despite the narrative techniques he uses to get us to align with Humbert, there is an area of the script that remains problematic; namely, when Dolly’s appearance is described without the filter of Humbert’s gaze. On the night that she proposes their second road trip, Dolly rides her bicycle back to the Beardsley house in the rain and we see the following action lines: “She pulls off her wet sweater. Underneath, she has nothing on. She looks glorious” (Schiff 156). Without Humbert’s point of view to contextualize what we see, the action line feels exploitative and implicates us in the judgment it makes of her underage nude body because we see what the camera sees. If intentional, this is an effective way to remind us of Humbert’s villainy at the end of the second act; if not, this disturbing line colors how we see the rest of the screenplay and perhaps the screenwriter himself. Either way, this reading influences our subsequent understanding of the corresponding moment in the book, which is more ambiguous, less lascivious, and ends with Humbert’s confession that he can (and does) cry while having sex (Nabokov, Lolita 207).

For a final example of how an intertextual reading enriches the overall conception of a work, we look at the 1997 adaptation’s handling of setting. Both the Schiff screenplay and Lyne film excel at representing the time period of the story of Lolita. If the novel is anything other than the doomed romance that Adrian Lyne sees, it is an émigré’s account of youth culture in postwar America. Unlike Kubrick’s film, which does not reconcile the fifteen-year gap between 1947 and 1962 for its setting, Schiff argues that 1947 is “a singular moment in American cultural history—years before the finny, funny Fifties; before the invention of the great American teenager and the distinct consumer culture that sprang up to serve it” (xiii). One of the ways Schiff gives life to Dolly outside of Humbert’s conception of her is to situate her among cultural artifacts from the era, whether Nabokov included them in the novel or not. The child of the screenplay listens to records, goes to the movies, and drinks Cherry Cokes as does Nabokov’s Dolly, but she also loves Oreos, Wonder Bread, comic strips, and jawbreakers. Though the scene does not make the cut in Lyne’s film, Schiff sends the characters to the movies to see Odd Man Out, before which a trailer for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer plays, in what turns out to be the most intertextually rich moment of his screenplay (113). The former film stars James Mason, who would later become Humbert in Kubrick’s adaptation, and the latter tells the story of a teenager (Shirley Temple) falling for an older man (Cary Grant), with an age differential nearly identical to Humbert and Dolly’s. Both released in 1947, it is entirely reasonable that Dolly and Humbert would see these two films among the 150 to 200 they take in during their year on the road (Nabokov, Lolita 170). Here, the specificity of the allusion creates meaning for a scene that previously held little outside itself. If we recognize these films, they imbue the screenplay with additional depth that comments ironically and meta-theatrically on the scene. The intertextual relationship goes both ways, however, and perhaps we can never again see Shirley Temple’s innocent screwball comedy without thinking of Humbert and Lolita discussing their sexual relationship during its trailer (Schiff 114–15). When we consider texts in an intertextual framework, we acknowledge their ability to transform and be transformed over time and must be receptive to such metamorphoses.


Nabokov’s Lolita, even after six decades in print, is still very much a living text. In fact, the musical adaptation, Lolita, My Love, took the stage for the first time in nearly fifty years for a one-week run Off-Broadway early in 2019 (TheaterMania). The novel’s title has long since entered the cultural lexicon, for better or worse, and the story itself continues to inspire both art and debate. Accordingly, the question of whether or not it will or should be adapted again is met by other questions. Should a third film attempt to bridge the gap between Kubrick’s subtle and satiric adaptation and Lyne’s sensual and serious one? Or ought it highlight a unique aspect of the novel, such as the mystery of Quilty’s identity, Dolly’s limited perspective, or the confessional nature of the narration? Is a film even the best way to tell this story, or could a newer medium such as the limited TV series cause us to see Lolita in an expanded or deeper way? Finally, if Lolita is to “live in the minds of later generations” via “the refuge of art” as Humbert wants her to (Nabokov 309), are more adaptations the way to keep Dolly’s story and the novel itself relevant? Any future adapter of Lolita with their own conception of the story must be able to answer these questions in order to position their subsequent adaptation within Lolita’s vast intertextual network.

Such a network continues to expand as more readers encounter the wo-rk through the page, screen, or, ideally, both. Rather than conceiving of the films and their screenplays as fundamentally unable to capture intangible aspects of a complex novel, we can instead recognize their ability to reify the setting, give voice to the voiceless, and humanize the monstrous. Such a mindset puts us at an advantage when considering the future of literary criticism, where Bazin predicted that “the notion of the unity of the work of art, if not the very notion of the author himself, will be destroyed” (26). With this approach, we understand that a plurality of interpretations does not hinder our search for a text’s one true meaning, but rather it allows us to consider our own wealth of experiences and readings in order to create meaning.


1  For clarity, when referring to the Dolores Haze character I use Dolly to indicate her autonomous self and Lolita to denote someone else’s conception of her, especially in the context of her being a “nymphet.”

2  Although, in the case of the two films of Lolita, both Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne had signed on to direct before screenplays had been written.

Works Cited

Appel, Alfred. Nabokov’s Dark Cinema. Oxford University Press, 1974.

Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. Routledge, 2000.

Bazin, Andre. “Adaptation: Or, the Cinema as Digest.” Film Adaptation. Edited by James Naremore, Rutgers University Press, 2000.

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