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the Complete Review
the complete review - screenplay

The Book of the Film

Stephen Schiff

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To purchase Lolita: The Book of the Film

Title: Lolita: The Book of the Film
Author: Stephen Schiff
Genre: Screenplay
Written: 1995
Length: 249 pages
Availability: Lolita: The Book of the Film - US
Lolita: The Book of the Film - UK
Lolita: The Book of the Film - Canada
Video: Lolita - Kubrick version
Lolita - Lyne version
  • The screenplay of the 1997 film directed by Adrian Lyne, based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel.
  • Foreword by Jeremy Irons
  • Preface by Adrian Lyne

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Our Assessment:

C+ : workmanlike, bland, listless

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times A- 31/7/1998 Caryn James
Salmagundi F Winter/Spring 1999 Walter Kendrick

  From the Reviews:
  • "(Lyne's) direction, and Stephen Schiff's discerning, faithful screenplay, are sensitive to Nabokov's wit as well as his lyricism." - Caryn James, The New York Times

  • "(Lyne's) reading of Nabokov's novel is so relentlessly literal that all beauty is lost; it's Lolita told by an idiot. (...) The novel endured; Lyne's Lolita deserves the oblivion that awaits it -- not for its vulgarity and ugliness alone, but because it rends a gorgeous fabric of words and tramples on the shreds." - Walter Kendrick, Salmagundi

Please note that these reviews in large part refer to the actual film, rather than the screenplay itself. However, where possible, these summaries and grades refer to the screenplay, rather than the film as a whole.

Please note that these ratings solely represent
the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Film director Adrian Lyne's version (or perversion) of Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel, Lolita (see our review), finally released in the United States in 1998 (after ignominiously first being screened on the cable network Showtime) was based on a screenplay by Stephen Schiff.
       Who ?
       Stephen Schiff. Tina Brown (editor, in turn, of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and the short-lived Talk) seemed to think highly of him, and he worked at (and apparently contributed to) Vanity Fair and The New Yorker under Brown. Lolita was his first screenplay. Proving he is not a one-trick pony Schiff followed this up with the instantly forgotten The Deep End of the Ocean, a movie that unfortunately did not have any of those wonderful excuses for its failure as Schiff/Lyne's Lolita did.
       Director Adrian Lyne is not to be underestimated. Auteur of some genuine hits (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) and some controversial pics (9 1/2 Weeks) Lyne apparently has an eye (at least a cinematic one) for the young ladies (he is also responsible for Foxes), and he set his sights on poor Dolores Haze. First choice to screen-write the novel was Fatal Attraction-writer James Dearden. That -- surprisingly -- didn't work out. Next up: Harold Pinter. Lyne didn't like that version either. Number three: David Mamet. Strike three.
       Hollywood at its best. God forbid that previous success (Dearden) or actual talent (Pinter, Mamet) count for something. The safe, obvious choice was to let a first-timer adapt the classic tale. Enter Stephen Schiff. Presumably he proved the most malleable, allowing Lyne to make the movie he wanted to make. (Which became the 58-million dollar film that first no one could and then no one wanted to see.)
       Lolita: The Book of the Film is not quite what it purports to be (but then what is the book of a film anyway ?). Aside from a tossed off two-paragraph "Foreword" from Jeremy Irons (who played Humbert Humbert), a nice but brief "Preface" by Lyne, and a large number of fairly disappointing film stills (all cheap, grey prints -- except the cover), it includes Schiff's screenplay. Lyne's film is largely based on what is printed here, but does diverge from the text significantly in many details. (Schiff's screenplay is also considerably longer than the actual film screenplay.) So this is most definitely only the "book the film is based on", not "the book of the film."
       Irons' bizarre "Foreword" is an apt introduction. It closes:

Art, and I include cinema in that, should make us question and test our values and makes us understand why we have the laws we do.
       This from the man chosen to embody Humbert Humbert. Of all the things Lolita is about, questioning and testing our values and wondering about our legal system rank very, very low indeed.
       (Perhaps what Irons means is that Lyne's Lolita is a piece of ... something that makes us wonder why, among the laws we do have, there isn't one against people taking great literature and turning it into ... lesser movies.)
       Lyne's "Preface" is at least honest. Lyne's delusions are almost touching. "I believe it is" (the best film he ever made), he declares. But his love for Lolita seems genuine, and at least there is little bitterness about his failure.
       Schiff also offers an interesting introduction, giving some of the history of the making of the screenplay and the fate of the film. While we are sympathetic to his rants against the absurd witch-hunt the movie was subjected to his justifications and arguments aren't particularly well-made or put.
       The screenplay itself does the unthinkable -- it makes of Nabokov's heart-wrenching, hilarious, and very dirty story something that is bland and boring. There is little humour here, and less soul. Sticking fairly closely to Nabokov's words, Schiff manages to dull them at almost every turn. The screenplay is not a complete failure (as, arguably, the film version then was): on the page Schiff still manages to keep some of the essence of the story. It is difficult to reduce Lolita largely to dialogue (it was difficult for Nabokov in his version as well -- see our review), but some of the exchanges are fairly successful. Schiff's ear is not always tin.
       A few scenes are striking, such as that of Lolita and Humbert making love as she reads the comics section of a newspaper. There is some pathos in the screenplay, and there are scenes Schiff suggests that might have worked if they had been rendered differently on the screen.
       Overall, however, it is an unremarkable screenplay, surprisingly flat. This does not mean it could not have been made into a decent movie. Unfortunately, it is also burdened by the dark shadow of what became of it: Lyne's Lolita. Doleful Jeremy Irons is convincing only in his moments of weakness, Melanie Griffith not at all. The charming Dominique Swain is dear (and not without talent), but barely more of a Lolita than Sue Lyon was. Too old for the part she is also the most weakly written character -- Schiff is too uncertain of what to do with her and tries to do too much. Moments shine true, but in sum Schiff's Lolita is unconvincing.
       There is no sense of pornography in the text (in part because there is so little sense of Lolita as schoolgirl or victim or nymphet). The more fully drawn character of Humbert also does not come completely across as the dirty old man that he is.

       The book is an interesting document, though one hopes that a book telling the whole sordid tale of the making (and the failure) of this film will follow. This is no impressive literary achievement, and even those that purchase the volume solely for the photographs will be disappointed. A curiosity, the book can be recommended only to those truly fascinated by the subject (Lolita -- the film, the novel, the girl).

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Lolita: The Book of the Film: Reviews of Lyne's Lolita: Lolita: The Lolita Movies:
  • IMDb site on Kubrick's version.
  • IMDb site on Lyne's version.
Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita under review at the complete review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Stephen Schiff writes for The New Yorker. Lolita was his first screeplay adaptation, but he has since penned other classics such as The Deep End of the Ocean (which, we suspect, is the only place that particular film can now be found).

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