A Question of Focal Adjustment: Teaching Lolita with Its Film Adaptations

Christopher A. Link, Boston University

It is a question of focal adjustment, of a certain distance that the inner eye thrills to surmount, and a certain contrast that the mind perceives with a gasp of perverse delight.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

As it nears the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel continues to make its way onto an ever-increasing number of college course syllabi in an astonishing variety of contexts. Lolita has been taught in English, Russian, and American Studies departments; it is taught in courses on Great Books, Popular Culture, Gender Studies, and many other such subjects. My own first experience teaching Lolita was in a course entitled “Fiction into Film.” I used Lolita as a case study concerning the challenges of adapting novels to film and was happily surprised by the success of teaching a rather difficult work of fiction in conjunction with its considerably inferior screen adaptations.

Two films – remarkably different from one another in tone, emphasis, and execution--have been made of Nabokov’s Lolita: Stanley Kubrick’s somewhat subdued, black-and-white version from 1962, based upon a screenplay penned by Nabokov himself, and Adrian Lyne’s hazy, semi-softcore version from 1997, based on a screenplay by Stephen Schiff. Neither film succeeds much in translating the extremely complex narratological elements of the novel into an audio-visual medium. However, when viewed together critically, the two films are nevertheless able – whether by necessary omission, alteration, or elaboration – to indicate the subtler dimensions of Nabokov’s fiction, often highlighting precisely those aspects of the book that most conspicuously elude adaptation.

As the title of this paper indicates, I would like to suggest how Lolita’s film adaptations can allow students to experience an important and useful “focal adjustment” with regard to the text. The films recapitulate many important scenes and narrative elements from the novel while also providing “a certain distance” from and “a certain contrast” to the book. By means of such distance and contrast, the depth and significance of key scenes and major characters in the novel come into sharper focus, prompting close textual re-reading and lively classroom discourse.

It should be noted that it is not my aim simply to set up the Kubrick and Lyne films as straw men to be trounced by Nabokov’s heavyweight novel. Following the lead of Appel’s noteworthy critical text Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (1974), I intend to suggest also some of the many ways in which Nabokov himself (and Lolita specifically) was influenced by cinematic images, ideas, and techniques. While this paper is intended to function in many respects as a critical essay, it shall nevertheless maintain throughout an outlook geared toward pedagogical applications.