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The Goodness in Lolita

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I watched the movie Lolita (the 1997 version, not the original Stanley Kubrick version) last night. It was suggested by my best pen pal when I asked her which is the most beautiful movie you have ever seen. Hmmmm. Lolita and I have a love/hate relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nabokov, I think he was one of the most honest yet abstract writers of his time and Pale Fire happens to be one of my favourites of all time. To be fair, the movie is beautiful. It’s more like a slideshow of aesthetically shot scenes and sometimes it seems that the director is trying too hard to put eye candy shots between the narrative. Dominic Swain (although a tad bit taller for Lo) does the role justice. And of course Jeremy Irons… no singing praises needed.

What bothers me is the story itself. I first read Lolita when I was 14 and just out of school and, needless to say, it completely outraged my sheltered, Indian, middle-class puritanical morality. Maybe it was the similarities in ages or maybe my teenage psyche wasn’t evolved enough to comprehend the intricacy of such a topic but the book left a disgusting taste in my mouth. Before reading I knew that this was a book about a man’s obsession with a young girl, but I expected it to be just that: an obsession inside his head, a sullied fantasy and nothing more. All through the first half of the book I kept praying that Humbert doesn’t actually act on his impulses and “repents” his sinful thoughts and later becomes the perfect father to this lovely little girl. Happily ever after and everything.

I read the Lolita again just before leaving college and it felt like I was reading the book for the very first time. But this time I could see the book for what it is — a brilliant piece of literature. I remember running to the dictionary hundreds of time because the pages were filled with big words I never heard of. This book taught me that it’s okay to use big words if they are more appropriate to the context, it doesn’t make you pretentious. I read somewhere that good literature pleases you, but great literature shocks, intrigues and leaves you speechless. Most people I know go into the fourth-gear over-praise mode or into the tight-lipped disgust mode, but the subject leaves everyone mumbling. It’s still not okay for people to discuss a book for its merit as art than apply it to a real life scenario and bringing up the author’s sexuality. Humbert’s obsession cannot be termed as true ephebophilia, because he wasn’t obsessed with all young girls. He was only obsessed with Lo, and if the disparity of ages was absent, this book would be considered an epic romance.

Having said that, when I watched the movie yesterday some of the love making scenes did make me cringe. Possibly because in my imagination the words did not come to life so blatantly. I always pictured Humbert a little more jaded, a little more ashamed of his actions. In the book the complexities of the characters soften the blow, so to speak. Like Humbert was much more than just a dull old pervert and Lo was much more than a precocious nymphet. But the movie version presents them very one-dimensionally. Then again, it may just be my prejudice against movies based on brilliant books.

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