It wasn't the religious right that for nearly a year flatly rejected director Adrian Lyne's adaptation of "Lolita." It was the filmmaker's peers. They should be commended.
Based on Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, the film is narrated by a middle-aged pedophile (played by Jeremy Irons) who is obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. He pursues her as prey, incanting, "Light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul, Lolita."
Lolita ranked fourth on The Modern Library's recent list of 100 best English- language novels of the 20th century. Nevertheless, to market the film to a mass audience in the 1990s was deemed unwise by the industry.
The American Academy of Family Physicians reported in 1995 that as many as 1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 6 boys, may experience sexual abuse by the age of 18.
In light of the national focus on at-risk children, and passage in 1996 of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, Hollywood viewed the project as a $50 million albatross. Mr. Lyne hoisted the banner of the First Amendment. When that didn't fly, he "sanitized" the film, cutting the steamier love scenes to innuendos.
Now, after what Time magazine calls "relentless salesmanship," the director and his backers may recover their investment.
"Lolita" was broadcast last night on Showtime - the cable channel that boasts "no limits." It will air again three times this month.
The film opened in one Los Angeles theater in July, to qualify for the Oscars, and is scheduled for national distribution Sept. 25.
Critics seem to be lining up to declare the film benign. The Los Angeles Times said that "this 'Lolita' is not prurient and not meant to be." Time said, "Lyne's Lolita is not a movie we need to be protected from."
Certainly "we" don't need protection. Yet, like the eye of an alligator gleaming on the surface of a Southern bog, the film bodes danger for children. Some people find sex with minors titillating, and for them, rationalizations come easy.
The entrepreneurs who are marketing "Lolita" are plumbing this ambivalence.
On one hand, Showtime has adopted a tone of literary objectivity, calling the movie "a nubile metaphor." Yet on the same Web site, the firm promises "Thrills, more thrills...."
Showtime's Webmasters bill the man-child road trip as, in Nabokov's words, "a journey to paradise lit by hell's flames." The word "paradise" is the crux of the problem. With or without explicit sex, "Lolita" is a pedophile's fantasy.
Through Humbert's eyes, we see the girl as a woman trapped in a child's body, a "nymphet" who initiates sex with two adult males. It is a view steeped in '50s ignorance and exactly what the pedophile wants to believe. During the '80s, America came out of denial to see the child's plight. It's clearer today that the promiscuous Lolita is an orphan traveling alone with a sex offender. As children do, she lives out his projection.
Today we know that sexual abuse creates emotional damage that often surfaces later in life. The scars can endure for decades. Many of the teens drifting through America's parks and malls have been molested.
Pedophiles like Lolita's Humbert offer kids attention that masks cruelty and self-interest. Though Humbert is punished in the end of the story, most real-world Humberts are never arrested, because children are too ashamed, fearful, or oblivious to the long-term consequences to speak out.
We can't afford to regress to 1950s denial. It's up to the American people to send the industry a strong message: When it comes to children, there are limits.
* Nancy Marsden has taught in public and private elementary schools in Los Angeles for 19 years.