Focalization and Narration in Lolita, Novel and Film
Entry converted from: https://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/biblol.htm
After a brief historical account of the collaboration of Nabokov and Kubrick on the adaptation of Lolita (1959-1962: Kubrick persuading Nabokov to write the screenplay, Nabokov coming to Hollywood to work on it, the various versions, and Kubrick’s final choice not to use the scenario), my paper will focus on two key notions not only for each work of art, but especially in terms of adaptation, focalization and narration.
Mainly using the analytical tools Gérard Genette developed, I offer an insight into the complex issue of voices, eyes and masks in both the novel and the film. Such a comparative approach should be especially useful to students who not only have to master the refinements of focalization and perceive the disjunction between eyes and voice in the novel, but also have to be able to relate them to Kubrick’s choices in terms of “telling” and “showing” for his adaptation of the novel.
Lolita is indeed a novel in which the questions of focalization and narration are crucial. The reader is given to hear the only voice of an omnipresent homodiegetic narrator with a double name, Humbert Humbert. This double name somehow reflects the double nature of this character: Humbert the narrator often dissociates himself from Humbert the protagonist with mockery. The distance between “narrated I” and “narrating I” is one of the key narratological features of the novel, as it is deepens the rhetorical trap laid by Humbert for the reader.
In Kubrick’s adaptation⎯what Linda Hutcheon calls intersemiotic “transcoding” from word to image⎯“narration”, i.e. the camera’s point of view, is persistently external, non-diegetic. It allows focalization to shift, unlike in the book, from one character to another, but it is striking to note that on the whole focalization is external too. This corresponds to Nabokov’s choice in the screenplays he had written for Kubrick, and which Kubrick used very little. This paper intends to demonstrate how the shift in narrative viewpoint impacted the story line, the unfolding of the plot, and characterization as a whole.
Linda Hutcheon argues that the pleasure of adaptation derives from repetition with variation, or “repetition without replication” (Hutcheon, 7), and recalls that adaptation “always involves both (re-)interpretation and then (re-)creation” (Hutcheon, 8). Since the concept of faithfulness to the source-text proves to be quite sterile when it comes to establishing comparative intersemiotic analyses, this paper will focus on the re-interpretative and re-creative features of the film, taking into account the historical context of its production.