Op-Ed: Classic novel ‘Lolita’ continues grooming behavior

Trigger Warning: This article contains references to grooming. 

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” The opening lines of one of the most controversial novels of the twentieth century. “Lolita” was written by Vladimir Nabokov and was first published in 1955 in France. Two film adaptations of the novel have been created:  the first in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick and the second in 1997 by Adrian Lyne. The book follows Humbert Humbert and his relationship with the eponymous Lolita, whose name is actually Dolores Haze. At 37, Humbert meets the 12-year-old Dolores, to whom he is sexually attracted. 

Age gap relationships and power imbalances are not a new concept in media, nor are they restricted to film and television, but the depiction of these relationships is potentially dangerous, as they downplay the severity. The primary issue with depicting these relationships is the line between protecting child actors and accurately showing the actual age of the characters. Sue Lyon portrayed Dolores Haze in the 1962 adaptation of “Lolita” when she was 14 years old, and her co-star, James Mason was 51 years old. In the 1997 adaptation, Haze was played by Domique Swain, who was 19 years old, while 48-year-old Jeremy Irons played Humbert. While both of these actresses were young, neither was as young as Haze was in the novel. “Lolita” (1962) aged Haze up to 15 to comply with the Hays Code at the time, which was the predecessor to the Motion Picture Association of America. 

The issue persists in television and movies today. “Pretty Little Liars,” which ran from 2010 to 2017 on Freeform and contained seven seasons. One of the main characters, Aria Montgomery, has a relationship with her high school English teacher, Ezra Fitz. The characters were 15 and 22, respectively, while the actors were 20 and 24, respectively. The show never condemns this relationship, with Montgomery and Fitz getting married in the Season 7 finale. Alternatively, FX’s “A Teacher” follows a 32-year-old English teacher as she has an illegal relationship with her 17-year-old student. The actors were 38 and 25, respectively. This show does condemn the relationship, going so far as to show the victim dealing with the trauma of the relationship. It is understandable that between Child Entertainment Laws and common decency, it would be harmful to cast actual children in these roles. However, when child victims of grooming and abuse are portrayed by adults, audiences might be less likely to recognize the relationships as abusive. 

As media continues to expand and adapt, it is necessary to continue to consider the societal repercussions of romanticizing or minimizing these relationships. Predators in Hollywood are frequently in the news, with Harvey Weinstein facing a possible 20-year jail sentence, in addition to the 23 years that he has already been sentenced to.

EDIT 9/21/23 12:28 PM: The previous edition of this article misidentified Sue Lyon as Melanie Griffith.

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