Russian-American Novelist and Poet

Vladimir Nabokov’s Film Adaptations

A number of Vladimir Nabokov’s works have been adapted for the screen.

Because his works deal on provocative themes and are adorned with literary elements that are not easily carried over to the screen, directors often find themselves with an uphill task which they brave to varying levels of success.

Vladimir Nabokov's Film Adaptations


Laughter In The Dark (1969)

In 1969, Director Tony Richardson adapted Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark for a film. He set his version in 1960s London, rather than the 1930s Berlin Nabokov had set his novel. A collaboration between the French and British film industries, the film starred  Nicol Williamson and Anna Karina.

It follows the story of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a 16-year old theatre attendant. Because of her, he leaves his wife and child but karma catches up with him and he loses his eye-sight in a car accident. His new lover takes care of him but cheats behind his back with a lover of her own.

The film however has not seen an extended-release on Television, having been shown just twice on BBC2 in 1974 and 1981. It has also not been released in any home video format.

Queen, Knave (1972)

Jerzy Skolimowski directed a West German take on Nabokov’s book, Queen, Knave in 1972. 

Adhering faithfully to Nabokov’s take of seduction and death, the film cast Gina Lollobrigida and David Niven. The film was not a favorite among audiences and filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski would later describe it as an artistic disaster. 

However, a few critics have praised the work for capturing Nabokov’s literary characteristics as opposed to staying faithful to the narrative of the original book.

Maschenka (Mary 1987)

In 1987, John Goldschmidt directed a film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s debut novel, Mary (published in 1926 under his pen name, V). The screenplay was written by John Mortimer and featured the likes of Cary Ewes and Irina Brook. 

The film brings to television Nabokov’s story of a man’s attempt to rekindle an old love by snatching her away from her husband. Filming took place in locations in Germany and Finland.

Set in Berlin, Maschenka is a romantic drama about a Russian exile who is forced to confront his past. Maschenka holds a respectable 7.1 rating on IMDB.

Lolita (1963)

Having acquired the film rights for Lolita, Stanley Kubrick and James Harris offered Nabokov the chance to write the film’s screenplay in 1959. Nabokov refused the offer, being unwilling to make the alterations to his novel that the producers demanded. However, he regretted this decision and when he was offered a second chance to take the offer in January 1960, he took it.

After several revisions that trimmed the screenplay to standard movie length, Nabokov finally submitted a version that Kubrick approved. After the film was released, Nabokov was surprised by how much Kubrick altered his work.

The screenplay began with Humbert’s murder of Quilty and seemed to emphasize Humbert’s status as a murderer more than a pedophile. Nabokov would describe the film as “first-rate” in public, although he described the experience of seeing the film in private as equivalent to a “scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance”.

Lolita (1997)

Adrian Lyne directed the second adaptation of Nabokov’s Magnum Opus, Lolita, in 1997. This version, written by Stephen Schiff, was more faithful to Nabokov’s 1955 novel of the same name than Stanley Kubrick’s version. It starred Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain, among others. 

Unlike Kubrick’s version that hid some of the darker aspects of the character, Lolita, with suggestions and Innuendos, Lyne’s version was more explicit.

The film premiered in Europe before being released in the United States where it was first picked up by Showtime before finally being released theatrically by The Samuel Goldwyn Company. 

The film met mixed reviews in the United States, with a decent 6.9 rating on IMDB.

Luzhin’s Defence (2000)

Luzhin’s Defence, Nabokov’s novel about a mentally disturbed Chess grandmaster’s love affair in the midst of a Chess tournament in Italy was adapted for film by Marleen Gorris in 2000.

The film starred John Turturro and Emily Watson. Watson’s performance secured for her the best actress nomination at the British independent film awards and the London film critics circle awards. It has a 6.9 rating on IMDB.

Despair (1934)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed the film adaptation of Nabokov’s 1934 novel, The Despair. Released in 1978, the film follows the story of a half-Jewish man’s futile attempt to escape from an increasingly hostile Nazi Germany by faking his death. 

It starred Dirk Bogarde and Andréa Ferréol and gained entry at the 1978 Canned Film Festival.

About Israel Njoku
Israel has a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication. He loves entertainment, pop-culture and the arts and tries to extract themes with wider reaching implications from them through rigorous analysis.
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