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An Excellent New "Lolita" Still Can't Match the Book

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the newest movie version of "Lolita."


Other segments from the episode on July 30, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 30, 1998: Interview with J.K. Simmons; Interview with John Keegan; Review Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Lolita."


Date: JULY 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073001NP.217
Head: OZ
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The HBO prison series "OZ" has started its second season. "OZ" is short for Ozwald Maximum Security Penitentiary (ph), the fictional prison in which the prison is set.

The program is about the lives of prisoners and correctional officers in the experimental unit of "OZ," known as Emerald City. Most of the prisoners are violent, sadistic and psychologically damaged. A good example is the Neo-nazi Vern Schillinger (ph), played by my guest J.K. Simmons.

Early in the first season of "OZ," the Neo-nazi psychologically tormented his new cellmate, a young lawyer, and turned him into a sex slave. In this scene, the Neo-nazi Schillinger, has stolen his cellmates' family photos. And he's using these to further intimidate the scared newcomer.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR IN "OZ": You've got a lovely family. I'm amazed you haven't showed me these pictures before. Amazed and a little hurt.

I hope you don't mind me finding these hidden under your mattress. Beautiful. My wife is dead. But I got two sons, 17 and 16. Handsome (EXPLETIVE DELETED) kids to. Good Arian stock, you know?

My sons are devoted to me. I am an icon to them because I went to prison for my beliefs. They would do anything I asked them to -- steal, maim, kill. Maybe I should have them go visit your family, huh? Just a little friendly call, what do you think? My sons and your wife. My sons and your daughter.

GROSS: More recently on "OZ", Shillinger's now former cellmate, the once scared newcomer, has become hardened and has exacted his revenge on Schillinger. Schillinger is figuring out what his next move will be.

J.K. Simmons' chilling portrayal of the white supremacist is so good yet we had never noticed him before and very little has been written about him. So we invited him to FRESH AIR.

J.K. Simmons, let me ask you to describe your character of Vern Shillinger on "OZ."

SIMMONS: He's the leader of the Arian Brotherhood in the maximum security prison, which is, of course, a Neo-nazi organization. He's a prisoner in for longer and longer as it turns out. And one of the main relationships I have is with another prisoner. And he and I have sort of gone back and forth in this dominant, submissive, torturous relationship.

GROSS: Yes, well, early on when this other character, whom you refer, who's a lawyer whose imprisoned for drunken driving in which he accidentally murdered a child, you made him your sex slave early...

SIMMONS: I did indeed. I made him my lovely wife.

GROSS: Yeah, I'm wondering what it was like for you to play this sadistic Neo-nazi who takes this young lawyer, makes him his sex slave?

SIMMONS: Oh, it was pretty fun.


SIMMONS: You know, it really actually is just as bizarre and twisted and sick as much of what we do on the show is, and, of course as much of what happens in a maximum security prison actually is. It's sort of like that, you know, like a M.A.S.H. unit. We really have a great time.

And we keep referring to the jokes. And, you know, this joke is really gonna work where I tattoo his rear end, that will be, you know, funny because...

GROSS: With a swastika, I might add.

SIMMONS: ... Yeah, with a swastika. Sort of, you know, leaving my mark. It really is just a good time. It's just a bunch of wonderful actors working with Tom Fontana's (ph) words. And we're all just so happy to be there that no matter how dark this stuff is that we're doing, it's just kind of a release in a way, getting that stuff out in a safe way. And we just have fun.

GROSS: I thought one of the high points of the first season was when your character, the neo-nazi, got your sex slave to perform at, I guess it was the talent show or something with lipstick on singing "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

SIMMONS: Yeah, actually originally Tom wanted that to be "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". But for some reason, they didn't want to give him the rights. So I was all prepared with my...

GROSS: That was a little "OZ" joke, wasn't it?

SIMMONS: Yeah, yeah. I was all prepared with my "I-don't-think-we're-in-Kansas-anymore adlib." And then they had to change it. But "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" was, you know, a pretty good second choice. And Lee pulled it off pretty well.

GROSS: Who chose the song?

SIMMONS: Tom, Tom Fontana our erstwhile leader.

GROSS: Now what did you bring to the character in terms of research? Did you feel like you had to hang out with brothers of the Arian nation or go to prison and see what life was like inside? Did any of that seem necessary to you?

SIMMONS: No, frankly, and it's also not as available to us working schmucks as it would be if I were Robert DeNiro. It's, you know, it's not like I could just call the prison and say, "Hey, I'm J.K. Simmoms. I want to come live with the prisoners for a few days."

But I did do -- I actually did -- the research that I did do was mostly on the net, you know, checking out some Arian web sites, and just getting, trying to get an idea of their philosophy and how they state it so that I could have some kind of place to come from.

And that was one of the things that Tom and I talked about between the first and second seasons, was trying to get more into a little bit of the politics and relating my character with some of the other characters, the black Muslim, and some of the other characters in the show.

GROSS: Now the way you play the character of the neo-nazi on "OZ," there's always this veneer of solicitousness. You always make it seem as if what you're doing is for everybody's larger good...

SIMMONS: Veneer?

GROSS: ... and you're a real understanding kind of guy.


SIMMONS: Vern's a sweetheart.

GROSS: Well, that's how he sees himself, that's how he projects himself as he's, you know, doing some very sadistic thing to you.

SIMMONS: Yeah, you know, my general philosophy of playing bad guys, which I've sort of done, you know, half the time, is, you know, very few people who we view as bad guys get out of bed and think "What evil and terrible thing am I going to do today?" Most people see their motivations as justified, as, you know, justifying whatever they do. And that's what I try to go with.

GROSS: Do you get any letters from members of neo-nazi groups who have strong opinions about your portrayal of a neo-nazi?

SIMMONS: I haven't. I have had a couple of people come up to me on the street. But the only two people who came up to me and were sort of a little confused about the line between, you know, drama and reality, were people who sort of agreed with the philosophy of Vern Schillinger, and came up to me and said, "Oh hey, you're that guy in that show "OZ"." And I said, "Yeah." And they said, "Hey man, I dig what you're saying," you know, that's -- and I sort of try to go my merry way as quickly as I can because that's scary on two different levels.

First of all, there are a lot of people who agree with that philosophy out there. And second of all, it's only a play, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

SIMMONS: We're just pretending.

GROSS: My guest is J.K. Simmons. And he plays the neo-nazi Vern Schillinger in the HBO prison series "OZ". And it's set in a maximum security prison in the experimental wing.

Do you work out either just for your own fitness or for the fitness of the characters you play?

SIMMONS: That's a good question. I weigh 47 pounds less right now than I did when Vern Schillinger was butt naked in the solitary confinement cell. I really had always taken pretty decent care of myself and, you know, and been an athlete and been in pretty good shape. And just the last few years as a combination of being in my 40s and being, you know, reasonably comfortable and being able to eat whatever I wanted, I put on a lot of weight.

And when I started playing Vern, a very tough intimidating character, you know, the first season as I watched the show I just found myself thinking, "Who is the fat guy trying to act tough?" And that was really part of my -- I mean, you know that -- along with, you know, wanting to be healthy and be able to continue playing softball and be an athlete and, you know, live a long life and all that.

I've really in the last year gotten very healthy again. And I get my butt to the gym every morning and eat more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff and all that. And actually during the course of the second season of "OZ," during the 12 or 14 weeks that we shot, I -- you'll see Vern drop some weight between the first and eighth episodes. And then I've dropped most of the excess in the meantime.

So I'm campaigning for Tom to write me another nude scene next season so we can say, "Oh, Vern must have been in hole for a long time because he lost some weight."

GROSS: Yeah, you and all the characters, after they're thrown in solitary naked, look so vulnerable. And that's, you know...

SIMMONS: Believe me, I felt very vulnerable.


GROSS: ... It's interesting, you know, because you're such an intimidating character and then, you know, there you are stripped naked lying on the floor of a dark cell...

SIMMONS: Right, and that...

GROSS: ... kind of, you know, in a fetal position looking very vulnerable.

SIMMONS: Yeah, that was also at a time -- I mean -- I think there -- if I had been thrown into the hole at other times, it would have been less vulnerable and more angry. But, you know, that was also a time when I had just been thoroughly beaten figuratively by Lee Turgeson's (ph) character, you know. And so I was vulnerable on a number of fronts. My power had really been pretty much yanked away.

GROSS: My guest is J.K. Simmons. And he's now co-starring in "OZ," the prison series on HBO. Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is J.K. Simmons. He plays the neo-nazi inmate Vern Schillinger in the HBO prison series "OZ".

"OZ" was the first time I actually noticed you. I actually realized, who, I mean, who is this guy? He's really great. Let me find out more about him. And I'm wondering, where were you before that?

SIMMONS: At the Big Fork Summer Playhouse in Big Fork, Montana doing musical theater...


... which is what I started out in when I was in college in the '70s in Montana. And I bounced around doing regional theater all over the country for a lot of years. And when I finally got things going in New York it was all on stage also. I did several Broadway shows. And really just 3 or 4 years ago started doing television and film and things that people might actually recognize me from.

GROSS: Now why did it take so long for you to break into television and film?

SIMMONS: Well, because at first when I started doing this I just thought it would be kind of a fun thing to do. I never had any intention of coming to New York or L.A. and actually doing more than scraping by, you know, doing plays.

And as my career sort of progressed of it's own volition, I did come to New York. I did Broadway shows, and I started realizing that this is actually how I'm going to make my living. So maybe I should try and do television and film and make a better living and get an occasional residual check so I can pay a mortgage someday.

And, you know, I went shopping around for agents who I thought could help me more with those kinds of jobs. And I ended up in a big hit Broadway show, the revival of "Guys and Dolls" a few years ago, which all of us in that show ended up getting a lot of attention. And that helped sort of launch other aspects of our careers.

GROSS: Now I saw that revival on Broadway. And I saw you and didn't realize it at the time because I hadn't yet seen you in "OZ."

SIMMONS: I played Benny Southstreet (ph), Nathan's right hand guy.

GROSS: So get to sing in the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York?

SIMMONS: Mmm-hm, I sang the title song, "Guys and Dolls"...

GROSS: "Guys and Dolls..."

SIMMONS: ... with Walter Bobby (ph). And I sang the "Fugue for Ten Horns..."

SIMMONS, SINGING: I got the horse right here, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta...

SIMMONS: ... yeah, it was a great job. It was a great, fun show.

GROSS: I think we should hear you sing so why don't we play something from the cast recording of the recent Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls." And...

SIMMONS: Oh good, I thought you were going to make me sing live, and I didn't warm up.

GROSS: So, lets see, you said you were on "Fugue for Ten Horns." Why don't we play the part that you sing on the song, or one of the parts that you sing.


SINGERS: (Unintelligible)...

GROSS: What a great score.


GROSS: So, have you sung a lot on stage?

SIMMONS: Yeah, I actually was a musician in college, a composer and singer and really intended to be the second of Leonard Bernstein when I got out. But I sort of segued into doing musicals and then into all aspects of theater and then into a maximum security prison.


GROSS: A natural progression.


GROSS: It's interesting, while you were getting known as the neo-nazi on "OZ", your brother, David Simmons, is becoming known as a Christian performer.

SIMMONS: He is indeed.

GROSS: An interesting contrast.


SIMMONS: We're really not that different.

GROSS: So how is he doing in his career in Christian music?

SIMMONS: He's doing great. He has a CD out. The CD is called "UBU" as in the letters U-B-U. And he has a web site and everything, "UBUmusic." And it's a great CD. It has all original songs that David wrote the music and lyrics and did most of the playing for.

And I don't see him enough. And, David, I love you man. He listens to NPR.

1. Is there anyone among your friends and family who you would rather not see you on "OZ"?

2. Well, the ones that I would rather not have see me on "OZ" choose not to watch "OZ" anyway. Most of my dad's family in rural Illinois, you know, would completely disapprove not only of the content but some of the language. And I certainly respect that, and, you know, they see me in my more G-rated kinds of things.

I was actually -- during the first season especially where I guess I was, as my wife said, "Bringing it home with me." She found it difficult to watch. I think she said something like -- it was airing at 11:00 at the time, and she was doing a Broadway show. So she would get home just before the show would be on.

And after the second episode she said, "So I'm supposed to come home from work, watch this with you and then get into bed with you? I don't think so."


So she actually kind of stopped watching during the first season. But she is watching it with me again now.

GROSS: Can I ask what your brother, the Christian musician, thinks of your role as the neo-nazi, and of the kind of language you have to use on the show and the kind of extreme circumstances your character is in?

SIMMONS: He thinks it's a reflection of the reality of prison life and the world today. And I don't think that he's got his 7-year-old staying up to watch it, nor do I think anyone should. And David and I really come from -- obviously we grew up together -- but the same background even professionally, you know.

He started out doing theater. We did musicals together at the Big Fork Summer Playhouse in, you know, the '70s. Despite him being four years younger, he played my father and father-in-law because he was slightly portly at the time and could grow a good beard.

And, you know, these are just the divergent paths that our careers have taken. We are ultimately not that different and certainly philosophically and politically and spiritually and all of that, we are much more in accord than you might think based on the work you see us do.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

SIMMONS: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: J.K. Simmons plays the neo-nazi inmate, Vern Schillinger, in the HBO prison series "OZ".

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: J.K.
High: J.K. Simmons stars in the HBO series "OZ," now beginning its second season.
Spec: Crime; Media; Television; OZ

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: OZ
Date: JULY 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073002NP.217
Head: War and Civilization
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Steven Spielberg's new movie "Saving Private Ryan" has done its best to recreate the experience of fighting in World War II. And it has people thinking about the horror of battle.

The history of war will be explored in a new documentary series called "War and Civilization," which premieres Sunday evening on the Learning Channel. My guest is the series' consultant, John Keegan. He's a military historian whose books include "A History of Warfare" and "The Face of Battle." Keegan is also defense editor of the British paper "The Daily Telegraph."

Although he's spent his life studying war, he's never fought in one. He had tuberculosis as a child, which left him sick from the ages of 13 to 22 and unable to walk without a cane. When I spoke with Keegan yesterday, he hadn't yet seen "Saving Private Ryan" but was planning to see it today.

I asked him how effective he thinks most war movies have been in conveying what it's like to experience battle.

JOHN KEEGAN, MILITARY HISTORIAN: I think they've done a very misleading job indeed. And I think the one thing that is obvious about observing a battle is that it's an individual observation. It's what the individual sees. There is no collective view of battle. There can't be.

People are frightened. They're unable very often to communicate with each other. They're in terror of their individual lives. And there is no collective viewpoint or vision.

And I think it's very, very dangerous to generalize and to try and create a sort of landscape of battle because the landscape isn't there for anybody to see at the time.

GROSS: You've written "A History of War." Has there always been war? Or is there a period in history where you can say "This is where war begins?"

KEEGAN: Well, greatly disputed question. I think this is a irresolvable point of view. Nobody knows. We don't have the evidence.

But I like to think that probably in the days of small populations, before the -- in the intermissions between the ice ages, the human being was not particularly aggressive. I think you can certainly say that sometime about 3,000 BC, really when agriculture began, when people started to till the soil. People saw a real motive for aggression. And that's when war as we know it began, about 5,000 years ago.

GROSS: What would you say are some of the biggest changes in how wars are fought since the time when you started studying the history of warfare?

KEEGAN: When I started -- when I began to study war, let's say in 1953 when I went to university, the Chinese civil war had just ended. The French were deep in a colonial war in Indo-China. There was the French-Algerian war just coming up and the American war in Vietnam.

These were very extraordinary wars in that they pitted trained Western-style armies against popular armies living in the community and fighting on their own homeland and their own territory. They obsessed the news media in the years that they went on.

We had 20 years really of people's warfare, or popular warfare. And it was thought to be the war of the future. This was the way war was going to be.

And since then, we have not in fact had any wars like that. And I, looking back, I think that that is one of the greatest changes.

And it changed for two reasons. One is that western societies lost the will to fight those sort of wars, partly because they got defeats here as it happened in all of them, but partly also because they thought -- they began to think they were immoral.

But over time, the people on the ground, the successors, have themselves decided that they don't wish to fight wars like that again. People's war is in a way the most unbearable form of war there is because you play time and life against technology. And the sufferings of a nation which decides to play time and life against technology are unspeakably awful.

Friends of mine who go to Vietnam now, Vietnam these scholars, say that, to speak to young Vietnamese, they say, "Why did our parents' generation do it? We wouldn't do it. We would never have a war like that again." So looking back over the time in which I've been studying war, I would say, you know, the time of people's war came and went in my own lifetime, very extraordinary.

GROSS: How much faith did you have in professional peacekeeper to help either keep the peace or enforce the laws of war?

KEEGAN: I have very, very great faith because curiously, they prevail for moral reasons. There is a sort of legitimacy, both a moral and practical legitimacy, about disciplined armies which know exactly what they want to do. I mean, the -- after all, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was an illegal act. The task force that went there was largely American in composition, knew exactly what it had to do. And it did it with extreme efficiency. In a way, that was an easy problem.

The multinational force that has gone to Bosnia has a much more difficult task, this a much looser, much vaguer target. But it does know exactly what it wants to do. And it does have a moral dignity, whereas those on the other side don't have moral integrity because their hands are stained with blood. There's murder and atrocity in their records.

In a way, they don't really know what they want either. They have no clear war ends. So I think that the peacekeeper, although they may irritate newspaper readers at home, television viewers at home, by the slowness with which they get on top of the problem, I think that through their own qualities and as long as the governments at home continue to support them, they will overcome the disorders they're trying to deal with.

GROSS: John Keegan is my guest. He's a military historian who is the author of such books as "The Face of Battle" and "The History of Warfare." He's the consultant to the new Learning Channel series "War and Civilization," which premieres Sunday night.

Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.




GROSS: Back with military historian John Keegan. He's the author of such books as "The Face of Battle" and "The History of Warfare." He's the series consultant to the TV series "War and Civilization," which begins Sunday night on the Learning Channel.

You were born in London in 1934. And you grew up during World War II. What was your first exposure to the war?


KEEGAN: I very well remember my youngest sister, who is a year younger than I am, bursting into terrified tears when a barrage balloon appeared on the horizon. Barrage balloons were balloons that -- was tethered to the ground by a cable which was supposed to cut the wing of a German bomber if it flew into it by mistake. And of course, there were hundreds and hundreds of barrage balloons all over Britain during the war, around the big cities. This, though, I happen to know was in 1938, it was practice.

It must have been about the time of the Munich crisis. I also remember being evacuated during the Munich crisis, that's to say taken out of London and sent down to the country, as millions of British children were, because it was feared that the Munich crisis might become a war, which would lead to the bombing of London. It did happen in 1939, in the following year. And I remember that too.

GROSS: So your sister was terrified. What was your reaction?

KEEGAN: I couldn't understand what on earth all the fuss was. But then I was just old enough to know what a barrage balloon was and she wasn't. Curiously, like I say, many European schoolchildren, or European children outside areas of conflict, I had a very, very happy time during the war and went to live in the country, and found the little bits of war that I say terribly exciting.

GROSS: You were sent away to the countryside after World War II actually started?

KEEGAN: Yes, like millions and millions of English children. The cities were empty to children. And they were sent down to the countryside to be safe from the bombing. I think something like four million to five million English children went to the country. And they all went in about a week at the beginning of September, 1939. It was an extraordinary population movement.

GROSS: And you took a train?

KEEGAN: They were packed into trains with their schoolteachers and sent off to villages and small towns where people had been told that they were to accept there so many children. And the larger the house you had, the more children you had to accept. It was a very, very extraordinary bit of social engineering.

GROSS: And where did you stay?

KEEGAN: Well, curiously, my father was one of the officials in charge of all this movement. So we went down with him to the west country, to Somerset (ph) near Bath (ph). Most Americans know where Bath is. We spent five happy years in the country far from the fighting.

GROSS: But I think you did witness the massing of American troops in preparation for the Normandy invasion?

KEEGAN: Absolutely. One of my strongest memories of the -- is of the GIs coming. Somerset is a very rural county. And I think there were probably more Americans than English people in Somerset in the months before D-Day. Americans became very, very popular, particularly with the young people because they were so lighthearted and outgoing in a way that the English weren't, and because they were very, very generous.

We had had four years of war and were living on very skimpy rations indeed. And the Americans -- you didn't meet an American who didn't give you some chewing gum or offer you candy or something like that. All English schoolchildren from the war years remember those things about the Americans, which is why that generation and their equivalent American generation have such a strong feeling for each other, which alas is gone now I think because we simply don't have that same exposure. It was a very interesting cultural exchange, and a very creative one.

GROSS: When you were a child and the war was being fought, were you confident that the allies would win? Or do you think -- did you think that you'd eventually be invaded by Germany and live under German rule?

KEEGAN: I think my parents were like most English people, were particularly at the beginning of the war, very anxious indeed. We'd suffered such a terrible defeat in 1940 I think that there was real, real anxiety that Britain might not survive. I could -- I think this probably unfortunately of true of little boys everywhere, so fervently patriotic was I that I didn't accept for one moment that Britain could be defeated.

I was absolutely certain that we were going to win. And so did all my friends at school. We all felt the same way. Unfortunately, I think the little German boys probably felt the same.

GROSS: Your father fought in World War I. Did you grow up hearing a lot of stories about the first World War?

KEEGAN: Only carefully censored ones. I think that's very common. I think fathers tell their children just as much as they think they ought to hear and no more. And my father was a gunner, artillery. I don't know whether he had a very dangerous war or not. He was gassed slightly in the spring of 1918.

My father-in-law was also in the first World War. He was a fighter pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service. I think he was much likelier than my father to survive. And he would occasionally say something about his war service.

But on the whole, I think grownups sheltered the young from what went on. And I think they still do shelter the young from what goes on, although of course since the young see versions of war on television and video and cinema, there's not much point in trying to shelter them any longer.

GROSS: What were the themes of the war stories your father and father-in-law would tell you?

KEEGAN: My father really made the war out to be rather cozy, a lot of friendship. And he was very fond of the horses because of course in those days, guns were pulled by horses. And he made it out to be rather like a big picnic. And I think that's a common way in which veterans talk about the war to their children. And they emphasize the nice bits and leave the nasty bits out.

GROSS: What about when you were an adult? Did he still talk that way?

KEEGAN: Once or twice towards the end of his life, from my aunt, he said one or two things. His two brothers went to the war as well. They all came back, curiously. But my father was the youngest.

And when my grandmother, his mother, took him to the railroad station to send him off to France in 1917 as a boy soldier, really, he later told me that she said to him, "I will never see you again." I've always thought that's the most extraordinary thing for a mother to say to her youngest son sending him off to the war.

But it wasn't heartlessness, of course. It was terror. And she did in fact -- she didn't see any of them again because that winter, the winter of 1917, she succumbed to winter illness and died. And my aunt told me she believed that she had worried herself to death, that having three sons on the western front just reduced her to a chronic state of panic. And when she got a sort of chest infection or something that winter, she just gave up the ghost and died.

I'm perfectly prepared to believe it. I think it, the whole thing, entirely credible. So I did, in a way, learn something more about the family experience with the war.

GROSS: Did you want to be able to experience war yourself, to fight in a war, after having grown up during World War II, having had a father who fought in World War I?

KEEGAN: I think once...


... I think having -- once having achieved the age of reason, I think not at all, absolutely not. And indeed, more and more as a I grow older I think the most -- I think the most -- of course, as one grows older, one becomes less vigorous and vital and less physically self-confident, and of course much, much less imbued with a sense of one's own immortality, which I think the young have.

But as I grow older, I become increasingly to think that being in a battle is really the most horrible thing that any human being could possibly undergo.

GROSS: Well, John Keegan, I thank you very much for talking with us.

KEEGAN: Thank you.

GROSS: John Keegan is a military historian and a consultant for the new documentary series "War and Civilization." It premieres Sunday on the Learning Channel.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: John Keegan
High: John Keegan is a military historian and a consultant for the new documentary series "War and Civilization." It premieres Sunday on the Learning Channel.
Spec: Books; Authors; War and Civilization

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: War and Civilization
Date: JULY 30, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073003NP.217
Head: Lolita
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The new film adaptation of "Lolita," the one that until recently no American distributor was willing to take on, will be presented on the Showtime cable network this Sunday. It will open in theaters around the country in September.

The screenplay was adapted from Vladimir Nobokov's (ph) novel by Steven Schiff (ph), the former "New Yorker" writer and former FRESH AIR film critic. It was directed by Adrian Line (ph) and stars Jeremy Irons as the nymphet-obsessed Humbert Humbert.

Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has seen the movie. And she says the film features a Humbert for the '90s, one whose predatory aspects are downplayed in favor of his identity as a victim of personal history and present circumstances.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Vladimir Nobokov's "Lolita" is just impossible to translate into film. I'm not talking about the difficulties of depicting its erotic, some would say pornographic, subject -- the sexual relationship between a 40-year-old man -- and his 12-year-old ward.

No, the problem lies with Lolita's narrator, Humbert Humbert, that fellow who Martin Amis, in his worshipful introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel, characterized as "both irresistible and unforgivable."

Nobokov constructed his masterpiece as a series of dramatic monologues by Humbert, who's reflecting back on his past after he's already been imprisoned for molesting Lolita and murdering his rival, Claire Quilty (ph). Humbert envisions his audience as posterity's judges. And he resorts to nimble wordplay, humor, flattery and self-flagellation to win our sympathies.

This artful old goat, however, is also the archetypal unreliable narrator. He tells us, for instance, that he finds lying to psychiatrists "an endless source of robust enjoyment." Reminiscing about his first tryst with Lolita, Humbert declares, "It was she who seduced me." But a few chapters later, this image of a wanton Lolita is thrown into question when Humbert recalls hearing her sobs in the night, "Every night, every night the moment I feign sleep."

Who to believe? In the movies, that question is almost always settled by the camera. "It was she who seduced me," declares Humbert. And as the fateful moment unfolds in Adrian Line's new film, we watch lovely young Dominique Swain (ph) as Lolita remove her retainer and mount Jeremy Irons' Humbert, thereby confirming his version of events.

It's a given. Great books, unlike bad or even good ones, are almost always better, richer, more complicated, than the movies made of them. But after resigning myself to that inevitability, I have to say I lapped up this version of "Lolita," which is wittier and more weirdly heartbreaking than the 1962 James Mason/Sue Lyons (ph) version, itself a classic.

Line resorts to visual humor as the cinematic equivalent of the novels' elegantly drool style. When Irons sees Swain for the first time, she's in profile, sprawled out in her backyard in front of two rotating lawn sprinklers that rise up from her midsection like two wet and erupting ovaries.

Line also revels, as Nobokov did, in the cheesiness of the American scene. On their cross-country journey, Irons and Swain indulge their elicit love on Magic Finger Vibra-beds (ph) and in motel rooms shaped like teepees. Swain, who's supposed to be 14 in the movie, possesses that adolescent power of changeability. One minute she's all floppy limbs and pigtails, the next she's a vamp.

No one can out-vulgarize Shelley Winters, who played Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother in the original movie. But Melanie Griffith's dopey sweet voice and blond prettiness give her an edge in portraying Charlotte as a desperate, expired nymphet.

And caught between the two women is Jeremy Irons. You can hear his passivity in this scene where he's squeezed into an outdoor swing chair by Swain and Griffith, who are competing for his favors. That "thwacking" noise is Swain stroking a doll against Irons' thigh. She's also using her bare feet in creative ways.


DOMINIQUE SWAIN, ACTRESS: I could be a dancer. That's a major option. I do have a natural grace. You know, you look kind of sad (Unintelligible)...

MELANIE GRIFFITH, ACTRESS: What if sad was right?

JEREMY IRONS, ACTOR: I'd like to see you dance sometime.

GRIFFITH: Little girls always want to be ballerinas, don't they? I know I did. But I was -- well, how should I put it, a tad too plump. Is that the right word?


GRIFFITH: I'll get more (Unintelligible)...


SWAIN: Make her take his (Unintelligible) tomorrow.


SWAIN: Mmm-hm. She'll do anything you say. She's getting a thing about you.

CORRIGAN: The Jeremy Irons we see here is the limp love victim of damage, rather than the calculating schemer of "Reversal of Fortune." Unlike the novel where we listen to Humbert plotted, always archly plotting to kill Charlotte, drug Lolita and have his way with her, this Humbert is seducee rather than seducer, wide-eyed, rather than shifty-eyed.

Perhaps Line felt it necessary for Humbert to shed his sadre's (ph) horns in order to win any sympathy for him in an age so conversant with the real-life horrors of pedophilia.

Oddly, though, making Humbert more sincere works to make the movie more erotic. Because Irons plays Humbert as frozen at an adolescent sexual stage, he and Swain seem well-matched as lovers. Their brief sex scenes together generate heat rather than repulsion. And when Swain escapes from him, you can feel Irons' despair.

Nobokov wrote in his famous 1956 essay on "Lolita" that the inspiration for the novel was a newspaper story about an ape, who produced the first drawing ever made by an animal, a sketch of the bars of its own cage. In the novel, Lolita and Humbert take turns playing jailer and jailee. In Line's film, Humbert alone is the prisoner of diseased love.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Maureen Corrigan; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Maureen Corrigan reviews the new film adaptation of "Lolita."
Spec: Movie Industry; Cable Television; Lolita

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Lolita
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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