The film had considerable difficulty finding an American distributor and premiered in Europe before being released in America, where it was met with much controversy due to its use of a child molester as the main character, Humbert. The film was picked up in the United States by Showtime, a cable network, before finally being released theatrically by The Samuel Goldwyn Company. The performances by Irons and Swain impressed audiences, but, although praised by some critics for its faithfulness to Nabokov's narrative, the film received a mixed critical reception in the United States. Lolita was met with much controversy in Australia–it was not given a theatrical release in the country until April 1999.
In 1947, Humbert Humbert (Irons), a middle-aged European professor of French literature, travels to the United States to take a teaching position in New Hampshire. He rents a room in the home of widow Charlotte Haze, largely because he is attracted to her adolescent daughter Dolores, also called "Lo", who he sees while touring the house. Obsessed from boyhood with girls of this age (whom he calls "nymphets"), Humbert is immediately smitten with Lo and marries Charlotte just to be near her.
Charlotte finds Humbert's secret diary and discovers his preference for her daughter. Furious, Charlotte runs out of the house, when she is struck by a car and killed. Her death frees Humbert to pursue a sexual relationship with Lo, whom he nicknames "Lolita". Humbert and Lo then travel the country, staying in various motels before eventually settling in the college town of Beardsley, where Humbert takes a teaching job. However, Lo's increasing boredom with Humbert, combined with her growing desire for independence, fuels a constant tension that led to a huge fight between them. Humbert's desperate affections for Lo are also rivaled by another man, playwright Clare Quilty, who has been pursuing Lo since the beginning of their travels. Lo eventually schemes to escape with Quilty, whose name Humbert doesn't know, and he searches for them unsuccessfully.
Three years later, Humbert receives a letter from Lo asking for money. Humbert visits Lo, who is now married and pregnant. Humbert asks her to run away with him, but she refuses. He relents and gives her a substantial amount of money. Lo also reveals to Humbert how Quilty actually tracked young girls and took them to Pavor Manor, his home in Parkington, to exploit them for child pornography. Quilty abandoned her after she refused to be in one of his films.
After his visit with Lo, Humbert tracks down Quilty and murders him. After being chased by the police, Humbert is arrested and sent to prison. He dies in November 1950, and Lo dies the next month on Christmas Day from childbirth complications.
The first screen adaptation of the book, 1962's Lolita, was written by Nabokov and directed (after revisions) by Stanley Kubrick.
The screenplay for the 1997 version, more faithful to the text of the novel than the earlier motion picture, is credited to Stephen Schiff, a writer for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. He was hired to write it as his first movie script, after the film's producers had rejected screenplays commissioned from more experienced screenwriters and directors James Dearden (Fatal Attraction), Harold Pinter, and David Mamet.
According to Schiff, "Right from the beginning, it was clear to all of us that this movie was not a 'remake' of Kubrick's film. Rather, we were out to make a new adaptation of a very great novel." Schiff stated that "Some of the filmmakers involved actually looked upon the Kubrick version as a kind of 'what not to do'" and quipped that Kubrick's film should have been called Quilty, due to the prominent role of that character.
Due to the difficulty in securing a distributor, Lolita had a very limited theatrical run in order to qualify for awards. Accordingly, the film only took in a gross income of $19,492 in its opening weekend. Since the final domestic gross income was $1,147,784 on an estimated $62 million budget, the film was considered a flop at the box office.
The film received mixed to positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film 68% based on 22 reviews and an audience score of 75%, with a rating average of 7/10. Metacritic reports an average score of 46 out of 100 based on 17 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Many critics evaluated the film highly and appreciated aspects of it, though some tended to qualify their positive comments. For example, James Berardinelli praised the performances of the two leads, Irons and Swain, but he considered Griffith's performance weak, "stiff and unconvincing"; he considered the film better when she no longer appeared in it and concluded: "Lolita is not a sex film; it's about characters, relationships, and the consequences of imprudent actions. And those who seek to brand the picture as immoral have missed the point. Both Humbert and Lolita are eventually destroyed—what could be more moral? The only real controversy I can see surrounding this film is why there was ever a controversy in the first place."
The film was The New York Times "Critics Pick" on July 31, 1998, with its critic Caryn James championing it and saying, "Rich beyond what anyone could have expected, the film repays repeated viewings...it turns Humbert's madness into art." Writer/director James Toback lists it in his picks for the 10 finest films ever made, but he rates the original film higher.
Commenting on differences between the novel and the film, Charles Taylor observes that "[f]or all of their vaunted (and, it turns out, false) fidelity to Nabokov, Lyne and Schiff have made a pretty, gauzy Lolita that replaces the book's cruelty and comedy with manufactured lyricism and mopey romanticism". Extending Taylor's observation, Keith Phipps concludes: "Lyne doesn't seem to get the novel, failing to incorporate any of Nabokov's black comedy—which is to say, Lolita's heart and soul."
The CD soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone is available on Music Box Records label (website).