Benjamin Svetkey
August 09, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

This movie was doomed to fail from the start,” director Adrian Lyne announces before unspooling some freshly cut footage of his latest work in progress. ”Everything I’m about to show you is prefaced by that fact.”

What Lyne is about to show on the big-screen TV in his Santa Monica, Calif., editing room are scenes from his no-holds-barred adaptation of Lolita, a film that may not be doomed but is definitely destined to disturb. Based on Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious 1955 novel about an erudite college prof (Jeremy Irons) who falls madly in lust with a way underage teenybopper (14-year-old newcomer Dominique Swain), Lyne’s new movie contains moments so borderline pervy they’d make Calvin Klein queasy. When the film finally hits theaters — at an unknown date, since it still has no U.S. distributor — it could open an entire second front in the conservative anti-Hollywood culture war.

”It’s an incredibly disturbing story,” concedes the director of such varyingly disturbing movies as Jacob’s Ladder, Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Indecent Proposal. ”But it’s also hilariously funny, tragic, and heartbreaking. The novel is a magnificent work of art — which is why I’m so terrified by it. Like I say, you’re doomed,” he offers impishly. ”But then, why wouldn’t I want to try to film it? Just because it involves pedophilia?”

Well, it might stop most directors — though no less an eminence than Stanley Kubrick braved a Lolita production in 1962. But that version, with a script by Nabokov himself, played it safer by casting a more mature 15-year-old in the title role (Sue Lyon looking about as innocent as Jayne Mansfield, with James Mason as the professor, Humbert Humbert, and Peter Sellers as his nemesis, Quilty). Reviewers blasted the film anyway; it wasn’t until years later, when critics anointed Kubrick a cinema god, that the movie became a ”classic.”

Lyne, it turns out, agrees with the critics’ first take: ”Nabokov’s screenplay is as bad as his novel is magnificent,” he says. ”He murdered his book.” To rectify the crime, Lyne treated the novel as a holy text, searching high and low for a writer who could capture the fragile elegance of Nabokov’s original prose. (Harold Pinter and David Mamet each gave it a whirl, but the job ultimately went to New Yorker scribe Stephen Schiff.) He looked far and wide for the perfect actor to play Humbert, talking with everyone from Anthony Hopkins (”Too old,” he says) to Warren Beatty (”He was intrigued for about five minutes”) to Hugh Grant, who wasn’t intrigued even that long: ”The trouble is, that’s my favorite book of all time — I didn’t want anyone to make a film of it,” Grant explains.

In the end, Lyne chose an actor with vast experience playing dirty old men (see Irons in 1992’s Damage or this summer’s Stealing Beauty). That left the ultimate challenge: finding a real-life nymphet to fill Lolita’s saddle shoes. Nearly 2,000 girls auditioned, though Lyne says many were ”30-year-olds trying to be Lolita.” For her audition, Swain, a freshman at Malibu High, sent a video of herself reading from the novel. ”One moment she looked 9 years old,” rhapsodizes Lyne. ”The next you could sense her sexuality.”

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