Sheila Heti

Lolita On Film

Adrian Lyne, “Screen Test: Dominique Swain” (Lolita, 1997)

This is a screen test of Dominique Swain, who ended up being cast in the 1997 film version of “Jeremy Irons. As a movie, it wasn’t much, and it certainly wasn’t as good as this screen test at capturing absolutely the heart of Nabokov’s novel.

I would wage this screen test is not only the best adaptation that any film of this novel could hope for, but perhaps the best film adaptation of any novel, period. Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain read from their prepared lines, but what happens between these actors and the director (Adrian Lyne) around and outside the lines could not have been planned, same as the best novels seem to come galloping out of the author’s head as the author, terrified, pulls back on the reigns of this dark horse that even they cannot control or know. This video gives one the same feeling: humans revealing their darkness despite themselves. And the darkness that’s revealed is the darkness of “Lolita.”

Wait for Jeremy Irons hitting Dominique Swain across the face, taking her by surprise. Watch how she reacts as the scene continues, and how she reacts when the scene is done. It’s a kind of horror and truth that the script can’t capture. But it’s here in this video. Also watch Swain, being tested for all her Lolitaness, and how she embodies the part both inside her lines and out.

– Sheila Heti

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Sheila Heti is the author of "Motherhood," "The Middle Stories," "Ticknor," "How Should A Person Be?" —  chosen by The New York Times as one of the 100 Best Books of 2012—and most recently, "Pure Colour." She's also published an illustrated book for children, "We Need a Horse," featuring art by Clare Rojas, a book of "conversational philosophy" called "The Chairs Are Where the People Go," with Misha Glouberman, and, as co-editor, a book about what style really means, called Women in Clothes. More Sheila Heti here.