King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov and by Jerzy Skolimowski
by Ewa Mazierska

Vladimir Nabokov is reputed to be an author whose work does not lend itself easily to cinema. None of the film adaptations of his books are considered masterpieces, despite the fact that some were made by world-class or at least distinguished directors, such as Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962), Tony Richardson (Laughter in the Dark, 1969) and Marleen Gorris (The Luzhin Defence, 2000). The reason for this lack of success might be Nabokov’s stylistic specificity, which is not easily transferable to the medium of cinema. In particular, the author’s trademark ironical distance from his characters, narrative experimentation and affinity for surrealism and, in a wider sense, distrust of, or contempt for, "common sense reality," constitute challenges to filmmakers, particularly those specializing in classical, narrative cinema -- by far Hollywood's commonest output. It is also possible that the very fact that style matters so much for Nabokov might partly account for cinema’s failure to make good use of his oeuvre. At the same time, there is irony in this mismatch between Nabokov’s books and the films adapted from them, because few writers were as enchanted and influenced by the institution of cinema as the author of Camera Obscura. Alfred Appel Jr. devotes a whole book to Nabokov’s passion for cinema and the connection between certain motifs found in his books and in films dating from a similar period (see Appel 1974). However, Appel pays less attention to the ways Nabokov’s work has been adapted for film and his discussions of this aspect of Nabokov’s link with cinema is generally less satisfactory. We learn nothing from Appel, for example, about Jerzy Skolimowski’s adaptation of King, Queen, Knave (1972), either because his book went to press before Skolimowski’s film had premiered in the United States, or because it lay beyond the scope of Appel’s core interest. Whatever the reason, the omission is unfortunate; the film is, to my mind, an exceptionally good rendition of Nabokov’s novel, as well as an interesting film in its own right. Skolimowski achieved what might be regarded as the Holy Grail of adaptation by preserving the main features of what Robert Stam describes as the "hypotext" (see Stam 2000): its content, structure, style and ideology, and he does so by finding their cinematic equivalents. At the same time, he does not slavishly follow Nabokov’s story, but offers a new variation on a theme proposed by the author by adapting it to his own interests and sensibility, as well as to the perceived expectations of the audience.

In the foreword to the English edition of King, Queen, Knave, the Russian original of which Nabokov wrote in the late 1920s while living in Germany, the author notes: “One might readily conjecture that a Russian writer in choosing a set of exclusively German characters was creating for himself insurmountable difficulties. I spoke no German, had no German friends, had not read a single German novel either in original, or in translation. But in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device" (Nabokov 1970: 7). Later in the foreword Nabokov explains that the "disadvantageous advantage" of setting his work in an unknown territory was a "fairytale freedom" in creating the characters and milieu, and allowing the author emotional detachment from the characters. Andrew Field has argued that King, Queen, Knave "is, in a way, a realistic portrayal of the Russian émigréês way of not seeing the natives of the countries into which he had happened to fall except as celluloid or cardboard figures" (Field 1967: 158). If this is the case, Nabokov’s approach might serve as a model for all artists who find themselves in a position similar to his, namely, as recent émigrés unfamiliar with their new environment.

Such was the case for Jerzy Skolimowski, a renowned Polish director who, largely for political reasons (in particular the censors’ attack in the late 1960s on his film, Ręce do góry [Hands Up!], made in 1967 but not released until 1981), left Poland for good and in due course made films in Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States. When he embarked on filming King, Queen, Knave in West Germany, Skolimowski, like Nabokov, spoke no German and knew little about the cultural milieu in which his film was meant to be set. In a sense, his position was even more disadvantageous than Nabokov’s, because -- as specialists in adaptation point out -- cinema is a more concrete art than literature. In a book, a character can visit an “abstract” house; in a film, the house must have a specific size, shape and color. Whether Skolimowski and his scriptwriters, David Seltzer and David Shaw, read Nabokov’s introduction is unknown, but it seems that they adhere to the same recipe that Nabokov uses in his novel, exhibiting an utter detachment from the characters and displaying a tendency toward a playful inventiveness akin to Nabokov’s. Consequently, borrowing Nabokov’s characterization of King, Queen, Knave, I would say that Skolimowski has also created a "bright brute," a movie that is simultaneously funny and cruel, and ostensibly without great artistic pretensions, but succeeding on its own terms. I will examine Skolimowski’s method of adaptation in detail, focusing on the film’s characters, imagery, music, and narrative structure.

Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave yields a strong sense of the absurd in the original sense of the word: "dissonant," "out of harmony" (see Esslin 1968: 23). The absurdist mood derives mainly from the disparity between characters’ self-perceptions and the way others see them. Practically everyone described by Nabokov lives a solipsistic life because his/her self-image does not match the image held by those around him or her. Martha considers Dreyer utterly dull and therefore repulsive. Dreyer, on the other hand, perceives himself as the opposite of Martha’s image of him, as a kind of artist, whose main pleasure in life is manipulating other people. A perfect sign of this desire for invention and manipulation is his willingness to invest in the production of automatons (about which more below). Moreover, he likes financial risk and does not care much about money. At the same time, he believes Martha to be frigid and treats her coldness as an insurance policy against her possible unfaithfulness. Yet Martha is not frigid, as evidenced by her passionate affair with Franz, which she initiates and in which she is the active partner. Both Dreyer and Martha are also mistaken in their judgement of Franz. Dreyer takes him for a completely unimaginative, provincial boy and does not for a moment consider the possibility of his seducing Martha. Martha, on the other hand, and not unlike Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary (see Clancy 1984: 27), sees Franz as possessing all the positive qualities that Dreyer lacks and, blinded by her own passions, cannot conceive of Franz’s ever ceasing to love her. Finally, for most of the narrative, Franz acts as a kind of screen, upon which other people’s opinions of him are projected. He is clumsy in Dreyer’s presence and passionate when visited by Martha. Only gradually does he begin to formulate opinions of his own and distance himself from both Martha (whom he begins to see as an ugly toad) and from Dreyer.

Skolimowski, who lacked the novelist’s means for communicating the characters’ thoughts and decided not to use first-person narration (most likely to avoid getting too close to his characters and imposing a "literary" feel on his film), nevertheless manages to transmit the sense of mistaken perceptions. The effect is achieved largely by accumulating chance encounters and various situations that reveal that the characters are clueless about each other’s actions and opinions. For example, there are several instances when Dreyer is about to discover Martha and Frank (who replaces Nabokov’s Franz), but fails to do so, largely because, like his literary counterpart, he cannot fathom Martha’s having a lover. Everyone in the film is seemingly always in the wrong place at the wrong time, including at the end, when due to a misunderstanding between the three characters, Martha drowns. It should be mentioned that the ending of the film differs from the ending of the novel, in which Martha dies of pneumonia, but nevertheless conforms perfectly to the "absurdist logic" of the book, in which each character is a victim of his or her misguided ideas and actions. It could even be argued that the way Skolimowski disposes of Martha reveals the irony of fate that operates in Nabokov’s novel more convincingly than had he preserved the original ending: to die of pneumonia is to die at least partly of natural causes, while in death by drowning, especially in the manner depicted in the film, where three people appear to help one another to stay afloat, human actions play a much larger part.

Another way in which Skolimowski conveys the characters’ inability to see correctly is the motif of myopia. It exists in Nabokov’s "hypotext," but Skolimowski amplifies it by making Frank more blind and clumsy than his literary predecessor. Frank seems hardly able to see even when he is wearing glasses. Moreover, it is not only Frank who is blind. Other characters might be described as such: Dreyer, for not seeing the obvious (Martha and Frank’s mutual attraction and subsequent affair); the optician, for failing to notice that Martha is not Frank’s mother and that she is mortally offended by such an assumption; and Martha, for overestimating Frank’s ability to kill Dreyer.

Skolimowski also includes short fragments of Frank’s dreams, which underscore the gap between the "real" Frank, namely a clumsy and sexually rather inept boy, and his self-perception as a sexy and fashionable male, moving among equally alluring people. In Frank’s dreams everyone moves in fast motion, as in a silent movie. This reinforces the impression created by Nabokov that Frank, Martha and Dreyer are "cardboard" or "celluloid" figures, by suggesting that they look "clichéd" not only from an outside perspective (most importantly, from the viewpoint of their merciless creator – the writer), but also from the inside: they perceive themselves as "celluloid."

Furthermore, the director preserves the absurdist atmosphere of the novel, largely created by Nabokov’s filling it with objects that behave as if they have souls. Discussing the original Russian text, Jeff Edmunds observes that

Objects live, move, and react to their surroundings from the book's outset. A chair reaches out towards the person about to sit (11); shadows of trees rush across the Dreier's lawn as if running a race (44); a spiritualist's table comes alive (49 -- inexplicably removed from the English version); a room and its objects smile (55), and later come alive (96-97) once the human inhabitants have left. Qualifiers normally reserved for animate beings are applied to objects. Like Frants's mysterious landlord, who eyes disapprovingly (118) his new tenant and his lady friend, the couch in the room regards them "neodobritel'no" [disapprovingly] (120). In Marta's ultimate delirium, her husband's blue jacket fights for life (Edmunds 1995: 159).

In like fashion, objects in the cinematic version of King, Queen, Knave have lives of their own and even conspire against human beings. Among them we find a plane that leaves before Frank reaches the airport, gates that always open at the wrong time, injuring Frank, and numerous objects set in motion when Frank and Martha are making love, diverting their own attention away from lovemaking while attracting the attention of bystanders. As Tom Milne observes, sometimes benevolent, but more often malevolent, these objects "lend the film a disturbing ambivalence behind its airy façade" (Milne 1973: 250). The most important of these objects are the automatons or mannequins, operated remotely thanks to a complicated system of batteries. Dreyer commissions them from Professor Ritter, the inventor of "voskin," a material that perfectly imitates human flesh. The automatons, as mentioned above, already exist in Nabokov’s novel, so Skolimowski only needed to furnish them, literally and metaphorically, with more body. The context in which they originally appear (Berlin in the late 1920s) awakens their associations with, on the one hand, fascism and its idea of a "superman," and surrealism as the domain of the "uncanny." Skolimowski, by setting his film in the period concurrent to its production and choosing as the characters non-Germans (Dreyer and Frank are British, whilst Martha is Italian), played down any possible fascist connotations of the automatons. Instead, the new context augments their surrealist link and adds another – to "capitalism."

The automatons in both Nabokov’s and Skolimowski’s versions of the story embody the characters’ detachment from each other and from themselves, their ultimate solipsism. We might infer that for their inventor, a lonely man whose only other occupation is spying on Frank making love with Martha, the automatons and even "voskin" itself are a substitute for sexual contact and perhaps for any human contact at all. The first series of mannequins, as required by Dreyer, are both female and male, but the female versions are more important and on them the future mass production of the automatons is meant to focus. Initially the automatons are unsuccessful: they collapse and fall apart when switched on and set into motion. However, neither Dreyer nor his American partner, to whom he wants to sell this invention, is put off by the failure. They ask the inventor to resume his work and out of the remnants of the old automatons produce a new, “sexier” model. It might even be suggested that falling apart is part of the automaton’s attraction: as material to be destroyed and reassembled, they serve as perfect objects of the male desire to possess, subjugate and destroy the female, and to do so over and over again. The automatons in the film version not only replace each other and serve as surrogates for some abstract woman whom the inventor and his customers are striving for; one model actually replaces a real woman: Martha. A mannequin looking exactly like her is produced shortly after she drowns. Martha’s death thus allows the men to preserve the ideal image they have of her in the dummy or, more exactly, in a series of dummies.

Skolimowski also underscores the production of mannequins as a capitalist endeavour. In one scene we see the batteries and the internal machinery being placed inside a doll’s body. However, these details of the manufacturing process, revealed to Dreyer by the scientist demonstrating his invention, are to be kept secret. It is assumed that when the automatons are eventually mass produced and sold all over the world, the details of their construction will be concealed, in accordance with the Marxist account of commodity fetishism operating in capitalism. Dreyer, who regards himself as a successful capitalist and embarks on passing the secrets of his business to Frank, regards concealment as a principal rule of successful trade. In his first lesson to Frank he tells him "It does not matter what you sell, it only matters how you do it" and insists that Frank conceal from the customer as much as possible of the product he is selling, even hypnotizing him so he does not see the color of the tie, its brand, and, most importantly, does not pay any attention to its price.

In their appearance and the function they fulfil within the narrative, Skolimowski’s automatons bear a strong resemblance to the dolls constructed and photographed in the 1930s by the German associate of surrealists Hans Bellmer. Made of wood, metal, pieces of plaster and ball joints, Bellmer’s poupées were manipulated in drastic ways and photographed in sometimes contorted positions. As Hal Foster argues, for Bellmer they produced a volatile mixture of "joy, exaltation and fear," an intense ambivalence that appears fetishistic in nature. Each new version was a "construction as dismemberment that signifies both castration (in the disconnection of body parts) and its fetishistic defence (in the multiplication of these parts as phallic substitutes" (Foster 1993: 102-3). Foster also compares Bellmer’s take on the (female) body with that of Breton and Bataille. He quotes Bellmer saying "The body is like a sentence that invites us to rearrange it" (ibid.: 103), which evokes the Bretonian idea of the shifting of desire. As previously mentioned, for Skolimowski the automatons also encapsulate the shifting of (male) desire and the possibility of (female) substitution. Obviously, the rule of substitution deprives a woman of individuality, sentencing her to a fleeting and partial existence. Martha’s role as the model for a "perfect automaton" created by Ritter and her final replacement by a mannequin perfectly exemplifies the rule of substitution and strengthens her impression as a "cardboard" figure.

Another, purely cinematic means that renders Martha, and in some measure her male companions, as fake and kitschy in their tastes, emotions and behaviour is music. Skolimowski uses well-known, but badly performed, musical motifs. The film opens with what is probably the best known funeral march, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, op. 35, played against an image of Martha and Dreyer returning from the funeral of Dreyer’s brother (Frank’s father). Not only is the march played too slowly on an organ which is out of tune, but it is also interrupted by strange noises, resembling sounds emitted by trains, owls hooting and dogs barking. Moreover, the sound of the organ is gradually overwhelmed by the orchestra. The exaggerated and eccentric instrumentation points to the fact that Martha and Dreyer are not really mourning the person whose funeral they are attending; they are merely making a typical "funeral" appearance. Such a "reading" of the music is confirmed by the shallow dialogue when Martha asks her husband how she looks.

The next motif is played when Frank meets Martha for the first time. She is sitting in the garden and we hear a banal, "romantic" tune. The music conveys Martha’s studied (and therefore ultimately fake) elegance and her desire to live a romance, which is confirmed by the way she looks at Frank. Later, in the episode when the Dreyers have a garden party, the music sounds like a pastiche of Bavarian folk music. Bavarian folk is associated with bad taste, an association also evident at the Dreyers’ party, where a piglet, adorned with a ribbon, serves as the main gift and guests amuse themselves in an egg throwing competition. Here music adds to the impression of the Dreyers’ indulgence in bad taste, which is not even in conformance with what one might assume is their natural taste (as he is an Englishman while she is Italian), but one they have adopted, most likely for commercial reasons: to show their business partners, employees and customers that they are like Germans.

When Martha visits Frank for the first time with the intention of seducing him, we hear three distinctive musical cues, one after the other. First, played unnaturally fast, tuneless string music mimics their growing appetite for sex. This motif is followed by a pastiche of fiery Spanish folk music, with the distinctive sound of castanets, announcing that the affair has been consummated. Finally, when Martha and Frank make love for the second time, less hastily, paying more attention to proper facial expressions and body language (which, however, look caricatured), we hear one of the best known pieces of Baroque music: Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Albinoni. It is, however, a butchered version of the Adagio, played on instruments that are completely out of tune by a hopelessly incompetent player. The use of this sequence of musical themes is ironic here, emphasising that the love affair between Martha and Frank is sordid and clichéd.

Skolimowski also includes a fair amount of diegetic music in King, Queen, Knave. For example, when Frank visits Martha, she first puts on a record of some nondescript music reminiscent of 1960s pop, followed by a record with an aria from an opera. The second tune is played when Dreyer returns home. The contrast between the two types of music reflects a contrast in the tastes -- attributable, of course, to their respective ages -- of Martha’s two lovers or, perhaps, merely of her assumption that being of different generations they cannot possibly like the same type of music. In reality, neither Frank nor Dreyer pays any attention to either music. Although the score of King, Queen, Knave is very rich, there are no leitmotifs or indeed any cues that might be identified with individual characters. Consequently, we see the titular king, queen and knave as shallow people lacking any true interests or memories.

One striking feature of Nabokov’s novel is the abundance of various literary and "cinematic" moments, such as the characters’ visits to the cinema or the building of a cinema theatre in close proximity to Franz’s lodging. The new cinema is to show the filmed version of a successful play by Goldemar entitled King, Queen, Knave. These references underscore the parodic, artificial nature of Nabokov’s characters (see Clancy 1984: 28). Denis Donoghue suggests that "Perhaps the novel should be read as a form of literary criticism, since the incidents assume the presence of similar incidents in other books, standing between this new fiction and the begging world" (Donoghue 1982: 204). Conversely, the literary and cinematic references can be seen as increasing the novel’s realism by choosing as its protagonists people who model themselves on popular culture. Skolimowski, however, chose to ignore the cinematic "inter-texts." In particular, he did not transfer to the film a scene in which Franz discovers that his landlord’s wife in reality is "only a grey wig stuck on a stick and a knitted shawl" (Nabokov 1970: 175). Including this scene would probably have made his film look like a parody of or homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) rather than an adaptation of Nabokov's novel.

On the other hand, the line mentioned above, uttered by Dreyer, "It does not matter what you sell, it only matters how you do it’," can be regarded as both a comment on Nabokov’s approach to literature -- his insistence on creating a perfect form, even for the most trite topic -- as well as on Skolimowski’s own method which privileges style rather than plot.

Skolimowski also manages to convey what might be described as novel’s rhythm, which Nora Buhks compares to a waltz, claiming that Nabokov transposes the waltz into the literary work at the level of the schema of the composition as well as the semantic structure. As Buhks observes

In daily life, and in comparison to it, dance appears linked to diversion, to play, and to artifice. It is a movement which is effected by means of a series of figures chosen in advance, appearing in a repetitive order… In King, Queen, Knave the playful process becomes one of the dominant processes for the construction of the novel’s structure, of the novel’s universe, which is ostensibly offered to the reader as playing at life, at a certain level, and as playing at a novel, at another level (Buhks 1987).

Skolimowski mimics the novel’s rhythm of a waltz by presenting the characters as if they were dancing, whirling and simultaneously both enjoying and suffering from dizziness. Their movements are circular, shot from unusual angles and, as previously mentioned, often unrealistically speeded up. Moreover, Skolimowski’s narrative develops through the presentation to us of a series of couples formed of changing partners, as in a ball. First Martha dances with Dreyer, then with Frank, then Dreyer plays with his young female companions. It can also be argued that the director "waltzes" even further than Nabokov, by showing that the last couple in the game is constituted by Dreyer and Frank, who is about to inherit his uncle’s fortune. Such a suggestion is absent from the novel, in which there is little chance that the young man will inherit anything from his uncle: Dreyer is only a distant relative of Franz and is rather contemptuous of the boy until the end of the story.

The difference in this case, however, derives not from Skolimowski’s search for cinematic equivalents to the literary original, but rather from his different sensibility, as well as from his different approach to certain issues and themes present in the novel. In particular, Skolimowski comes across as more misogynistic artist than Nabokov, who tends to be cruel or tender to his characters irrespective of their gender. Hence, in the book the author’s antipathy is divided almost evenly between Martha and Franz, while Dreyer is depicted somehow more sympathetically. In the film Dreyer is still the most sympathetic character of the three, but the director’s hostility is concentrated on Martha, who became the true "dark character" of the film. Similarly, Nabokov gives little thought to the issue of the relationship between younger and older generations. For Skolimowski, on the other hand, this topic, especially the relationship between younger and older men, is very important, so he twists the plot of King, Queen, Knave to elaborate upon it. This may be one reason why in the film Martha drowns: the method of her demise points to the possibility of the two men subconsciously playing a part in her death. Her "disappearance from the picture" allows male friendship to blossom as demonstrated in the scene in which Frank and Dreyer return from Martha’s funeral as if they were the best of friends. The scene, which has no equivalent in Nabokov’s novel, not only perfectly mirrors the beginning of the film, but harkens back to earlier films by Skolimowski, such as Rysopis (Identification Marks None, 1964) and Walkower (Walkover, 1965) in which a young heterosexual man scorns the pleasures offered to him by women and chooses male company and masculine pursuits. To put it crudely, the director uses the material offered by Nabokov’s novel to create an Oedipal story à la Skolimowski. In this version of the story Frank adopts the position of an Oedipus by sleeping with his uncle’s wife, but rather than this leading to a mortal conflict between "father" and "son," it brings them closer together. It could be suggested that Martha is a vehicle for Frank’s maturation, necessary to his uncle to ensure the successful future of his business; her erotic (and economic) tutelage completes the young man’s transition to his position as Dreyer’s successor. She plays this role well; at the end of her instruction Frank is indeed transformed into a self-confident young man, ready to free his uncle from the clutches of responsibility.

In conclusion I would like repeat my high opinion of Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave. While giving us insight into the world Nabokov conjures up in his novel, the film also allows us to see a new variation, to see what would happen if the writer were to "shuffle his cards" by changing slightly the characteristics and relationships between his main figures. In this sense Skolimowski’s method is not dissimilar to Nabokov’s own practice of changing various aspects of his work (including King, Queen, Knave) when translating them from Russian to English or vice versa.

It should be added that Skolimowski’s own evaluation of his film is markedly different. In an interview given in 1990 he described it as the worst film of his career and an artistic disaster from which he could not recover for a long time (see Uszynski 1990: 27-8). It appears that the reason for the director’s dislike was his perception that it was short on substance, unserious and trite. As I have tried to demonstrate, however, the opposite is true – the film’s substance is very rich, although it cannot be reduced merely to its plot.

Works cited

Appel, Alfred Jr (1974). Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press).

Buhks, Nora (1987). "The Novel-Waltz (On the Structure of King, Queen, Knave)," Zembla,

Clancy, Laurie (1984). The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov (London: Macmillan).

Donoghue, Denis (1982). "Denis Donoghue in Listener" in Normal Page (ed.), Nabokov: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 204.

Edmunds, Jeff (1995). "Look at Valdemar! (A Beautified Corpse Revived)," Nabokov Studies (Los Angeles), 2, pp. 153-171.

Esslin, Martin (1968). The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books).

Field, Andrew (1967). Nabokov: His Life in Art (London: Hodder and Stoughton).

Foster, Hal (1993). Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press).

Milne, Tom (1973). "King, Queen, Knave," Monthly Film Bulletin, 12, p. 250.

Nabokov, Vladimir (1970). King, Queen, Knave (London: Panther).

Stam, Robert (2000). "Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation" in James Naremore (ed.) Film Adaptation (London: The Athlone Press), pp. 54-76.

Uszynski, Jerzy (1990a). "Jerzy Skolimowski o sobie: Cale zycie jak na dloni," Film na swiecie, 379, pp. 3-47.

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