How did they ever make a movie of Lolita? … They didn’t. — Bosley Crowther, NY Times
The Film: James Mason plays Humbert Humbert, a literature professor set to begin a teaching position in Ramsdale, New Hampshire. Widow Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) offers Humbert a room, which he nearly refuses before he spies Charlotte’s precocious daughter, Dolores, or “Lolita” (Sue Lyon, age fourteen at filming.) Humbert’s obsession leads him to marry Charlotte, just to stay near Lolita, but when Charlotte discovers his secret, she runs into a blind panic as well as a speeding car. This leaves Humbert as Lolita’s guardian, and they immediately begin a tangled sexual relationship. It doesn’t go well.
Ne-Hi: manna for pedophiles.
The couple travels to another town to avoid suspicion, but Lolita’s rebellious nature and Humbert’s jealousy poisons them. Desperate, Lolita runs away with playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), who has been stalking the couple since the beginning. Humbert sinks into despair for years, until he receives a note from the now-married and pregnant Lolita, begging for money. Humbert meets her and hands over the cash, then uses her story to find and murder Quilty. Humbert dies of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial.
The Production: Filmmakers had sniffed at Vladimir Nabokov’s novel since its debut in 1955, but the Hayes Code was still around and the general feeling was that the story would be too compromised to make it to screen. Stanley Kubrick, already mired in the studio blockbuster, Spartacus, either thought differently or just didn’t care. Kubrick secured the rights and commissioned a whopping 400-page script from Nabokov, which the author then whittled down to 200 pages before Kubrick pretty much threw it out altogether. Whether Nabokov really approved of the finished film or was merely being polite is still a matter of debate.
As predicted, censorship was an issue. Lolita, twelve in the novel, was aged to fourteen for the script, and then Lyon was cast primarily because she looked older than that. A number of mainstream actors, including Laurence Olivier and David Niven, turned down the role of Humbert from concern about career damage. Major changes to the story were forced in an attempt to please the censors, and Kubrick famously stated that if he had known about the conditions he’d have to face, he probably wouldn’t have bothered at all.
Best Moment: Lolita‘s opening scene is a textbook example of how a late-game edit can save a movie. The screenplay, just like the novel, presented Humbert’s story in sequence, from childhood to death in prison, but this created a problem in the editing room. The hook that drives the story is the morbid curiosity of whether Humbert will actually go through with his impulses. Once he successfully seduces Lolita halfway through the film, the tension deflates. The novel got around this problem by mixing the audience up in Humbert’s mental state via his first-person narration (and also by being masterfully written), but as a movie, it just wasn’t going to work.
Kubrick’s solution was to move the planned finale, the murder scene, to the beginning of the film. Audiences jump right into the story, watching as Humbert stalks an incoherent Quilty through his wrecked mansion until finally pulling the trigger, without any real explanation (since, as originally planned, the audience wouldn’t need one by this point). The movie then begins at the beginning.
With Peter Sellers, as all movies should.
As the opener, this scene does a lot of heavy lifting, helping the audience push right over the mid-movie hump. OK, fine, Humbert is with Lolita. But who was that man in the beginning? When will we meet him? What will he do to earn a bullet? By simply moving one scene, Kubrick creates a host of new questions and keeps his movie clicking all the way to Humbert’s tragic end.
Lasting Impact: Surprisingly little. Most critics and cineastes consider Lolita a good-to-great film adaptation, but the film is under seen and often treated as more of a companion piece to the novel than as a major work on its own.
Lolita did have an interesting impact on Kubrick’s personal life. He shot the film in England, a move designed to prevent the studio from interfering with the production. He would remain in England pretty much full time for the rest of his life.
Overall: Movies like Lolita are the reason Kubrick is hard to rank. By definition, the movie can’t be what it sets out to be. The great coup of the novel is how it uses a literary utility belt to shift reader sympathies onto a despicable character; the great flaw of the movie is that huge pains had to be taken to be sure that didn’t happen. This should be fatal, but the movie is still a classic. Kubrick moves the bar.
The quote at the top comes from a 1962 review of the movie, and I think it gets very near the truth. That question (used as the movie’s tagline) is a great one. How the hell did they make a movie out of Lolita, when the Hayes Code seemed designed to prevent exactly that? The Code actually banned any reference to pedophilia. In Lolita? Might as well shoot porn from the neck up.
So, compromises were made. Sue Lyon got the part because she had a woman’s breasts instead of a girl’s. The narration was gutted to keep us out of Humbert’s head, and his history was excised. But, still, the movie kind of works, on its own terms, if nothing else.
Kubrick has been called a misanthrope, but his work didn’t always reflect that. In The Killing, I talked about how he focused on people over plot. The same is true in Lolita, but what awful, ugly people they are. In fact, this is the first of two straight Kubrick films (the other being Strangelove) in which he deals almost exclusively with misfits.
Both movies are about the rotten things people are willing to do to each other for obsession. In Strangelove, it’s war; here, it’s sex.
Kubrick’s strategy for dealing with these terrible people is to turn them into clowns. Lolita, the novel, is known for its wicked humor, but, if anything, Kubrick ramps it up. Key is Peter Sellers’s turn as Quilty, a character barely seen in the novel, a mystery threat Humbert doesn’t understand. If pedophilia has ranks, Quilty’s a worse one than Humbert. Sellers was at his comedic best and Kubrick chose to pepper Quilty throughout the second half of the film, where he breezes through the narrative and flimflams Humbert with outlandish impersonations. It’s easy to laugh at Quilty’s antics, momentarily forgetting, of course, that his character is actively working to cuckold a pedophile.
So, Crowther’s opinion is that the film works (his was a decidedly positive review), but that it isn’t Lolita. Oh, sure, it walks and talks like Lolita, but the spirit of the novel failed to translate. I almost agree. Except…
“Oh, boo hoo, is there no love for a pedophile?”
I think about Humbert’s voice in the novel, a famous example of unreliable narration. Humbert fights to justify his actions and to prove that he isn’t a villain, which is fine talk coming from an murdering pedophile. The film mostly junks his voiceover and just shows us the story, but do we really have the facts? Look at doomed Charlotte Haze, shrill and cartoonish. Look at Humbert, restrained, even gentle, and oh-so-tragic. And then look, finally, at Lolita. She seems sexually charged, in full bloom from the start, in heat and looking for a target. Humbert doesn’t steal her virginity; she gives it to a boy at camp. In fact, she’s the aggressor, pouncing all over poor, pathetic Humbert, a slave to his lust. She seems old enough, and, really, if you think about it, this is almost a consenting pair of adults, running from a disapproving public that can’t or won’t understand them.
Exactly as Humbert would like you to believe. It’s still his story after all.
The Stanley Kubrick Project
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire