“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” asked the original trailer for Lolita, Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of the brilliant Vladimir Nabokov novel, for which Kubrick received multiple award nominations, including the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is a masterpiece.
The suggestion was that the subject matter, the sexual exploitation of an underage girl, was too scandalous to present in a film, but in fact, the theme of paedophilia may have been relatively easy to manage. Kubrick is able to convey the reality of the situation within the restrictions of 1960s film decency while preserving the essentials of the plot, with his usual skill, relying on the delicate reactions of his actors, cleverly suggestive camera work, and when necessary, the well-timed fade to black.
The one real concession to public decency was allowing the title character to gain a few years. The essential plot, involving a paedophile becoming infatuated with his landlady’s young daughter, marrying the mother in order to provide access to the daughter, and making the girl his virtually captive mistress after the mother’s death, remains intact.
What some viewers found truly shocking was his making Lolita a comedy — which he does with great success; a peculiar, edgy comedy, tinged with horror at times, but a comedy nevertheless. (His instincts were sound: the original novel was meant to be funny as well as grim and tragic. Nabokov remarked in a 1959 interview that writing the book was fun, although the kind of fun you might have riding the rapids in a canoe.) Making the film acceptable to censors, however, was not the biggest challenge in adapting Lolita.
What is more difficult to transcribe into the film is the manner in which Nabokov wrote Lolita; more than a question of literary style, his treatment was part of the story itself. One of the best examples of the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique, Nabokov has his central character, covert paedophile Professor Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason), a well-educated and sophisticated but morally flawed individual, gives his own account of the virtual abduction, manipulation, and rape of twelve-year-old Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze.
He naturally—and often cleverly—rationalises, excuses, or even justifies his own behaviour in the process. What is missing, of course, is Lolita’s point of view; we see her only through Humbert’s distorted and self-serving perspective. However, the writer’s artistry allows us to not only perceive what Humbert is not saying, the truth behind his self-justification, but also to understand some of what Lolita herself is thinking and feeling. Lolita has no voice and is spoken for by Humbert, but the reader can see, between the lines, flashes of her as a real girl and of her genuine suffering. Then, the writing style replicates Lolita’s actual situation, that of a person silenced and forced to become what her captor perceives, her true self buried beneath this imposed façade.
It is this feature of the novel, the glimpses of the real Lolita is seen, faintly, through the dominating mindset of the narrator, which is praised in Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita In Tehran. Nafisi, a former college instructor, led an unofficial study group of female students under the recently established Republic of Iran, which drastically limited women’s rights, including education.
The young women appreciated the parallel of Lolita’s situation, as a female whose voice was stolen and whose identity was defined by the men in control, with their own newly curtailed lives. Her students would likely have appreciated Kubrick’s version.
It is obviously challenging to retain Humbert’s skewed vision and get across the idea that his version of things is unreliable in a film, where the other characters can be seen and heard. Kubrick does not completely ignore this aspect of the story or avoid it for the sake of convenience. Instead, he finds other, more cinematic ways to express it. Lolita’s mother, for example, is played by the loud, stocky Shelly Winters. Charlotte Haze’s character is shown by other characters’ comments and reactions to be an attractive and charming woman. Still, through the choice of actress, a slightly unflattering hair and makeup job, and Charlotte’s unappealing manner when alone with Humbert, we can see her as Humbert see her: too mature to be of any interest to him sexually.
Similarly, Lolita herself is played not by an actual child but by a woman in her mid-twenties, Sue Lyon. The substitution not only allowed for a more subtle performance that is likely from a child actress (and avoided concerns about having a child perform in questionable scenes), it also forced the audience to see Lolita simultaneously as the juvenile she really was, reinforced by her immature clothing and behaviour, and as the legitimate object of lust she was in Humbert’s eyes. This carefully devised, cinematic double vision is applied throughout the film, as we see at once things as they really are and as Humbert sees them, coloured by his own desire, his fear of discovery, his guilt, or his jealousy. The technique is seen in our, and Humbert’s, first glimpse of Lolita, sunbathing in gaudy plastic sunglasses, the lenses shaped like hearts—an item that looks childish, but at the same time has amorous overtones in Humbert’s eyes; or in a scene in which Humbert intensely watches Lolita play with her hula-hoop, her actions at once childish and unconsciously provocative. Through Kubrick’s skilful handling, almost everything in the film can be seen from two perspectives.
Another example of this double vision is Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty, who appears in the film’s introductory scene, where he is the victim of a bizarre, darkly comical and unexplained murder before moving into the explanatory flashback which makes up almost the entire film. Peter Sellers gives a remarkable, creepy, multi-layered performance as Quilty, who turns up, seemingly at random, first appearing as a friendly but slightly manic stranger, whom Humbert finds suspiciously inquisitive about his supposed daughter.
It could easily be assumed that Humbert’s minimal conscience and continual fear of discovery is reading in Quilty a threat that doesn’t exist, or just as easily, that Humbert is being tracked. The uncomfortable presence of Quilty expresses Humbert’s state of mind during the time he is with Lolita, one divided between euphoria at achieving his ultimate goal and the terror of being caught. James Mason’s Humbert is a masterpiece, allowing Humbert’s evil designs, his fear and guilt, and his true feelings about those around him to remain visible to the audience through the façade of a cautiously friendly, clever, slightly aristocratic man he carefully maintains.
Sue Lyon’s portrayal of Lolita herself is a delicate balance, involving pathos, but also a great deal of ironic humour. On the one hand, she is a victim, an orphan who is abducted by her stepfather, sexually exploited, and forced to hide her situation from the outside world. As such, she is a tragic character. At the same time, Lolita is a typical mid-20th-century American girl, brash, insolent, and shallow, with ordinary tastes and the same frivolous enthusiasms as any schoolgirl, and with an unshakable self-confidence despite her predicament. Kubrick expands on Nabokov’s writing to show Lolita’s vulgar interests and manner clash ludicrously with the worldly and refined Humbert’s. The film finds a comic element even in such an appalling situation, leaving Humbert, at least occasionally, looking foolish and hyperbolic beside his crude and annoyingly contentious young captive. (The funny side of the cultural clash between abductor and child victim was, it seems, readily accepted by 1960s readers and movie-goers. It was satirised, around the time the film was released, by American and playwright Jean Kerr, who wrote a mock assessment by a fictional family counsellor of Humbert and Lolita’s relationship problems.)
Kubrick, who later produced a broad comedy about global destruction through nuclear war, the quite brilliant Doctor Strangelove, had no difficulty depicting the irony and dark humour in Lolita. Nevertheless, Lolita herself is never made a mere object of ridicule. Occasional, half-hidden glimpses of her real thoughts and feelings remind us of what she is going through, even if they are missed by the self-centred Humbert. When she finally makes her long-planned escape, Humbert is completely taken by surprise, but the audience likely is not.
In telling the story from Humbert’s point of view, yet without the subtleties of the written word, the film may have made itself unpalatable, especially to the modern viewer. Audiences in the early 1960s were likely no more accepting of child abuse but may have been less sensitive to details of language and portrayal. Humbert, as the central character, might well be mistakenly taken for the hero of the story. (One contemporary review complained that the story had been turned into one about an unfortunate man “given the runaround by a sly young broad.”) He is permitted to romanticise and exalt his own feelings without any obvious hints of sarcasm from the author.
In addition, some of the scenes taken directly from the novel become less ambiguous on film. In the novel, Lolita’s initial rape is described by Humbert as, in essence, Lolita’s voluntary seduction of him, not the other way around. Nabokov’s careful language lets us know that we should take Humbert’s description with a grain of salt, but in the film, we see the event more one-sidedly from Humbert’s perspective, suggesting that Lolita is a willing participant in a position to grant consent. All this may be considered in the context of a film version of an extremely popular and well-read book; most viewers would have read the novel before seeing the film and recognised what was really being said.
Unlike the less impressive, more solemn 1997 remake, Kubrick’s Lolita does not follow the plot as defined by the narrator or dwell primarily on the abuse of Lolita but also includes the implicit details and brings them to life in fanciful forms. It turns the story into something of a mystery and getaway tale, in which Humbert struggles to keep his crimes hidden and stay ahead of detection. It is the relatively minor recurring character of Clare Quilty who is important here. His strange, faintly menacing mannerisms, made fascinating by Peter Sellers’ eccentric work, seem to weirdly caricature the ideal of a perfectly normal, ordinary man. He repeats the word ‘normal’ multiple times in conversation with Humbert as if pretending to reassure them both that nothing abnormal is taking place, that Humbert’s respectable persona is intact, while actually implying the opposite. Quilty’s oddness, his unspoken, officially nonexistent threats, his overbearing but superficial friendliness, and above all his repeated appearances in Humbert’s life, represent everything Humbert fears; dangers that, due to Quilty’s elusive vagueness, he can’t quite put his finger on. Quilty can also, very easily, be seen as Humbert’s guilt relentlessly chasing him down or even as his alter ego. Appropriately, the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty provides both the film’s introductory scene and the conclusion.
Unusual, innovative, strikingly original, and compelling from start to finish, this is an adaptation that is worthy of the original material, and Stanley Kubrick at his best.