Written by Vladimir Nabokov (but really by Stanley Kubrick & James B. Harris)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
As both the film’s trailer and poster asked, “How did they ever make a movie about Lolita?” To say this is an extremely controversial book is an understatement, but also to say that the controversy surrounding the book is overblown would be as well. Lolita is sometimes categorized as an erotic novel, and, as someone who has read Nabokov’s book, I didn’t find anything erotic in the whole text. It’s a first-person narrative told by an unreliable narrator whom the author has called “a vain and cruel wretch.” The novel Lolita is a literary text dripping with irony. There’s a bizarre penchant for modern American culture to assume “protagonist” is equivalent to “hero,” and I guess our popular media has pushed that paradigm aggressively. I don’t think that is the case, and often the most interesting stories are the ones told from a villain’s point of view, which does not mean we are expected to agree with the narrator.
Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) is spending the summer renting in a quiet town in New Hampshire, working on his writing before teaching at Beardsley College in the fall. He becomes the object of affection for a sexually frustrated widow and his landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters). But it is Charlotte’s teenage daughter, Dolores (Sue Lyon), that Humbert develops an attraction to and begins penning his illicit feeling down in a journal. Charlotte wants to pursue Humbert more aggressively and sends Dolores, nicknamed “Lolita,” off to summer camp. When Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, believing that will keep him close to the girl so he can subsequently groom her. However, Charlotte decides to send her daughter off to boarding school so she can have the professor all to herself. Upon discovering his journal, the woman goes mad, running into the street to be hit & killed. Thus, Humbert ends up with Lolita in his clutches but may have gotten more than he bargained for.
This is the first of Kubrick’s films where I actually wish he hadn’t diverted from the source material so wildly. Certain things like making Lolita a young teenager rather than 12 make sense with censorship, but I think other details turn the story into a joke rather than a more even-handed mix of comedy and drama. This isn’t to say the novel is perfect; around the mid-point, I think the book loses many readers because the titillation is gone, and reality sets in. That’s why I don’t see the novel as working as “erotic fiction.”
One of the biggest complaints I have is how Peter Sellers is used as Clare Quilty, a foil of sorts for Humbert. The film plays into Sellers’ strengths as a comedic actor and makes him into a quasi-master of disguise. This Quilty never feels like a genuine threat to Humbert; he feels absolutely ridiculous at moments in the story. That doesn’t mean Sellers isn’t funny, he has some really hilarious bits, but the way the character functions in the tale cuts tension that needed to be present.
I also really hate how we lose Humbert’s perspective because it completely cuts through the unreliable narrator aspect of the novel. Instead, what Humbert thinks and says happened in the book is taken as literal on the screen without any attempt to frame this as told from his point of view. In particular, is the use of the nickname Lolita. In the book, it is an invention of Humbert’s, which emphasizes his almost tyrannical nature of renaming her to suit his tastes. She’s called Dolores by everyone else. In the film, “Lolita” is a nickname she has before Humbert’s arrival, which annoys the hell out of me.
Lolita’s character is a complicated one because, in the book, she’s most certainly not the main character despite being in the title. Instead, she loses her humanity to become the object of fantasy by Humbert purely. When I read that book, part of the tragedy was how she becomes lost as a thing used by man after man, never having a chance. Some readings see her as venomous and manipulative, but I see that as a combination of Humbert’s version of events and the need of the girl to find some mechanisms of survival. In the film, we get a more fleshed out though still underdeveloped version of Lolita. For only being fourteen at the time, I think Sue Lyon does a fantastic job playing both a child and a young woman who has started to figure out the way men operate. Humbert is never portrayed as mentally degenerate and obsessive, as in the book, which would not have been hard. To make the text more palatable to mainstream audiences, Kubrick and Harris almost sanitize a pedophilic relationship by shaving off those edges.
Lolita is low on the list of my Kubrick films, it shows that he wasn’t a perfect filmmaker and his view wasn’t always the best one. The next time we’d get Lolita on film, it would be 1997 with Adrian Lyne directing. This version was more appropriately darker but romanticized elements that should not have been. It also lost all the humor that is in the story and plays out like a straight tragedy. I genuinely think Lolita is an unfilmable book because most producers don’t want to make audiences feel discomfort, and so they clean things up to make them just palatable enough. On a side note, I highly recommend a female version of Lolita titled Tampa by Alissa Nutting, the narrator gives Humbert a run for his money in being a sociopathic monster.