Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Vladimir Nabokov based on his novel.
Starring: James Mason (Prof. Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Lolita), Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty), Gary Cockrell (Richard T. Schiller), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore), Cec Linder (Physician), Bill Greene (George Swine), Shirley Douglas (Mrs. Starch).
One of the problems in adapting a literally masterpiece to the screen is that some people will never get over the book – and they will see the movie only as a reflection of the novel it is based on. Strangely, people don’t seem to have as much of a problem separating book from movie when the book isn’t considered to be a literally masterpiece – people have no trouble, for instance, separating Kubrick’s The Shining from Stephen King’s novel. Yet, with Lolita, many critics seem stuck on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel to the point that they don’t quite see Kubrick’s film version clearly as its own thing. Kubrick’s Lolita is no more Nabokov’s than his The Shining is King’s. Both novelists were unhappy with the adaptations – King because he thought Kubrick stripped out everything good about the novel, and even though Nabokov got a sole screenwriting credit (and an Oscar nomination) for his work on Lolita – he ended up considering it a waste of time, since Kubrick discarded nearly everything he wrote and re-wrote it himself – although he took no screen credit. What ends up on screen in Lolita may not really be Kubrick’s Lolita either – he himself said that if he knew what censorship would do to the film, he probably wouldn’t have made it in the first place. I’m not quite sure I buy that though – Kubrick wasn’t an idiot after all, the Nabokov novel, published in 1955, was hugely controversial, and banned in many countries. He had to have known that a faithful adaptation of Nabokov’s novel was going to be impossible in 1962 – and much of what Kubrick leaves out probably could have made it to the screen.
Nabokov’s Lolita is a dark tale of obsession – centering on pedophile Humbert Humbert, who even before the events in the novel has an obsession with young girls, stemming for an incident when he was 14, who has already has a few mental breakdowns – and even travels to America in part because the family he is supposed to stay with has a 12-year-old daughter. From the beginning of the novel then, Humbert is portrayed as mentally unsound, obsessed with young girls, and on the verge of another breakdown.
That isn’t the case with the Humbert we meet in Kubrick’s Lolita – where his entire history with young girls, and his previous breakdowns, are completely omitted. When he arrives in Ramsdale, he seems perfectly fine – more refined and intelligent, than the rest of small town residents. Everyone in town that Kubrick portrays are, in fact, more obsessed with sex than Humbert is – from Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), who is immediately taken with Humbert, to the Farlows, a local couple who not so subtly suggest and “wife swapping” – even before Humbert and Charlotte have become married. One of the trademarks of Nabokov’s novel was its rather pointed observations on American culture – the mixture of the innocent, and the vulgar, and Kubrick keeps much of this in movie as well.
But Kubrick also makes Humbert a far more sympathetic character than he was in the novel. I’m not even sure you could describe the Humbert in the film as a pedophile – although part of this is because of the changes Kubrick was forced to make in the movie. He couldn’t cast a 12 year old, like the novel, but someone older – Sue Lyon was 15 when she was cast, and looked older (something else the censors wanted). It is true that like in the novel, Humbert never sees Lolita clearly – in fact, she is perhaps even more of an enigma in the movie than she is in the novel, because in the novel Humbert unwittingly gives us a few glimpses in Lolita’s misery, that he does not perceive, but the reader does. Once again, Kubrick omits these details – the character of Lolita in the film is a complete mystery – with only the final scene between her and Humbert giving any real insight into her character. In the novel, Humbert is attracted to Lolita because she is a “nymphet” – in the movie this initial attraction is left unexplained.
The biggest change in the movie to the book is the fact that Kubrick makes Nabokov’s epilogue into the prologue of the film. Here, Humbert goes to the mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) – who “stole” Lolita from him, and who Humbert feels he must confront and punish for this crime. This scene places Quilty at the center of the movie – a dark mirror image of Humbert in some ways. And throughout the movie, Kubrick emphasizes all of Quilty’s appearances in the movie – and Sellers, in a wickedly comedic performance (where he based his voice on Kubrick’s own) is perhaps the most memorable in the movie. But throughout the film, Kubrick makes it clear that despite the fact he has met Quilty several times – Humbert doesn’t really remember him. He’s spoke to Quilty a few times, when Lolita asks for his permission to be in the school play – which the writer, Quilty, has specifically cast her in – and Humbert asks “Whose he?” In the final scene between Humbert and Lolita, when she tells him who “took her” from Humbert, she has to describe Quilty in detail before Humbert knows who she is talking about. This is odd to the audience, since Sellers has left such an impression on them. But to Humbert, if it’s not about Lolita, he doesn’t notice it.
This is echoed in other relationships in the movie as well. Charlotte should realize that Humbert has an unhealthy obsession with her daughter (and on some level, does) – but she marries Humbert anyway, and is destroyed when she finds out the truth. Lolita herself, in that final scene, describes how she loved “Quilty” – but was abandoned by him when she wouldn’t do what he wanted (which was to make what she calls an “art” film with his colleagues). Kubrick’s Lolita is much more about self-delusion than anything else – and his characters particularly Humbert and Charlotte, are portrayed as sadder, pathetic losers than anything else.
I realize that I have spent a most of this review going over the differences between the book and the movie, and what those differences mean, so let me say a few things about the elements of the film itself. Like all of Kubrick’s films, the film is meticulously crafted – with some wonderful, fluid tracking shots. The four major performances in the film are brilliant. Mason does a lot with Humbert, without the benefit of nearly as much interior monologue as the novel. His Humbert is a sophisticated man undone by his sexual obsession. Shelley Winters is great as Charlotte – a vulgar woman who thinks of herself as sophisticated – and sees her ability to draw the likes of Quilty and Humbert to her as proof of that sophistication –even if they both see her as a joke. Sellers, who some viewers find a distraction, to me is the best in the film – his wonderfully comic performance draws attention to itself on purpose – his every interaction is about sex (including a fascinating one with a hotel manager named Swine). Again, others think the casting of Sue Lyon was a mistake – that she was too stiff and emotionless – but again, I think part of this is on purpose. She is an enigma – someone that Humbert never understands, because he has no real interest in her as a person – just as the object of his obsession.
What ended up on screen in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita is almost definitely a compromised version of what Kubrick wanted the film to be. The movie never shows anything even approaching overt sex between Humbert and Lolita – it’s all implied. I think that Lolita will probably play better with viewers who do not know the novel, and therefore will be less hung up on what Kubrick changed. Lolita is far from a perfect movie – Kubrick has directed much better – but it is still a great one – and one that may be even more fascinating to think about than it is to watch.