The tagline for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 black and white version of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary masterpiece was upfront and direct: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” It was pretty fitting when you contemplate the universal condemnation for the book, as well as the incredibly risqué subject matter. Even today, a tale about a personable pedophile kidnapping a 12-year-old girl, and then seducing her, is outrageously scandalous stuff. Back in 1955, it was downright indecent.
Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1899, moved to the United States in ‘40 and worked on Lolita for over a decade—from the late ‘30s to the very early ‘50s. When publishers in the US rejected his book, Nabokov had it printed in Paris alongside other “porn” novels of the time. Sadly, he saw it banned a year later, deemed as smut by those in power. If it weren’t for esteemed author Graham Greene declaring the book one of the year’s best in the London Times, Lolita may have vanished from the literary radar forever.
It took a while, but Putnam Press finally published the book in the United States (in 1958 to be exact) and Lolita at last garnered the praise it deserved. Thanks to its infamy, it sold like mad. When I originally read the book many moons ago, I must admit I cringed at the thought of this middle-aged narrator, Humbert Humbert, fondling a child and paying her for sexual favors. I can only compare it to the way I recoiled while reading about an abandoned boy and the unspeakable torture he was subjected to in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.
Despite its graphic nature, the subject matter takes a decided backseat to Nabokov’s gifts as a writer (Besides, isn’t a good novelist’s job to explore the darkest sides of human nature?). Like many of his novels, the book is peppered with deadpan humor and gorgeous prose. When describing how Humbert Humbert compares Lolita to his first “nymphet”, Annabel Leigh, Nabokov writes:
But that mimosa grove the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since until at last, 24 years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.
Stunning. In fact, I’m so in love with Nabokov’s word choices that I named my cat after him.
Stanley Kubrick was the first person brave enough to bring Lolita to the world of cinema. Adrian Lyne would again film it in 1997. As a matter of fact, the story was even worked into an attempted musical and a 1982 play from noted author Edward Albee. Each of these later day adaptations would receive tepid reviews. Only Kubrick’s version remains a classic and a consistent receiver of accolades.
Initially, Kubrick’s success could be due in part to Nabokov’s presence as part of the production. It usually helps when the author is on board for the adaptation. Nabokov wrote the screenplay for Kubrick (it was a mere 400 pages) and was eventually nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts. His work was partially scrapped and re-written by Kubrick, and Nabokov later estimated that only 20 percent of his original screenplay was used. Still, that was quite an accomplishment, especially for a proposed pornographer.
The acting in the film version isn’t too shabby either. The year Lolita was released, it received five Golden Globe nominations for Best Director (Kubrick), Best Dramatic Actress (Shelley Winters), Best Dramatic Actor (James Mason), Best Supporting Actor (Peter Sellers), and an award for Most Promising New Female Star of the Year, won by the 16-year-old lead, Sue Lyon.
Lyon is so natural as Lolita, it’s as if she was purposefully born to play the part. Her coquettish glances, sly mannerisms, and blue-eyed, blonde beauty appear to stretch beyond her mere adolescence. In fact, her presence was so potent that, in an appropriate move, Kubrick raised Lolita’s age in the film. The subject of Humbert’s obsession was now a high schooler, instead of a prepubescent girl.
James Mason is equally compelling as Humbert Humbert, a literature professor from France. Adopting a haughty attitude and pretentious airs, he bounces off Lyons’ naturalness nicely. Rounding out the cast are my two of favorite characters from the book: Shelley Winters as Lolita’s lonely and deluded mother Charlotte, and Peter Sellers as the oddball playwright, Clare Quilty. Quilty’s role was expanded for the film so that Sellers comic genius could ooze out all over the narrative. In Kubrick’s version of the story, this bizarre character takes on different off-the-wall personalities in order to get closer to Lolita. With Sellers in perfect form, the result is comedy so sidesplitting I found myself spitting Diet Coke out of my nose more than once when I watched the film for the first time.
Despite the movie’s eventual success, it was no easy task for Kubrick to bring Lolita to early ‘60s audiences. After its release, the director said that had he realized how harsh the censorship limitations were, he “probably wouldn’t have made the film”. He was referring to the fact that the Motion Picture Association of America’s restrictions were much tougher at the time, forcing him to water down or leave out a lot of the sexual and erotic overtones between Humbert and his muse. This required audiences to fill in the blanks for themselves. There are a lot of innuendos remaining and some so inappropriately funny that you feel a little guilty for laughing.
There are also a few expansions and subtractions between novel and film, and an interesting book ending technique set up by Kubrick to give the movie a bit of a murder mystery feel. Some scenes do feel unnecessary and some are a little too drawn out. But overall the superior acting and excellent screenplay make up for the fact that we can’t “see” the prose that makes Nabokov who he is: a novelist of substantial power. Still, the film is true to the essence of the book and represents a nice homage to a ballsy writer from an equally ballsy director.