I haven’t read Vladimir Nabakov’s novel, nor have I seen Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation, so I won’t attempt to compare their merits or otherwise with Kubrick’s film. But the divergences from the novel are relevant in considering the motivations for the changes made by Kubrick, which were in part due to the requirements of the censors. This and A Clockwork Orange were Kubrick’s most controversial films, and Lolita still holds considerable power fifty years later. Perhaps more so, as there is arguably less appetite to indulge its content (35 years on, Lyne’s film stirred up controversy all over again).
The starting point here is really the fascination with the novel and the subject matter itself; an adult male’s obsession with a “nymphet”. Lolita in the novel is twelve years old, in the film fourteen (and Sue Lyon was cast partly due to her being a physically more developed fourteen year old; she was sixteen when the film premiered). Presumably this makes the Humbert of the novel a hebephile (interest in those of eleven to fourteen years) while the Humbert of the film is an ephebophile (fourteen to sixteen; it seems that paedophile is the correct term only for prepubescent minors – or at least that’s what wikipedia tells me). The Humbert of the novel apparently has a lifelong obsession with young girls (and corresponding failed adult relationships) following an incident when he was fourteen years old. His teaching role also allows him the ideal opportunity to make contact with his “nymphets”. Whereas there is no suggestion in the film that his fixation on Lolita comes as a result of a predisposition (all we are told about his past is that he was happy that his marriage ended.)
If there is less psychology of Humbert than in the novel, there is also the surface choice of making the character more likable due to the casting of the debonair Mason; while this is balanced by the actual behaviour of Humbert, it’s nevertheless James Mason we’re watching. The booklet with the Kubrick Blu-ray collection noted that an effect of censorship concerns on the storytelling was to concentrate on Humbert’s desire to control Lolita, rather than his sexual pursuit of her, and it’s in this respect that the film is most effective. I’m dubious that it could actually be regarded as a character study, as we don’t really get under Humbert’s skin and the diarised voice over is both sparingly used and not particularly informative. Of course, the film is from Humbert’s point of view so whatever is lacking in his characterisation is even more glaringly so for Lolita.
Kubrick certainly didn’t make life easy for himself in choosing to adapt the novel (which came out seven years before the film) and admitted that if he had known how difficult it would be he probably would not have gone ahead. Tonally, the film is very much a black comedy, sometimes of the most excruciating kind. Not a black comedy with the broad strokes of Dr Strangelove perhaps (although Peter Sellers’ Quilty would happily fit into that universe), but nevertheless one that sometimes makes the viewer uneasy over the appropriateness of training such a skewed lens on its chosen subject.
I don’t believe Kubrick occupies some sort of hallowed ground or that finding faults in his work is tantamount to sacrilege. Certainly, in Lolita there’s a sense that we’re suddenly watching a different film when Seller’s wheels out his German psychiatrist. As entertaining as Sellers is, you get the impression that Kubrick indulged him at the expense of the overall verisimilitude of the piece.
The opening ten minutes serve up the book’s ending (a choice that Nabakov, critical of many of Kubrick’s choices, approved of), providing a hook of “How did we reach this point?”
Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. You come to free the slaves or something?
Quite post-modern of Kubrick to kick off with a reference to his previous film. We don’t get any clear facts in this sequence: only that Humbert holds Quilty responsible for whatever has happened to Lolita. Sellers is a ball of comedic energy, and the more we see of his drunk act, the more we focus on Mason’s portrayal of collected fury. Until we reach the point where Quilty can’t clown around any longer, facing a loaded gun. And his demise, first shot in the leg as he tears up a flight of stairs and then finished off behind a painting riddled with bullets, is masterfully staged. But the scene is probably longer than it needs to be, and the cause is likely Kubrick having a blind spot for Sellers. Certainly, the character of Quilty was greatly expanded by Kubrick from the novel, where he only exists on the periphery until the showdown.
At this point, we don’t know that Quilty has been having his way with Lolita too, or that he was the true object of her fantasies, rather than Humbert. And Humbert has the air of moral outrage towards Quilty, our not having been privy to his behaviour. Humbert’s revealed as a murderer before he is a devotee of pubescent girls.
I’d not seen Lolita in about twenty years, and it was Shelley Winters’ performance as Charlotte that stuck most in my mind then. So I was slightly surprised that she exits the film well before the halfway mark. Winters’ performance is superbly overwrought; Charlotte’s ignorance, crudity and neediness are only accentuated when set against Mason’s cultured (in)tolerance. And Humbert treats her appallingly; he’s set on giving her lodgings a miss until he spies Lolita at the last moment. He studiously avoids her advances, but then marries her in order to continue to be near Lolita. The scene of his hysterical laughter at reading her confession of love for him is very funny, but it shows the utter contempt he holds for her unsophisticated yearnings. Clearly, this is confirmed in his diary as Charlotte’s appalled reaction to both his confessions regarding Lolita and distaste for her bears witness.
But there’s also a degree of sympathy for Humbert when the focus isn’t on his pathetic obsession; Charlotte is a ghastly woman, and those he encounters include a couple who suggest he and Charlotte engage in a spot of partner swapping (for conspiratorial subtext strewn throughout the director’s work, there’s the proffered the idea that what we’re stumbling in on here is Illuminati mind control training, of which Lolita was a subject, all of this leading to the final revelation of Eyes Wides Shut, which in turn resulted in Stanley’s untimely demise). If Kubrick reins in anything overt regarding the sexual depictions of the characters, he still manages to pack a fair amount of innuendo into the dialogue.
Charlotte: Hum, you just touch me and I… I… I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.
Quilty’s reaction to the news from Charlotte that Lolita is to have a cavity filled by his Uncle Ivor tells us exactly how he read the line. Then there’s the name of Lolita’s summer camp (Camp Climax).
But Kubrick also knows how to make a lingering impact with suggestive visuals; the scene where Humbert falls onto Lolita’s pillow, smelling it longingly (she has just left for summer camp) is all we need to convey the depths of his compulsion. Then there’s his looking at the bedside picture of Lolita while making love to Charlotte.
We’re also clued in on the lengths Humbert is capable of going to. If marrying Charlotte didn’t tell us enough, he debates shooting her and making it out to be an accident. Conveniently for him, events play into his hands when she runs in front of a car on learning where his attentions really lie.
Humbert: There’s a man on the line who says you’ve been hit by a car.
Probably the most pitch-black line in the film, and brilliantly teased by Kubrick as Humbert gradually realises that Charlotte is no longer in the house. It’s ironic that the stand-out section of the film, where the humour is note perfect and the plotting at its most dynamic, is where Lolita is absent from the story.
This cohesion carries into the following scene, again shot by Kubrick with an eye for the absurd, as Humbert sits in the bath drinking and finds himself entertaining two sets of callers.
And then he celebrates Charlotte’s demise by taking Lolita out of camp, lying to her that her mother is ill, and checks into a hotel with her. Quilty’s interrogation of Humbert here is very amusing, as the latter finds himself over-explaining his invented story. He tells Quilty that his wife was hit by a car but may be joining them later (“In an ambulance?” fires back Quilty). Brilliant as Sellers is, his Quilty is very much the ex-Goon doing a turn, and the film becomes strangely heightened whenever he’s onscreen. He plays more parts here than in Strangelove; Quilty impersonates a psychiatrist, a police officer in this scene, and pretends to be someone else when on the phone to Humbert in a later sequence.
The queasy comedy of Humbert’s attempts to seduce Lolita perhaps lend a veneer of acceptability to his behaviour. In that, as an audience, we are not invited to respond with disgust, or horror, but to titter at his attempts to set up a camp bed which proceeds to collapse. It is Lolita who initiates the sexual relationship in the end (at which point, we learn that she has been active with a boy from the camp), with a fade to black that signalled characters were up to carnal activities in Hayes Code Hollywood. According to producer James B Harris, she engaged in oral sex at this point. And the following scene has her sitting next to Mason in his car, eating crisps and drinking Coke, underlining that Humbert has embarked on relations with her.
The cut to six months later, and Humbert painting Lolita’s toenails (an activity that also comprised the opening titles) finds the dynamic between the two shifted. Humbert has got what he wants, but he cannot control what he’s got. His inability to micro-manage her every move finds him increasingly desperate in his demands and her ever more knowing in her manipulations of him (“You’re a fine one to talk about someone else’s mind” she responds when Humbert forbids her to have dates with boys and alludes to what they’re really after.)
It’s at this point that Sellers introduces his outrageous German psychiatrist (“I was sat in the dark to save you the cost of the electricity”). Quilty manipulates Humbert into allowing Lolita to perform in the school play by threatening his domestic arrangement with exposure. While the playing of Humbert is amusing, the absurdity of Sellers’ performance makes Humbert seem something of an idiot for swallowing his tall tales. Later we learn that the neighbours are gossiping about the nature of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita is (as her screaming fit recalls the yelling of Charlotte earlier in the film.)
Again, another of the film’s most arresting scenes sees Lolita absent, her and Quilty having left the hospital where she had been ill. Humbert goes berserk, desperate to find Lolita, and proceeds to clock Nurse Moneypenny one before being restrained by orderlies. The reality of reporting her missing, and what would likely be discovered, means that he has to pretend that Quilty was indeed her uncle.
While Humbert’s visiting of a now-pregnant Lolita three years later finds all the pieces of the puzzle come together for him, it is something of a failure in terms of execution. Sue Lyon’s performance up to this point is a good one, but here she’s asked to play beyond her years. A pair of NHS glasses, a frumpy frock and over-exaggerated pregnancy backache signpost that she’s out of her comfort zone and struggling.
James Mason was Kubrick’s first choice for Humbert, but there was a period when it looked like he wouldn’t be available so others were considered (Olivier, Ustinov, Niven, Brando and Cary Grant, the latter turning it down indignantly). Those considered for Lolita included Tuesday Weld, Hayley Mills and Joey Heatherton. Bernard Hermann opted not to compose the score as he did not wish to use Bob Harris’ “Theme from Lolita” within it.
Lolita was Oscar-nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. If it had won for Vladimir Nabakov, it would have been ironic, as Kubrick and Harris heavily rewrote his script. Kubrick had relocated to England for the shoot (feeling that he would have an easier time than in the more censorious US), and it would be there that he would stay. It’s ironic that the film he made in response to his lack of control over Spartacus was one where he would have to make all sorts of compromises in order to have a realistic chance of it being released.
I don’t think Kubrick made a neglected masterpiece here. It wasn’t strongly received by critics at the time and, as with a number of his films, has been reappraised much more positively in recent years. There is much that’s very good in the film, and it is technically marvellous. but there are also elements that are tonally off, and I don’t think we ever come to understand the characters sufficiently (with the possible exception of Charlotte). Humbert proves most problematic in this regard, as he is the protagonist.
Addendum 11/09/22: Quite beyond its lurid subject matter – Lolita has enough in it to be getting on with as it is, with regard to intimations of Elite sex rings, grooming and MKUltra type influence upon subjects – a detailed Dark Journalist investigation provides illuminating viewing with regard to the background of those involved. This extends to George Hodel, one of the suspects in the Black Dahlia murders, who just happened to be pals with renowned Hollywood degenerate John Huston. Hodel had deep state connections running from Howard Hughes to the Bush family, and police were apparently reluctant to investigate him because of those connections. In around 1947, Hodel’s daughter Tamara went to the police alleging her father as incestuous sexual abuser (this elicited a half confession from Hodel along the lines of “Well, in my imagination it may have happened, but is there any real difference between imitation and reality?” DJ read this a brewing insanity defence, but then came the rejection of her testimony, saying she was lying and shipping off Hodel (safely, out of the way) to China.
The Hodel link also takes in the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gurdjieff, Henry Miller (Nin wrote a book on incest). DJ suggests Tamara was an MKUltra victim who went on to influence others, including Michelle Phillips and Lolita star Sue Lyon; Lolita represented the enactment of a ritual through the entertainment industry, a “gigantic test case in everyone’s psyche” that had tremendous occult power (the symbolism of the heart-shaped glasses, in particular, is noted). It seems Michelle Phillips was positioned to star in Lolita, but Kubrick went with Lyon at the last moment. Producer Robert Harris essentially became Lyon’s James Mason, and in the fallout, Lyon was married off to future Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher (the suggestion being he was quite mercenary in those times and took the deal).
According to this reading, Kubrick did not have the designs Harris did, but both were participating in creating an extension of the 1940s designs of Hodel and Huston, of salacious underage sex and incest via the occultised female teenage sexpot. DJ delivers a fairly common, asexual position on Kubrick, as more of a voyeur. She’d go on to be Burton’s love interest in Huston’s (!) Night of the Iguana, while still under eighteen. (She’s also be given to Ford for Seven Women, and DJ notes Burton would appear again with another MK-child figure, Linda Blair, in The Heretic). Lyon would later hook up with Donovan (Atlantis obsessive and scribbler of a paean to underage girls) who dosed her with LSD (she’d have nothing to do with him for more than a decade), become involved in the Human Betterment Foundation, and marry an incarcerated convict. Lolita comes at the forefront of the time of changing censorship codes (Kubrick would revisit these freedoms in full effect in A Clockwork Orange), so it may be seen as successful in shaping changing attitudes, but Lyon would later say her life was entirely destroyed by the movie.