The tagline for this film adaptation of Nabokov’s novel was „ How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” And indeed it’s a question worth asking. In Great Britain, the novel had been banned for two years and had just been published in 1959. The enduring controversy surrounding the novel’s salacious content thus hadn’t even started to fade when Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his success with Spartacus, decided to do a screen adaptation, loosely based on a script written by Vladimir Nabokov himself. At this time, film censorship was even stricter than the limitations for books, and turning the graphic plot of Lolita into actual images seemed – and seems – like a ballsy move. Kubrick later went on record that if he had known how much he would be delimited by the controversy, he wouldn’t have filmed Lolita. So, the second question to ask here is whether the film can still do justice to the novel and whether it is worth watching? I will try and give my very own answer here.
First things first: it’s a Kubrick, and that means something. Even though it doesn’t show the amazing visual meticulousness of his later films, it is still an extremely well-made film. Forced to leave out Nabokov’s beautiful language and Humbert’s all-ruling narrative voice due to the medial constraints, Kubrick manages to make up for it for the most part by using filmic means to tell the story. One stylistic choice he makes in that regard is to exploit cinema’s blending of images and sound. Trying to emulate the duplicity of Humbert’s perspective, he frequently showcases the discrepancies between the visuals and the dialogue, which tend to communicate entirely different things. Particularly in the first part of Kubrick’s Lolita, characters say things, but what they actually think is expressed by how they do and look like. When Humbert and Charlotte play chess, and Lolita comes by to get a not-so-innocent good-night kiss from her stepfather, Charlotte’s comment “You took my queen” gets an ominous double-meaning. Such double entendres abound in the film, hinting at the ubiquity of sexualised thoughts and feelings behind seemingly innocuous surfaces. This results in a slightly different perspective of sex than the one of the novel. While it is portrayed less explicitly and clinically in the film, it is perhaps even more pervasive. The school dance scene is a cornucopia of hardly hidden lust, involving everybody, teenagers and adults alike, and the Swinging Sixties seem to be foreshadowed when Jean Farlow purringly tells Humbert how “broad-minded” she and her husband are. Humbert’s unnatural desires appear not that much out of place here, and he often cuts a comparatively repressed and conservative figure, compared to the Americans’ sexual openness.
This playful ambiguity is often surprisingly funny, and indeed Kubrick brings out the comical element that is often overlooked when reading Nabokov’s novel. The slapstick scene in the hotel, when Humbert and a hotel employee try to erect a cot without waking Lolita, gets more ridiculous when you actually see it on screen. Another intermedial aspect of cinema also adds to the film’s comic potential, namely the musical soundtrack. For much of the first part, Humbert’s pining for Lolita is accompanied by inane 50s teenybopper pop muzak, which does a great job of emphasising the contrast between Lolita’s commercialised teenage world and Humbert’s self-important and self-deluding European ideas of culture and “passion”.
Yet, while Lolita is a good film and uses its medial status to visualise many interesting aspects of its literary source, it is still perhaps not that good an adaptation. Maybe this is partly due to the constraints of censorship, maybe this is due to the fact that, no matter how much you try, you can never entirely replicate the verbose perfidy of Humbert Humbert in the visual medium of film. Yet, for me, the basic problem is that the film performs a distinct shift in the dynamics of the main characters – Humbert, obviously, but also Lolita, her mother Charlotte and Clare Quilty.
On the one hand, this shift is not necessarily something bad. That you can even talk about the other characters as Humbert’s equals of some sort is an interesting and refreshing change from the novel, in which they were always depicted by Humbert’s twisted. In the film, Lolita, Quilty and Charlotte can develop slightly more character. Especially Charlotte, played superbly by Shelley Winters, is portrayed much more complexly, more of a human being. We get to see her foolish desire as well as her frustrations. In one scene, when she argues with her daughter and Humbert cold-heartedly leaves her, the camera stays with her and she breaks out in tears. Kubrick’s Charlotte is not just “the cow...the obnoxious Mama...the brainless baba” the novel’s Humbert paints her as. Yet, at the same time, the film still depicts her trivial affectations, her irrational behaviour, her clinginess, and despite the attempts at contextualising them Charlotte’s portrayal might be even worse: we see her as ‘obnoxious’ with our own eyes, without the caveat of viewing her through Humbert’s deranged eyes, and all understanding or pity for her is soon gone, especially compared to the film’s depiction of Humbert – more about which below.
The other character who gets much more of a personality in the film is Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. In the novel, Quilty is often a ghostly presence, whose actions are only presented indirectly by Humbert’s unwitting narration. In Kubrick’s film, Quilty is less spectral, more of an impish figure, who appears throughout the entire plot, often in disguise, but often as the focus of a scene. While this is a nice expression of his position as a mirror image to Humbert, who also disguises his true intentions and desires – Sellers is responsible for the majority of double entendres – it is at times rather distracting and almost pointless, especially the bizarre and rather long appearance as school psychologist Dr. Zempf.
However, the most problematic portrayal in the film is perhaps that of Lolita. In the novel, we get at least traces of her developing character beyond Humbert’s perverse portrayal as his ‘nymphet’. The film’s Lolita, however, seems partly to be exactly as Nabokov’s narrator imagined her to be. Maybe not the ‘nymphet’ part: Sue Lyons, the actress, was only 14 at the time, but her Lolita is no child, but clearly a teenager, without much of a child’s innocence about her. She seems to be almost always in control of her fate – and of Humbert, playing and exploiting him rather than being his victim or prisoner. Her seeming dominance, cold-bloodedness and ignorance, which Humbert claims to suffer from in the novel, are taken literally by the film - a rather horrible portrayal that seems to believe Humbert and almost paints his victim as a villain. The film’s Lolita (who is also called that name far more often than Dolores or Dolly) doesn’t gain more personality, but rather loses it, losing her innocence by never having it in the first place.
Finally, there is James Mason’s Humbert Humbert, the main character. Obviously and necessarily, his role is much reduced in the film. Unfortunately, this reduction mainly seems to pertain to his nefariousness. Most of the time, Mason’s Humbert is a pitiful and helpless figure, even in the beginning, when he is constantly befuddled and overwhelmed by his American counterparts and his scheming usually results in amusing failure. Throughout the film, Humbert is shown to be never in control, and while this may have been a fascinating interpretation of the narrative control he has in the novel, it is dangerously close to painting him as a tragic hero, with only one fatal flaw, rather than the perverse villain he is in the book. In Kubrick’s film, Humbert really shows us his dangerous side only once, and it is all the more effective. When he reads Charlotte’s desperate love letter, he can’t help but break out in loud and ugly laughter – a disturbing break from the distinguished Humbert we have seen so far, but one that is necessary and welcome. The film could have used even more of these scenes. As it is, however, we are very likely to feel much more pity than for the novel’s Humbert.
Thus, while Kubrick’s Lolita is a well-made and interesting – certainly more interesting than its other adaptation – film, it fails to do justice to the ambiguity and complexity of the original narrative. It brings out aspects that are only alluded to in the novel, but generally it follows the version of the story that Humbert presents to us, without doing much to convince us that his view might be skewed, unreliable and self-serving. Even at that time, unreliable narration could have been presented cinematically. Kubrick does his best to hint at the air of duplicity and secrets, but in the end, it might have been better if he had waited a few more years, honing his craft and working under fewer constraints, to make an even better adaptation of Lolita.