The ad copy for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is pretty incisive: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The answer seems to be, by changing everything except the broadest strokes of the novel.
There are some books it is simply insane to try to adapt to film, and chances are, someone has gone ahead and done it anyway. David Cronenberg did Naked Lunch, Joseph Strick did Ulysses. Lolita, with its extremely volatile subject matter and Unreliable Narrator, certainly fits in that category. Is it even possible to emulate the Unreliable Narrator in a movie setting? The best I can think of is Rashomon, but that’s an ill fit at best. I suppose That Obscure Object of Desire comes closest.
After the unpleasant difficulties with the making of Spartacus, we can see Kubrick going in the most opposite direction possible. The story is small in scope if not in locations; it is a comedy (a very dark one) as opposed to drama, and it is shot in black and white, which can also be seen as an attempt at distancing the audience from what is happening onscreen. In 1962, even Roger Corman was making movies in color; this was a deliberate stylistic choice. This was the first time a Kubrick production was based in England, perhaps hoping for an easier time with their film censors.
Of course, the most obvious change is increasing the title character’s age from 12 to 14, and having her portrayed by a well-developed 16 year-old, Sue Lyon – all necessary to even attempt the movie, in that pre-MPAA rating period. Even had the possibility of an “R” even been available, I can still remember the furor over Jody Foster’s underage prostitute in Taxi Driver, ditto Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, both in the much more permissive 70s.
Humbert Humbert in this version is identified only as “divorced”, the death of his boyhood sweetheart and subsequent attempts to rekindle that relationship with girls her age, his obsession with “nymphets” is scrubbed away; Humbert sees Lolita in her two-piece bathing suit, and that is it. All that is missing is a cartoon BO-I-I-I-NG sound effect. “Lolita”, as I recall, is Humbert’s pet name for the girl, who is actually named Dolores. This too, is pitched by the wayside, perhaps to avoid confusion. I can easily see moviegoers scratching their heads and saying, “What? I thought her name was Lolita?”
So, remaining is the novel’s longing, Humbert’s scurrilous use of Lolita’s mother to gain access to the girl, and his subsequent tyrannical attempts to completely control her life, for fear he will lose her; of course, he does, and she resurfaces three years later, married, pregnant, and needing money. As was the case with Paths of Glory, an ersatz happy ending with Humbert actually marrying Lolita was considered – and it makes my head ache to try and figure out the legal and moral maneuvering that would take – but what we are left with is a modified version of the book’s ending. We are told Humbert’s fate, but not Lolita’s. Also remaining are Nabokov’s potshots at American pop culture, which Kubrick probably endorsed.
If we are talking about the major changes made, it becomes necessary to talk about the greatly expanded role of the writer, Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Though his presence is apparent in the book, he becomes a definite mover and shaker of the events in the movie, and though I never thought I would say this, Sellers actually becomes quite tiresome in this, effecting disguises to generally mess with Humbert until, as in the book, he receives his comeuppance. Annoyingly.
The rest of the cast is marvelous. James Mason as Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Lolita’s doomed mother, and Sue Lyon are all superb as unlikable people who are still very familiar and retain some degree of sympathy.
It is to be expected that even our favorite artists have an off-day, or, to put a finer point on it, do something that doesn’t particularly resonate with us. Hell, I actually find the concept of someone turning out something I consistently love to be somehow frightening, inhuman. I think I have finally found that lead slug in my Kubrick experience. It was the first time I found myself glancing at the time repeatedly, counting the minutes left, thinking “Two and a half hours? Really?“.
Well, next up are two of my favorites, Dr. Strangelove and 2001, so I can feel better about Peter Sellers and life in general. Except for the fact that life tends to suck in Kubrick movies.
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