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 50 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 12 years old, in the film 14 (and Sue Lyon was cast partly due to her being a physically more developed 14 year old; she was 16 when the film premiered). Presumably this makes the Humbert of the novel a hebephile (interest in those of 11 to 14 years) while the Humbert of the film is an ephebophile (14 to 16; it seems that paedophile is the correct term only for prepubescent minors – or at least that’s what wikipedia article 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 14 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 in 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 is a sense that we’re suddenly watching a different film when Seller’s wheels out his German psychiatrist. As an 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?
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 desires 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.
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 that he and Charlotte engage in a bit of partner swapping (some have suggested conspiratorial subtext throughout the director's work and 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.
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.
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 pitch 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 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 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 beserk, 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 back ache signpost that she’s out of her comfort zone and struggling.
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 for it to have a realistic chance of 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.