Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1962), directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Visiting America, Prof Humbert marries a widow so he can be close to her very young daughter. He's in love (or something more obsessive and adoring). When his wife dies he has Lolita all to himself, but it doesn't last.

The first half is like a British comedy of social awkwardness and embarrassment. After Humbert achieves his goal the story becomes a more tragic one of jealously, lies, shouting, lost love and murderous revenge.

On one hand I think movies should be judged on their merits apart from the books from which they are made. On the other, the makers pick a famously controversial literary work for a reason: they are trying realize the author's vision in some way, and it's inevitable that we compare the two and think about how it was done. If you've read the book you just can't help it.

Nabokov gets screenplay credit for adapting his novel, but I've read that his version was little used in the end. Most of the book takes place in Humbert's head, his reflections and desires, excuses and apologies. Not much of that is dramatized in the movie (and how would you?); instead we have a dark comedy of manners, a satire on the refined European among the vulgar Americans, and a bit of sex farce:


Charlotte: You just touch me and I... I... I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.

Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

When Humbert embraces his wife while looking at a photo of the daughter, she cries: "Oh, you man!" But after telling him Lolita will be living at a boarding school, in a reproachful tone: "Darling, you've gone away."

A lot of the real sex has to be toned down and there are no passion scenes. In the book Lolita is 12 ("four feet ten in one sock"). Actress Sue Lyon was 14 or 15 when making the film and is supposed to be in high school.

James Mason is master of dignified demeanor and repressed emotion, but Humbert is consumed by selfish desire. He's also a life-long nympholeptic, whereas in the film we can believe that this is a one-time thing, that he was somehow struck by Lolita herself, rather than her as a member of a type.

Quilty's role is much expanded. This may be to take advantage of Peter Sellers, but it also makes Humbert look better by contrast: bad as he is he's not multi-perverted Quilty. His bits go on too long for me.

I think I have under-appreciated Shelley Winters. Here and in Alfie (1966) she just owns the dim sex-starved older woman role.

At the end the film explains that Humbert died in prison awaiting trial. It doesn't mention that Lolita died in childbirth a month later. Charlotte and Quilty are dead. All are punished.

The book was filmed again with Jeremy Irons as Humbert in 1997. It is closer to the text (but also borrows from Kubrick) and more erotic, but omits all the comedy. It's a funny book. Irons also does the audiobook reading for Random House.

If you haven't read Lolita, note that it is a vastly greater book than the summary would suggest. It's not a celebration of or excuse for pedophilia.

Nelson Riddle score. Photographed by Oswald Morris.

Available on Blu-ray.