Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1958), Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), and Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997)
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious tale of the pedophile Humbert Humbert and his obsession with the “nymphet” Dolores Haze, was made into two very different cinematic versions. A close look at the other films these directors made around their respective adaptations is a good place to begin an exploration of these differences.
The first version was made by Stanley Kubrick in 1962, near the start of his career. At the time, he was coming off the historical epic Spartacus—an atypical production for him, and one where he didn’t have total control—as well as genre work like Killer’s Kiss and The Killing—excellent films, but relatively conventional. Lolita was a stepping stone, and where he stepped is revealing. After Lolita came Dr. Strangelove, where the end of humanity is a joke, not a tragedy; 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the most emotional character is a computer; and A Clockwork Orange, whose title refers to the organic combining with the mechanical. In other words, Lolita was when the “clinical” Kubrick emerged. He was hamstrung quite dramatically by The Hays Code, which put severe restrictions on what he could show or imply, but still, this is a story of passion told by a man not known for it. Where the book peers directly into despair and tragedy, the film looks away and dials up the comedy.
The second adaptation steers into the skid. It’s drenched in heat and sex and color; many scenes are lit and staged like softcore pornography, in stark contrast to Kubrick’s chaste and antiseptic black-and-white production. Again, not surprising, given the man behind the camera. This Lolita was directed by Adrian Lyne, of Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal fame. His version feels like he was trying to elevate his reputation from trashy and lurid to artsy and tragic without having to leave his thematic comfort zone (unsuccessfully—2002’s Unfaithful is his only post-Lolita work to date). But despite the pedigree of the source material, his film falls into the erotic thriller tradition more than any tragic or literary one; its exploration of sexual power dynamics is about as deep as his own 9 1/2 Weeks.
Lyne’s film is more faithful to Nabokov than Kubrick’s, though. The book’s story kicks off in earnest when Humbert arrives in America and rents a room from Charlotte Haze, drawn to the space by her 12-year-old daughter, who he nicknames Lolita. (A detail mentioned in passing: Charlotte’s late husband was 20 years her senior, roughly the age difference between Humbert and Lolita.) Charlotte falls in love with Humbert and they eventually agree to marry, with Humbert reasoning that if he had steady access to the girl, “all my troubles would be expelled, I would be a healthy man.”
Just as Charlotte learns the true subject of his lust, she is struck dead by a passing car, leaving Humbert—“with an incestuous thrill”—to assume custody and spend the next couple of years driving around the country, brainwashing and threatening Lolita in order to maintain their sexual relationship. The longer this goes on—both the abuse and the absence of a conventional childhood—the more volatile Lolita becomes, until she eventually escapes Humbert’s grasp, thanks to the intervention of another pedophile, Clare Quilty.
Beyond the quality of the prose—which doesn’t translate to visuals, but is staggering on a page-by-page basis—what makes the book such a wonder is that Nabokov never puts the reader on firm ground. Lolita comes across as both innocent and calculating beyond her years; there are moments when she teases romance toward Humbert and times when she threatens to reveal his crimes, but it’s never clear how much she truly understands about her situation at any time. Humbert, meanwhile, is great company as a narrator, funny and eloquent, though what he does is unspeakably evil. He’s aware his desires are wrong, but indifferent to that knowledge. At the same time, Nabokov grants a measure of sympathy for the man, whose feelings are depraved, but not insincere. In a passage that encapsulates the character and the book, Humbert likens his fetish to a kind of art:
The majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.
The sympathy Nabokov has for Humbert is most clearly seen in an early anecdote where the character describes his first love Annabel, who died abruptly after a childhood tryst. While adult Humbert has given great thought to the desirability of “nymphets,” it’s also implied that his pedophilic urges were borne out of a desire to resume his first affair, to find an Annabel and erase his early heartbreak.
Lyne’s film dramatizes this memory, which adds an underpinning of vulnerability to Jeremy Irons’ performance as Humbert, whereas Kubrick’s omits it entirely, a change from the book that’s comparatively minor, but telling.
Any consideration of Kubrick’s Lolita needs to account for how he had to deal with strong regulations governing what what he could show and imply. Kubrick would later say that had he known how stringent the rules would turn out to be, he probably wouldn’t have made the film, which could account for why it’s his loosest. Lolita frequently plays like Kubrick couldn’t use crucial footage, and used the editing process as a comb-over to hide that fact. The board wanted basically all traces of pedophila scrubbed from the film—an impossible request, given the source material. There’s a moment in the book (and Lyne’s film) when Lolita is leaving for a summer camp and she kisses Humbert on the lips to say goodbye. The action is both mischievous and innocent (she understands it’s an act of rebellion against her Humbert-smitten mother, but not why, and she wouldn’t be able to understand Humbert’s reaction even if she knew it), and it hints at the complexities the character will later reveal. In Kubrick’s film, the kiss is changed to a chaste hug, one Humbert receives like any awkward stepfather might. The Annabel anecdote, which both humanizes Humber and underlines his sexuality, would’ve been unthinkable in this context.
Throughout Kubrick’s film, things are implied so tangentially that it’d be easy for viewers to watch it and not realize the full extent of Humbert’s crimes, let alone the harm he does to Lolita. James Mason is pretty flat in the role, suggesting little in the way of desire, while Sue Lyon conveys little anguish or flirtation. In tweaks that crucially alter the story’s key dynamic, Lolita’s age was heavily downplayed; Lyon was partially cast for how developed her body was. In her famous introduction, Lolita comes off as poised and confident, not innocent or vulnerable, which sets the film down a completely different path.
Since Kubrick couldn’t make a film about his actual subject, Lolita basically became a comedy of manners, with moments of slapstick sitting uneasily alongside the main story. The film’s biggest change involves the Quilty character, a role much expanded in the film, where he is depicted by an overtly comic Peter Sellers. Sellers arguably plays multiple characters in the movie, as Quilty stalks Humbert and interacts with him in a variety of disguises, something that does not happen in the book. (The screenplay is credited to Nabokov, but wound up very different than the author’s own draft.)
On a thematic level, the disguises have value. There’s a scene in the book where a school psychiatrist urges Humbert to let Lolita experiment with boys—painfully ironic advice, given to whom it is directed, but well-intended. Having Quilty pretend to be the doctor, on the other hand, underlines the predatory aspect of how society sexualizes young girls. In Nabokov’s world, Humbert and Quilty are something of an aberration, but in Kubrick’s, insidious forces are everywhere, always disguising themselves as harmless (Quilty’s other big disguise is another supposed protector—a policeman). It’s an interesting idea that’s largely tempered by the broadness of Sellers’ performances. In Dr. Strangelove, the two would find the perfect marriage of broad comedy and dark themes, but here the balance eludes them, and pretty badly. Sellers is by far the most entertaining part of the movie, but he also kind of ruins it, given how his sporadic appearances rupture the elegiac tone attempted elsewhere.
It’s difficult to imagine what Kubrick would have created were he not censored, but as it stands, the story isn’t honest about its subject. There’s more tension and unease in the paperback’s cover than there is in the entirety of the film, the famous tagline of which—“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”—can basically be answered with: They didn’t, really.
Lyne’s film is franker about its subject matter. There’s never any doubt about the nature of Humbert’s desires, the depth of his depravity, nor what transpires between the two (in one queasy scene, Lolita removes her retainer before undoing the drawstring of his pajama bottoms).
The only thing it doesn’t really do is convey how Humbert hurts Lolita, which may speak to how there are just certain parts of this story that can’t be put onscreen; the unfilmable parts are the ones most crucial to its meaning and impact. The film includes sex scenes, though they’re fairly tasteful, under the circumstances, suggestive and not explicit (nudity in a case like this is probably a legal and moral issue as much as an artistic one). One rape scene is heavy on dissolves, fades to black, and Lolita’s heavy breathing—there’s little sense of the emotional or physical pain inflicted on her. The scene is followed by a transitional bit, and then a moment where she’s seen crying on a couch. The design of the first scene and existence of the second—which confuses how much time has elapsed—mutes the connection of the rape to the weeping. Part of this is due to Dominique Swain’s performance—she’s fine, but it’s hard to imagine any young actress pulling this character off, save for a Taxi Driver-era Jodie Foster—but mostly the character is inconsistent, especially since those three scenes are immediately followed by a moment when she charges that Humbert is “depriving me of my civil rights,” before seducing him in exchange for a higher allowance. She comes off as complicated in the book but random in the film, even when accounting for how a victim of this type of abuse would be emotionally volatile.
Again, the genius of the book is how Nabokov has it both ways. Lolita is both manipulated and—in Humbert’s view—manipulative, while Humbert is both predator and tragic figure. Both films close with him murdering Quilty (an event foreshadowed in their opening scenes), the gunshots a kind of punctuation, ending the story. While this crime also occurs in the book—which is eventually revealed as taking the form of Humbert’s jailhouse confessions—Nabokov looks on a little further. The final passages, as with all that had preceded them, are both disquieting and disturbing, as Humbert make one final act of devotion to Lolita.
I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
Start with: The impact of the book’s final lines say it all, really, illustrating the tightrope of sympathy Nabokov walked throughout his most famous work. Inevitably, neither film can live up to it. Lyne’s version may help some lazy literature student pass a test without doing the reading, but it isn’t comparable. Kubrick’s is mostly of interest to completists: Lolita is probably his worst, and while that means it’s one of his few non-masterpieces, it’s a poor introduction to him (or Nabokov).