When you hear that name, what’s the first thing that pops up in your head? Pedophilia? Child prostitution? Nymphets? Whatever you make of it, this name became gradually untouchable by many ordinary folks who dreaded such subjects as those I highlighted. The story of a middle-aged professor falling in love with a pubescent girl caused many people to squirm in their seats over what it brought into focus and shudder to even think about or bring it up in general conversation because they think of the story and even the name as that touchy a subject.
The story became so famous–or infamous, depending on what you make of it–that it was made into a movie twice: one in 1997, with Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swann, and the first and arguably most famous of the films: the one directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason and then-newcomer Sue Lyons. But the question is: how well did this movie take on such a queasy story?
Well, let me recap it for you, just to be on the safe side. A European college professor named Humbert Humbert entered America and settled in a remote house in Ramsdale, New Hampshire. As he was shown around the house by the mistress, Charlotte Haze, he became transfixed upon her daughter: a young girl named Dolores Haze, or, as she was called by her peers, Lolita. After taking a good gander at her, Humbert agreed to stay at the house for a short while, only to gradually become more accepted within the family and among the Ramsdale community. However, a few things have come up. One, Dolores Haze wasn’t quite the rosiest girl you’d be comfortable with, for she was generally unorthodox, bratty, and always a slouch. Also, although initially well-intended, Charlotte Haze’s methods slowly started to express a whiff of contempt that borders on something more unlike what you’d expect from any reasonable mother. But what’s even more frightening? Humbert became so settled into the household and Ramsdale that he also settled in as Charlotte’s second husband and Dolores’ stepfather when Charlotte eventually caught on to his attempts with Dolores and his disdain for Charlotte. She fled in a moment of panic and betrayal, only to be killed in a car accident.
All that was left was Humbert Humbert alone with his so-called ‘soulmate’ turned stepdaughter under his protective care and gradual grip. What’s a girl like Dolores Haze to do under the ‘watchful’ protection of not a wicked stepmother but a wicked stepfather?
Before I read the book, I came in completely aware of how provocative I heard it would be, what with its controversial subject matter and how much it defined a collectively taboo subject. However, as I took in what it unleashed, for all the times I was sickened by Humbert Humbert’s actions, I also found myself swept away, just a bit, by the story’s sense of prose. I even found Humbert Humbert’s dialogue quite elegant, even though the idea was not to believe a word he said about the circumstances he highlighted. Besides, how would you not be torn over whether to take his convictions seriously? For all his romantic phrases and expressions and all his beliefs, backstories, and paranoia, actions speak louder than words. And what he had done to poor Dolores Haze was the highlight of those who highlighted the story of Lolita as a warning against pedophilia and child prostitution. So, what does that say about the film by Stanley Kubrick, released when the Hays Code was still put into practice?
Here’s what happened: the Hays Code, enacted in the mid-1930s, prohibited any movie from showing graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, or having the characters express any religious and general obscenities. Of course, throughout the 1960s, the Code was perpetually challenged with films that gradually pushed the envelope in terms of what movies can express to either strengthen an already good story or leave audiences stunned over what the medium of film is capable of. Just look at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the obscenities it allowed its characters to express to each other. Look at The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman and how much of a sexual nature it expressed between the student and the teacher. Look at films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, which have such a high level of realistic violence that they benefitted their crime stories and potentially became emblematic of such a genre. And look at The Exorcist, one of the scariest movies of all time, with its frightening imagery. What also helped matters is that a good chunk of the filmmakers in charge of these movies got their influence from European cinema, with its distinct look and mood. Roman Polanski was among such filmmakers influenced by the medium, and it was reportedly shown in movies like Rosemary’s Baby.
By contrast, Lolita, directed by then-newcomer Stanley Kubrick, may not have left a substantial mark in pushing the art of film past what the Hays Code would’ve allowed at the time. For what it did pass through, however, the core elements that made Lolita such a trailblazing novel are stylishly and amazingly not left out; it just isn’t as blatant or graphic as it was in the book. But the message and implications are still there.
The story is still the same, with Humbert Humbert looking and thinking longingly about Dolores Haze, or Lolita, as her mother and others called her. I’ll get to that shortly. And once Humbert had Dolores all to himself, he was willing to do whatever it took to keep her within his grasp and have her all to himself. Some people may look at this and assume it is just a typical story of abuse by parents onto daughters or stepparents onto stepdaughters, not too different from something like Cinderella. But when they discover what really happened in the story of Lolita, down to how Humbert constantly described Lolita as a “nymphet”, suddenly they’d understand that his intentions with her are far more frightening than they’d have suspected.
It leads me to spotlight one of the first aspects of the movie that I found most alluring and impressive: the directing by Stanley Kubrick. With the slow gazes, oddball expressions, peculiar ways of speaking, and the actions enacted by characters onto each other, Kubrick allowed the characters and atmosphere to convey all that is needed in a story about a middle-aged man lusting over a younger girl. And one of the best parts of his directing that I found most compelling here is the portrayal of Humbert and Dolores’ “relationship.” With Humbert’s dreadful interests and Dolores’ brattiness and later desperation, Kubrick allowed these characters to embody a variety of uncomfortable subtexts that turned Lolita into a household name. Ironically, even with the Hays Code being applied to the movie and potentially restricting Stanley Kubrick from unleashing his full directorial talents for its benefit, it only made the movie feel more unique. His later films, including A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, all left an impression among moviegoers because of their artsy, uncompromising, and unconventional methods of telling stories highlighting dreadful subjects that arguably may have required more cautionary attention. With Lolita, Stanley Kubrick was bold enough to have tackled the story constantly associated with pedophilia, and in 1962, no less! The Hays Code notwithstanding, the fact that he could’ve made a film about such a subject at all, let alone make a movie about Lolita, is something to be admired. How did he do that?
Well, with the Hays Code put into practice in this movie, too, what we’d generally think is a major disservice to the film ironically did wonders for the movie. It helped the movie scare us not with what we see, but rather with what we don’t see. That’s a genuine hallmark of a film like Lolita.
I’ve known of movies and TV shows that made the mistake of sneaking in raunchier material like language, sex, or graphic violence for little other reason than for shock value. But in the case of Game of Thrones...in my opinion, it made the mistake of enforcing excessive shock value out of some of the heroes’ unprecedented and engineered deaths. But when movies or TV shows with such subject matter are careful about using such subject matter, it can leave a more genuine impression and a general acknowledgment that the artists behind the production knew what they’re doing with the cards they’re being dealt with.
Stanley Kubrick was no stranger to this kind of capability as a director, before or after the Hays Code, and even then, with his restriction, he still managed to take precious advantage of the cards he was allowed to deal with to craft a compelling and no less haunting story about Dolores Haze’s entrapment under Humbert Humbert and his hormonal fantasies.
Another element of the movie that felt natural and generally effective, especially given what it’s about, was its sly sense of humor. Throughout the movie, the characters often made witty banter that helps lighten the mood concerning the uncomfortable subjects being highlighted. The actors’ deliveries helped to provide some admirably effective levity where it felt most appropriate. The highlights for me include the beginning of the movie, when Humbert Humbert, Charlotte Haze, or any of their friends and neighbors made casual talk about Dolores Haze or any other element going on in their lives. Their remarks and methods of lightening the mood do the same for the movie and the viewers. And while Humbert Humbert was more subtle about his sense of humor, the humor brought out by Dolores Haze is almost typical, considering that it’s coming from a young girl who may not have known better for her age.
Once again, the humor scattered throughout the movie was genuine and helped give Lolita an indelibly sly touch to complement its otherwise grotesque subject matter.
I also admire the acting throughout this entire picture. Even some of the actors I kept thinking didn’t carry as much of a tune as the others still managed to make their characters work in ways I never expected them to work.
At first, I was a tad taken aback by James Mason as Humbert Humbert. I looked at him like his portrayal in this production felt a bit too subtle for his character’s more sophisticated demeanor towards other people, including Charlotte and Dolores Haze. However, as I let it sit, his performance grew on me. Whenever he was subtle about his performance, excessively soft as it may have been, he still carried a slightly sinister tone in his voice, like something foreboding was hiding underneath his sensible, knowledgeable, and articulate image. And when he was agitated, desperate, needy, or in despair, he went all out there with his inflections. They may not have highlighted his European heritage, but his performance still helped make Humbert as respectable as he was deranged and slightly obsessed.
Shelley Winters demonstrated a wide range of comfortably conflicting elements as Charlotte Haze. Her motherly demeanor highlighted her more modest and homely disposition. And once you see her speaking with other people within the town or her neighborhood, she upheld sensibilities that a common socialite would’ve been good at expressing. However, whenever she had to tolerate her daughter, Dolores, her outrage was expressed more with contempt and neglect than out of stern discipline. Charlotte was desperate enough when she had Dolores as her main problem, but when she dug up the truth about Humbert and his motivations and opinions, the way she unraveled and wondered where she went wrong with her first husband no longer being around was painstakingly disheartening. You can tell she became unhinged over what she thought was a perfect family life turning out to have been a complete lie and by the horrible truths she unearthed about her second husband.
Peter Sellers’ performance as Clare Quilty was one that I never expected to have done so well. Whenever I thought of Clare Quilty as a character as I learned about him in the book, his motivations and methods with Dolores were so sneaky and crafty that I pictured him as a more gentlemanly, dignified man. I saw him as the type who was always one step ahead of Humbert Humbert, the kind who always outsmarted him with his debonair tactics, and all with his outward appearance to match. Here in the movie, Sellers portrayed him instead as a humbler and potentially forgetful young man who just turned out to be a talented playwright and has had affairs with Lolita for as long as Humbert never knew he did. This took me by surprise because Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Clare Quilty, I initially thought, felt too feeble to do justice to Clare Quilty. However, as I assessed it more, I now believe it did more justice to his character than I would’ve anticipated. One of the things I remember the most about Clare Quilty in the book was how mysterious he was as a figure, especially as a figure of Humbert’s imagination, for he reminded him of a Swiss cousin he knew who was a detective. And, to see Clare Quilty played by the last type of person I expected to play him so well only supported the more mysterious angle to his character. It shows you that there is more to some people than meets the eye. Humbert’s peers underestimated Humbert Humbert because who they seemed was a perfectly distinguished socialite was also a crazed pedophile with the hots for Dolores. Likewise, Humbert underestimated Clare Quilty because he dismissed him as a feebleminded individual with no significant talents besides being a playwright. Yet, Quilty also kept tabs on Dolores and slipped under Humbert’s nose to make his moves on Lolita. He enlisted her to star in his play, The Hunted Enchanter, which only made Humbert suspicious of who Dolores went out with during rehearsals and performances. Quilty even went so far as to steal her away from him when she was in the hospital with a cold. On top of that, Seller’s feeble nature only added to his otherwise superficial charm. So, the more I looked at his performance, the more I cherished it.
But for my money, out of all the performances in the movie, the pièce de résistance is Sue Lyons as Dolores Haze.
With her voluptuous figure, childlike sensibilities, childish attitude, and troubled essence, Lyons helped shape her character into the type of young girl you’d be uncertain of regarding whether to trust or even like her. But whenever she was stuck in her position under Humbert Humbert when she had him as a sole legal guardian, you could feel her mounting frustration and predicament as she either sass-talked Humbert to keep herself sane in the face of encroaching advancements or attempted to flee from his clutches. Because the character was no older than twelve years old in the book, it was changed around a bit so that Dolores would’ve been around fourteen years old, give or take, in the movie. Yet, as Sue Lyons was around that same age when she played her character, Lyons made Dolores look and feel as young as she was in the book while her actual age helped the character express enough maturity to heighten how observant she could be when something felt fishy, especially regarding Humbert Humbert. One of her most famous poses was lying in the backyard of her house wearing a feathered hat and a bikini as her mother introduced her to Humbert Humbert. But while that may have been her only ‘sexy’ scene in the movie, her performance as Lolita helped us empathize with her more as a young girl in distress rather than a constant plaything who happened to be a bratty little girl.
I also love how the only time Dolores Haze was in skimpy clothing in the movie was before Humbert Humbert made his advancements toward her. Something about this type of exposure being 100% hers feels admirable to me. Plus, the fact that she was mainly clothed throughout the movie helped me identify with her more as an individual and look at Humbert Humbert with disgust as his movements towards her jeopardized her sensibilities as a human being.
Another astonishing feature of this movie that did wonders was the writing. I knew that because the original book was very long, some significant portions of the story had to be trimmed out, especially the raunchier elements and given the time frame of this movie’s release, to fit what would’ve been ethically and even narratively acceptable as a movie. Thankfully, this was the original author, Vladimir Nabokov, returning to pen the script for Lolita as a film, with some extra writing by Stanley Kubrick, not that the credits ever mentioned that. And for what he managed to convey about Lolita for the film, his hard-hitting notes and prose are still there. They demonstrated the horrors of Humbert’s advancements towards Lolita, still highlighted the generally uneasy factors going on in Dolores’ life before and after her fateful intertwinement with Humbert Humbert, and the mysteries surrounding Clare Quilty were still maintained throughout the whole picture without Humbert or even the audience knowing it.
If there’s one word I would use to describe Nabokov’s writing in the film, I believe it would be ‘concise.’ His prose, descriptions, and dialogue methods throughout the movie felt concise, and they helped the movie express so much of what was elaborated on in greater detail in the book. And given how long and detailed the book was, I’m amazed at how flexible and no less talented Nabokov proved himself to be as he translated Lolita into film.
Speaking of translating books into film, there have been some deviations throughout the movie, yet they still maintained what was mastered in the book throughout the movie.
For starters, the nickname ‘Lolita’ was a common nickname given to her by her mother and fellow neighbors, as if them calling her that name was a common thing. However, in the book, I got the impression that the name ‘Lolita’ was invented by Humbert Humbert as his way of describing his true feelings for Dolores Haze. Even the book’s first chapter clarified that the way his tongue rolled off the syllables as he pronounced that nickname pertained to his lustful desires toward her. Of course, because the story was told from his point of view, it might be that he was gushing over the nickname and how alluring it sounded to him and that it probably was a nickname given to Dolores Haze even before he moved in. I might be missing something, but the implications concerning the origins of Dolores’ nickname still invite engaging possibilities.
Ultimately, however, there are two massive changes to the story in the movie that I must address. One is the scene with the Enchanted Hunter Hotel, where Humbert and Dolores stayed after Charlotte died in her car accident and after Humbert picked her up from summer camp. In the book, after Humbert ran into Clare Quilty on the hotel’s outer balcony, he returned to his hotel room with Dolores lying on the bed, and he expected her to have fallen asleep after he had slipped sleeping pills into her dinner earlier during their stay. Then, Humbert waited for his opportunity to make his moves sexually on Dolores but had to restrain himself when it looked like she was coming to. He had always given her and Charlotte sleeping pills so that he could’ve made his moves on Lolita, but here, he felt like it was his chance to have at it with her. But the level of restraint in his actions made me wonder what happened that night as Humbert or Dolores recounted it. Humbert said that he decided against going through with his moves on Dolores, whether out of fear of jeopardizing someone so young and innocent or because of the likelihood of her waking up before he could do his thing. The following morning, however, Dolores said that he did indeed rape her, for she was still conscious enough to catch on to his actions.
In the film, of course, it played out a little differently – okay, a lot differently – after Humbert talked to Quilty on the outer balcony. Their room had one bed, so Humbert requested a cot for Dolores to sleep in while he had the regular bed. Eventually, when the bellhop arrived with the cot, he and Humbert carried it into the room. Because Dolores was asleep in front of them, they tried to open it up as carefully and quietly as possible without waking her up. From tiptoeing in front of Dolores as she slept in Humbert’s bed to knocking some of the luggage down by accident, along with struggling to open the cot up, the suspense of not waking Dolores up is still there, but this played out more for comedic effect. And surprisingly, it didn’t feel too out of place. Given how the novel also has a sly sense of humor, its more graphic subtexts notwithstanding, this scene still fits the boundaries of what was expected or accepted in a movie about Lolita. And later, after the bellhop left, Humbert did noticeably try to sleep with her, possibly as an attempt to make love with her, before her slight wakefulness forced him to settle with the cot for the bed, poorly structured as it turned out to be.
Also, Humbert’s hesitation to make his moves didn’t apply to the Enchanted Hunter scene but to something else. And in the movie, it applied more to the fallout that occurred as Charlotte Haze discovered the truth about Humbert Humbert. Shortly before, Charlotte Haze brought out a gun that used to belong to the late Mr. Haze, and she admitted that she contemplated using it to shoot herself out of lovesickness for Humbert. She insisted that it was not loaded, but when Charlotte ran away after Humbert scolded her, he noticed that the gun was indeed loaded after all, giving him a whirlwind of ideas about how to use it. The first scene that I’ll address soon shows that he eventually used it on someone else, but in this scene, he contemplated using it on Charlotte Haze, mainly since it would’ve meant having Dolores to himself. It was a far cry from the book, where Humbert had similar ideas of doing her in, only he instead contemplated doing so by drowning her in Hourglass Lake, where they both went out together. Humbert even attempted to do that to Charlotte when she was in the bathroom, but before he found out she wasn’t there, he showed noticeable restraint in moving forth on Charlotte with the gun in hand because of his feelings for Charlotte and the idea of him killing her. It demonstrated some semblance of an existential crisis going on for Humbert as she pondered whether to kill Charlotte or not, just as he had concerns about whether to make his moves on Dolores, even if it was more because of the likelihood of her spilling the beans to someone else or of her finding out about his actions on her. So, these scenes played out quite creatively while still working to the characters’ and story’s overall strengths.
And if you think that censoring tidbits of the movie to appease the censors was the biggest challenge that came with adapting Lolita into this movie, think again.
While Vladimir Nabokov developed the script for Stanley Kubrick, the entire story of Lolita as we see it in its 2-and-a-half-hour cinematic translation might have been a fraction of what he had in mind as he wrote it. As he and Kubrick trimmed the script down, Kubrick admitted to Nabokov his fears that if they stuck with Nabokov’s original vision, it would’ve taken up to seven hours of film to encompass it all. Nabokov even admitted his hopes of taking charge of every facet of the production, down to the directing and location choices. I’m honestly amazed that Nabokov developed so much script for just this one movie, but I think it’s better to have a fraction of what you wanted to shell out rather than have something stretched out beyond its limits with filler to achieve a specific time slot. And I can imagine how challenging it must’ve been to shrink the script to the time needed to let it work as a film. So, that is yet another reason why I find his writing so concise in this movie.
Fortunately, the entire screenplay, as Nabokov originally wrote it, can be read on its own in book form. It’s called Lolita: A Screenplay, and if you’ve never read it, check it out so you can see how Nabokov intended to translate Lolita into a film.
Yet, as much as he had a hand in writing the script for the movie, he was not on board with every part of the movie. The scenes that turned him off the most were Lolita’s overtly fancy nightgown and, of course, the cot scene. Given how differently this scene played out from how he envisioned it, I can understand that. It also didn’t help that, as I already mentioned, Stanley Kubrick, along with producer James B. Harris, rewrote portions of the screenplay themselves while making it look like it was all Nabokov’s work, similar to what was eventually done with Roald Dahl’s script of Willy Wonky & the Chocolate Factory.
But there was one scene in the movie that Kubrick said Nabokov admitted to having preferred over how it went in the book. And this scene was where Humbert Humbert confronted Clare Quilty in his house. In this scene, he cornered him about abducting Dolores Haze from him and gunned him down with Mr. Haze’s gun. In the book, it occurred in the end and made for a neatly paced culmination. But in the movie, with it playing in the beginning rather than the end, it made me curious to see what went down between Humbert and Clare Quilty, with them individually or even with Dolores Haze, since Humbert mentioned her by name, for this to unfold the way it did. What played out as the culminating moment in the book became the hook that grabbed me and talked me into giving the movie a chance, and it made me agree with Nabokov. This arrangement does the story a more fitting justice. As for the film, one of its last scenes was Humbert giving Dolores and her husband, Richard Schiller, enough money to move to Alaska, as she was pregnant with their child. It felt like a proper way to end the story of Lolita, and the movie ended on such a note with style.
Also, though not of primary importance, the narrations by Humbert in the movie were also played around with. In the book, everything Humbert said was part of a testimonial he was to give out to court for the murder of Clare Quilty. But in the movie, much of what I heard from Humbert about the circumstances at hand were monologues from his head or just diary entries that he wrote and that Charlotte discovered in his room before she was killed in the car accident. Considering how private Humbert was about his affairs, this makes too much sense. And most importantly, it works because the court trial that Humbert partook in had Humbert narrating the events that led up to him murdering Clare Quilty. In the movie, with the scene of the murder occurring in the beginning, this still provided the hook that made me want to see what led to the murder of Clare Quilty the same way the testimonial in the book did. In other words, the hook was tweaked around while still pertaining to the spirit of the book’s storytelling structure. It even helped display the ending shots of Humbert parting ways with Dolores in the same light as we’d expect any tragic romantic movie to end, with the couple splitting apart, never to see each other again. But because this movie was about love yet was never supposed to be a romantic film, it added a level of inventiveness to the ending that hearkened back to the movie’s alarming aspects of their relationship. So, this was just perfect.
All in all, this movie is marvelous. The type of story we would all have suspected would’ve been unfilmable around its release instead proved many people wrong by playing by its strengths. In doing so, it delivered a good old-fashioned, if also daring, cautionary tale about the dangers of pedophilia and the harmful effects it would have on those involved. It makes the movie’s promotional tagline, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” look much more justifiable. It is slick, it is uneasy, it is healthily nauseating, it is subtle instead of obstructed, and you have the movie’s trifecta of artistic brilliance – Stanley Kubrick’s directing, Vladimir Nabokov’s writing, and Sue Lyon’s performance – to thank for that.
Whether you can stomach this movie or not, let it prove once and for all why young girls should never be – as Jasmine from Aladdin put it best – prizes to be won.
A low A
Gelmis, J. (1970). An Interview with Stanley Kubrick (1969). In The Film Director as Superstar. Essay, Penguin Books.
Nabokov, V., & Appel, A. (1991). The Annotated Lolita. Vintage Books.
Nabokov, V. V., & Huber, N. A. (1997). In Lolita: A Screenplay. Foreword, Vintage International.