“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the tagline to 1962 film version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick. This particular novel was steeped in controversy since the day it was published. Often regarded as pornography and it has been on and off the banned book list for decades. The forbidden subject and combined with a vividly explicit erotic prose style made Lolita the book everyone hated but everyone loved to read. When Kubrick became interested in doing a film adaptation of the novel he went directly to the source and ask Nabokov to help write the screenplay. The plot centers around a 12 year old pre adolescent girl who becomes the obsession and lover of a much older man (Dirks). Adjusting the plot to make the movie version of Lolita would become quite the challenge. By focusing on essential plot points and distancing the movie from the deep dark thoughts of Humbert Humbert, Kubrick avoids the heady issues of the main characters inner workings, which would have kept Lolita out of the box office. However, by reducing the psychology drama of the novel, the film version lacks the edgy performance that Nabokov employs so well (“The Complete Review“).
The content of Lolita is graphic, sexual, and forbidden. It is unfortunate that the most telling part of Lolita gets lost in the debate over the exploration of taboo topics in literature. The main character of Lolita is Humbert Humbert, is an extremely educated and intelligent man. When he was but a child, his first love, a girl of 11 years old enchanted his heart for a whole summer and died suddenly. Since then Humbert has not been able to emotionally move past that tragic loss. He seeks out and falls in love with ‘girls’ hoping again to find the pure love he shared that summer. He is a man who is repulsed by women his own age and is psychologically crippled. He does have moments of clarity when he realizes that what he wants is wrong but not wrong enough to starve himself of the one thing in life that brings him joy and pleasure. Kubrick excises the entire plot point to simplify the story. But without it, Humbert is essentially a dirty pervert who can not control his impulses. He becomes flat and uninteresting.
The novel and the film begin in much the same way. Humbert is offering his confession to whomever would like to hear it. His focus is not on why he is in jail but on the twisted path that led him to commit murder. This of course allows Humbert to speak affectionately about his obsession, Lolita, from which he draws great pleasure. At this point in the novel Nabokov spends close to 50 pages detailing the background of Humbert’s life. He delves deep into the male psyche. Thecontent of this part of the novel is impossible to recreated on film. So much of the appeal of Nabokov’s work is that of his have a beautiful prose style. The rhythm and flow is song-like and the reader becomes fully immersed in Humbert mind (“Spark Notes“). Therefore, Kubrick must move the film into another direction. He knows he must seize and hold the audience’s attention and do so he starts with the most action pack scenes of the text, Humbert murdering Quilty. In the novel, long before Lolita shows up, we are well acquainted with Humbert and when she appears the reader knows that he will be tempted. In the movie there is only a hint of foreshadowing of what may come:
Narrator (Humbert): What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so ( Lolita, 1962).
However, in the film the audience is left in suspense as to what will happen between Lo and Humbert. Kubrick hides Humbert’s predilections – sexual, emotional, intellectual – from the audience. Nabokov welcomes the reader into Humbert mind and graphically explains his desires:
I should have understood that Lolita had already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel, and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy impossible, and the delectation lethal (Nabokov 124-125).
Censorship and production codes created by the government and the movie industry, jointly, forced Kubrick to exclude much if not all of the graphic sexual scenes and overtones from the movie. The plot also had to be slimmed down due to time constraints of the movie theaters. Long, epic movie did not draw a big crowd. The first part of the film is basically a social satire. It focuses almost exclusively on Charlotte, Lo’s mother and her growing attachment to Humbert. She seeks him out and pressures him into proposing marriage. It plays out very comically and makes the audience laugh. The film continues to track the relationship or lack of relationship between Humbert and Charlotte.
One Nabokov’s great talents has a writer, even though he was not American, was his luminous writing style. The novel breathes life into the American landscape, sweeping passages invite the reader to share in the sunlit beaches, tree lined suburban streets, and grassy backyards. Kubrick’s movie is filmed entirely in England. This means that almost all the action that takes place outside in the novel must take place inside. The physical environment of England is different enough that Kubrick excluded almost all exterior shots in the film.
Lolita is twelve in the novel, and fourteen years old in the film played by an actress who was sixteen. For an American audience 13 is the age in which a girl starts to become a woman. A twelve year old is far too young to associate sexual thoughts with and certainly would not have been tolerated by audiences of the 1960s. The Internet Movie Database comments:
Since the censors would allow nothing close to a suggestion of pedophilia, Lolita’s age had to be increased from 12 in Vladimir Nabokov’s original novel to 14 for the film. They also objected to a scene where Humbert Humbert was to gaze at Lolita’s picture while in bed with her mother Charlotte; in the end, the scene was filmed with Charlotte lying fully dressed on the bed and Humbert lying beside her wearing a robe (Lolita 1962).
The age difference was just an handy tool to make the audience feel more comfortable about watching an older man seek out and seduce a young girl. In the novel there are many more instances where Lolita is a child. There are of course many more instances where is it clear that Lolita flirts with and sexually teases Humbert. Nabokov’s Lolita is fully aware of her sexual power over men (Apple). Kubrick’s Lolita is a brat and not self aware enough to fully utilize her “nymphet” abilities.
The characterization of Quilty is also strikingly different between the novel and film. First of all, Quilty has very little role in the novel. He is not fleshed out as a character and the reader does not concern itself with him. He is very stiff, stuck-up, arrogant man and takes him ‘girl’ hunting very seriously. The reader is disgusted by him and he acts as a foil to Humbert’s less aggressive nature. However, Quitly in the film is more of comedic device. Something similar to Shakespeare’s Dogberry in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’. He is over the top, and Kubrick uses that to soften the fact that he is obviously a pedophile who makes children have sex on camera. In the film he is described as “a very peculiar figure by the name of Clare Quilty who keeps popping up in the most unexpected places (and sporting equally unexpected accents)” (Lolita 1962). This plot point is very subtle, and any viewer who was not familiar with the text may not have gotten that implication while watching the film.
I think that Kubrick did a great job in adapting Nabokov’s novel Lolita to a film. Yes, much of the meaning and plot is lost in the movie. The reason why much of the plot was cut was do to censorship issues, time constraints, and the limited nature of film itself. Words, text on a page, are so much more capable of explaining emotional and psychology plot lines than pictures on a screen. Rendering literature on film had it’s disadvantages however I think that it is important to note, that Kubrick choose to make Nabokov accessible to the general public. He took novel by a Russian author that would have otherwise been overlooked by the general public or snub by prudish critics, and turned it into one the world’s top 100 films.
Apple, Alfred. The Annotated Lolita. revised ed. New York: vintage books, 1991.
Dirks, Tim . “Lolita.” Greatest Films. 2005. 11 Dec. 2005 <http://www.filmsite.org/loli.html>.
“Lolita.” The Complete Review. 2000. 11 Dec. 2005 <http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/nabokovv/lolita1.htm#summaries 2005>.
“Lolita.” Spark Notes. 2002. Barnes & Noble. 11 Dec. 2005 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/lolita/.
“Lolita 1962.” Internet Movie Database. 2005. 11 Dec. 2005 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056193/>.
Nabokov, Vladimir .Lolita. The original novel. New York: Vintage International.1995.
Sandys, Jon. “Lolita.” Movie Mistakes. 1996. 11 Dec. 2005 <http://www.moviemistakes.com/film416>.