Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita are two very different concepts. Nabokov’s Lolita is something scrutinizing and perverse – someone who reads it is conflicted between “begrudging empathy” and “intense revulsion” for its central character. With Kubrick, he takes out the begrudging and leaves the empathy, as he makes Professor Humbert’s (James Mason) situation understandable. Two years makes a huge difference, as Kubrick’s Lolita (Sue Lyon) is introduced as 14. And not to be deceived, Lyon was purposely cast by Kubrick for her bosomy features. That in itself alters the significance of the novel by making her less of an innocent creature, and more a vivacious vixen.
Lolita begins where it ends. Professor Humbert, in a delirious and threatening state, confronts a similarly disorientated individual named Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). The confrontation is a muddled mess, with neither individual being too sure of what to make of each other, despite their obvious familiarity. We then move to four years earlier, where the tone shifts dramatically. We find Professor Humbert looking for a place to rent as he writes. The landlord, Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), is a widower who flirts with lowered inhibitions. She desperately tries to convince Humbert of staying, completely unaware of his disinterested stance on the place. It’s only until he sees Lolita, sunbathing, does he take the room. Comically, Charlotte asks if it was the garden that sealed the deal for Humbert – her obliviousness is quite cute.
The film gets progressively darker as we move along, as the significance behind the actions of our characters begins to carry more weight. This aspect, along with Shelly Winters’ strong performance, is probably my favorite aspect of Lolita. Kubrick is aware of how to mount tension slowly, and furthermore, he’s able to do so by tip-toeing around the obvious red-flags of the novel. The posters for the film suggest “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Lolita?”. The answer is that Kubrick didn’t. He simply hints at the more perverse elements of the novel and substituted (or jumped over) other elements. There’s a give and take to this method. On one hand, any adaptation of a novel is subject to changes for popular consumption. But on the other hand, such a compromise serves to dismiss the integrity of the book entirely and results in a film that, for all intensive purposes, is really no different than any other screwball comedy of its period. The premise of an aging man lusting for a younger woman is a narrative plot that we’ve seen plenty of times – Nabokov’s novel surpasses the premise, Kubrick’s film is sits comfortably within it.