One of the most frequent compliments bestowed on any movie is that it follows the book it is based on. This usually means that the film maintains the novel’s plot, that the actors are well suited for their roles, and that some semblance of the work’s tone survives the translation from page to screen. This not an easy feat, even when the literary source is fairly naturalistic and straightforward, so if the material is structurally and stylistically knottier, the task becomes more difficult.
Director Stanley Kubrick faced numerous challenges adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous Lolita in 1962. The plot, concerning a language professor’s erotic crush on a grade schooler, had to be altered, and thus defanged, in order to pass censorship boards. Moreover, the book’s subjective point of view imposed huge structural obstacles to a cinematic transposition. First, the story was told in first person, and thus the omniscience shared between the narrator and reader would have to be conveyed through action, not language. Said narrator was often deceitful and delusional, straining the filmmaker’s ability to sustain the illusion that representation corresponds to an objective reality. Much of the novel’s charm also rests on the narrator’s florid internal reminiscences, conveyed through circuitous sentences, alliteration and consonance, literary allusions, and puns. The source’s attractiveness lies in its linguistic dexterity, not in visual imagery or dramatic structure.
Nabokov initially wrote the film’s screenplay retaining much of the book’s flavor through the use of montages and voiceover narration. He clearly intended to preserve the novel’s scope and subjective point of view through a bravura display of cinematic compression. Humbert Humbert’s backstory of a thwarted pre-adolescent erotic encounter, as well as subsequent peccadilloes, were included in this draft. The shooting script, as re-written by Kubrick and producer James B. Harris, changes this complex work of high modernist fiction into a smarmy sex farce that takes a savagely dark turn in its back half. Although the filmed adaptation is less significant to film history than the novel is to literary history, it’s a prime example of Kubrick’s rigorous story editing.
Kubrick and Harris work on the theory that cinema constitutes an empathetic experience born of objective visual scrutiny. We understand the characters’ feelings by watching their behaviors and actions, not having them tell us what’s going on in their heads. Audiences then internalize those externalized responses into their own emotional experiences when watching the movie. As one might expect, Kubrick evaluates every expository decision within the rigor of this idea, guiding the viewer’s eye to the emotional tension embedded in every scene. The performances, rather than the camera, take center stage here.
Kubrick substitutes first-person narration for a style emphasizing facial expressions and physical gestures working in concert with, or against the grain, of the dialogue. By establishing communication as the template of dramatic action, He and Harris reshape the book’s characters, cutting out story detail and altering the chronology. The novel starts with Humbert identifying himself as a pedophile in the form of a confession. He relates the history of his erotic dalliances with prepubescent “nymphets” before settling into the story of his relationship with the title character. This affair ultimately ends with Humbert killing his rival, Clare Quilty, to avenge his paramour’s “defilement”.
Kubrick’s film begins with the murder before flashing back to a new beginning of the story, overlaying a brief Humbert voiceover over a B-roll shot of a college town. All of the backstory preceding the first encounter between the narrator and the Haze family is excised. In these scenes we encounter Humbert in the more modest role of a timid academic caught up in an erotic web of desire and manipulation, rather than a grandiose Casanova of the grade-school set. The character now evolves into a calculating lothario, albeit one whose schemes result in unintended, bittersweet consequences.
James Mason captures Humbert’s arc while retaining the reticence demonstrated at the film’s beginning, when he attempts to project vengeful outrage towards his intended victim, who possesses no knowledge of why he is about to die. He displays cowardice as Lolita’s mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters), corners him into every room of her house while she overbearingly courts him. In counterpoint, Lolita flirts back with Humbert, snidely pushing back against her mother’s bourgeois efforts to suppress her emergent sexuality. Kubrick coordinates camera movement and the actors’ mobility, tracking the characters into enclosed spaces where the role of predator and prey gradually shifts. Kubrick also peppers the dialogue with sexual double entendres to further the ironic distance between literal and metaphorical meanings of words and intent.
The contradiction between language and performance gets more complicated after Charlotte’s death, and Humbert’s relationship with Lolita vacillates between the roles of parent and lover. It’s darkly funny when he tells her that she shouldn’t hang out with the boys at her school as he applies polish to her toenails. When Quilty appears in the guise of a school psychologist, the roleplaying between the two men becomes really bizarre as they lie to each other to keep up their respective poses. The second act evolves into a chess game, in which Quilty’s exploitation of Lolita’s disaffection with Humbert has destructive consequences.
With these moves, Kubrick and Harris turn a specific and perverse situation in the book into something more generic. Humbert is an icon of a dirty middle-aged man falling into a deep infatuation with a specific teenage girl. In the novel, the protagonist first sees Lolita as one of a series of nymphets ripe for the plucking. Lolita also seems preternaturally aware of sex for a grade school-aged child. In the film she has, for several years, been ensconced in the chaperoned world of heteronormative public life, like school dances, drama club, and the like. Her deployment of the “feminine mystique” seems appropriate in her more advanced age. The characters are archetypes, and Kubrick ultimately accepts the limitation inherent in this reduction. His social observations are couched in terms of a drawing room comedy of manners, and the characters still retain the form to fit the expectations of the genre.
This aesthetic is rather theatrical for Kubrick, who usually mixes naturalism (in art design) and surrealism (by the use of wide-angle lenses) to evoke anxiety. The perfunctory soundstage decor and hot-house lighting enhances the movie’s performativeness, drawing the audience’s eye from the totality of the mise-en-scene towards the interplay of the actors. Kubrick utilizes this overall flatness in design to subtly foreshadow Humbert’s claustrophobia. As Lolita and Humbert hit the road, for example, their car’srear window behind their heads emphasizes how sealed off the characters are from the desert’s vastness. Upon Humbert’s discovery of Lolita’s abandonment, an arch bridging a hospital corridor encompasses the gesticulations his breakdown and the regaining of his composure. The powerful coolness in which the camera records his outburst is enhanced by the romantic musical cue that rises as Humbert leaves, poignantly asking, while fully knowing the answer, if his former partner had left a message for him.
While none of these techniques makes Lolita a noticeably important contribution to cinema aesthetics, it is nonetheless an effective movie within the discourse that Hollywood allowed at the time. I’ve often felt that the Kubrick/Harris collaborations constitute an era where the director learned the craft of Hollywood technique, and when the two parted ways after this film’s completion, he found the confidence to bend these rules into a more personally idiosyncratic style. Kubrick flirted with remaking Lolita without the censorship contraints ( a laughable notion considering how little distribution Adrien Lynne’ sexually graphic remake got), but I imagine that, by using actual locations, naturally simulated lighting, and distorted lenses, he might have captured more of the jittery floridity and irony of Nabokov’s novel. As it stands, Kubrick’s Lolita is a quintessential example of its era’s idea of a sophisticated sex comedy, and an exemplary representative of how a studio film at the time was artfully put together.