“Do you believe in God?
The question is does God believe in me?”
I often forget that Stanley Kubrick, a leading director in the history of American cinema, once directed a film adaptation of Lolita. If you’re unfamiliar with the source material by Vladimir Nabokov, it’s a novel that has been controversial since its release for its focus on a 37 year old man’s sexual obsession with a 12 year old girl. It’s been banned from high schools and has caused much discourse in the literature community about its merit. This film, which was made only 7 years after the novel’s release, has caused an equal amount of controversy and makes for a neat examination of film censorship. I had never seen it before, so I decided to give it a watch.
The first thing I find interesting about this one is that Nabokov himself wrote the first screenplay of the film, but it was rewritten by Kubrick and producer James Harris to fit the screen until it looked very different from Nabokov’s original work. It’s also abundantly clear that Kubrick was held back by strict MPAA guidelines of the 1960s. The 12 year old Lolita was raised to age 14, and a much more developed actress had to be selected in order to tone down the pedophilia of the original novel. Also, no sexual acts are ever depicted onscreen. Rather, Kubrick was forced to imply the sexual activity through suggestive dialogue and slow fades instead of actually showing any of it. I’m sure the film would have looked very different under Kubrick’s original vision, far more disturbing perhaps, and it’s a shame that so many movies fell victim to these guidelines for much of the 20th century. Kubrick even went on to say that he would never have taken on the film if he knew the restrictions he’d be working under.
Despite all of this, I still found the film to be entertaining. The increasing obsession that the protagonist feels towards this young girl makes for an intriguing film. It’s a pretty sick subject, but it’s one that isn’t often explored through film. The movie has gotten a lot of heat for playing down the misery Lolita faces in the original novel and for portraying Humbert as more of a sensible, charming sort of guy. These are valid criticisms, and I wonder how much of this was Kubrick playing into MPAA guidelines. I like to think Kubrick would have loved to explore the mentally unstable, unreliable narrator present in the source material. We’re left with only a shadow of this concept, but it still manages to be an entertaining film anyway. It’s neat to see the subtle moments where Kubrick implies the sexual nature of the story without being too forthright. I saw the constant repetition of flowers to have a sexual connotation, and there are quite a few verbal innuendos that make the point rather clear as well.
The acting in the film is pretty solid all around. James Mason plays Humbert as a more sympathetic intellectual type than the novel would suggest, and perhaps this makes for a less interesting film, but he still does good character work. The obsession with Lolita grows more and more dominant as the film progresses, and Mason plays this all very well. Sue Lyon plays Lolita as a bit older and more flirty, further toning down the pedophilia and disgust of it all, but she does bring a sort of youthful spunk to the character that plays well against Humbert’s paranoia and intellectualism. I think it’s hilarious that Peter Sellers makes an appearance in the movie as Clare Quilty, and his character was expanded greatly in the script for plot purposes but probably also because it adds some comedic relief. That ping pong scene at the beginning is just so wacky and remains one of the most memorable for me in the film.
Lolita is definitely less recognizable as a Kubrick film than some of his later works, likely for a few reasons. This clearly isn’t one of the most artistic fulfilling projects that he worked with, and I’m sure the whole censorship thing was discouraging for him. There’s also the fact that this is an earlier work and his craft was still being perfected. However, there is still evidence across the film that Kubrick was behind this one. The focus on the inner struggle of a character, the detailed sets, the impressive storytelling techniques, they all enhance Lolita to be a really engaging film, and Kubrick should be given full credit for this. I could definitely see this script doing very poorly in the hands of the wrong director. As a big fan of Kubrick, it was really cool to see how he handled a story that may be considered a bit more out of his element.
It’s a bit disappointing to wonder what Kubrick would have done with Lolita given full creative control. The original novel is pretty twisted with some really dark characters, and he really wasn’t given the opportunity to do this story full justice. Regardless, I really ended up liking Lolita. The story is certainly unique, and Kubrick does the best possible job presenting an interesting narrative, showing early promise for himself as one of America’s greatest directors. I’m looking forward to diving into some of his more established classics very soon.
Films Left to Watch: 968