For half a century, readers have qualmed about their feelings towards Lolita‘s protagonist. Humbert is a paedophile who personally addresses us through riveting, Shakespearian-like, elastic prose. He is charming yet monstrous, and brazenly objective about his illicit desires. He confides in us as readers, and we really are not sure how to feel about that. Therein lies the problem with the earlier adaptation of Lolita.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita – The book takes us hand-in-hand through an amusing, disgusting, compelling and repelling, entertaining and saddening account of Humbert’s life. He is a French literature professor in his forties, who describes a memory that haunts him (and a memory that he believes activated his obsession with “nymphets”), the premature death of his childhood sweetheart. Humbert goes on to rent a room in a New England house. Although he is overtly disinterested by the advances of the landlady, hopeless romantic Charlotte Haze, he is overtly, suddenly and sexually interested in her twelve year old daughter Dolores. Dolores becomes his Lolita, and he becomes a father figure. With the mother later conveniently off the scene, he perverts that role (“and she was mine, she was mine, the key was in my fist, my fist was in my pocket, she was mine“) and drags the unsuspecting “nymph” across America on a trip that becomes increasingly tragic.
In 1962, Stanley Kubrick and Vladimir Nabokov worked together to make the film, but unfortunately their hands were tied. The motion picture production code of the time demanded something suitable for mass-consumption, disallowing them to venture freely through the movements of Humbert. Therefore the story of Lolita becomes something else entirely – Lolita herself is transformed.
Kubrick cast a fourteen year old Sue Lyon for the role of Lolita. But she does not appear as the “nymphet” Humbert describes. The first time we see Lolita in Kubrick’s adaptation is also the first time Humbert sees her, when she is lying in the garden. Leaning on one arm, she is tanning herself and reading a book, wearing a large sun hat and dark sunglasses. Her swimsuit leaves little to the imagination when it comes to her premature curves. She instantly gives off a very voguish, womanly vibe, and anyone could be forgiven for mistaking her for a lady in her early twenties at this stage, or at least past seventeen. Right away that expunges the reason Humbert is attracted to Lolita in the original source. He is irrefutably sexually attracted to Lolita because of her distinct youthful and childlike characteristics – Humbert loves Lolita because in the mornings she sleepily stands “four feet ten in one sock“.
The conflict we face in the book is that we view Humbert as a monster, but at the same time we can’t help but find something affable in him. In no way are we prompted to empathise with his actions and what he does to Lolita, but regardless we stick with him to the end. We almost pity him when he repents, and he does repent, but because of how explicitly he illustrates the child-like nature of Lolita, we view him as a monster who is undoubtedly a paedophile. Kubrick’s adaptation causes a different conflict in us. Surely James Mason’s Humbert can’t be held completely to ransom for becoming initially besotted with Sue Lyon’s Lolita. Although Lyon does a great job of portraying some child-like mannerisms (fidgeting, exaggerated rolling of the eyes, blowing bubblegum), she does not have the appearance of a child. As viewers of Kubrick’s film, the conflict facing us is one of a less harsh nature. Her age is never stated, and although the way he breaks her childhood causes us to cast judgement on him, the judgement runs the risk of being toned down through the lack of the portrayal of her explicit youthfulness. Are we the monsters here, because we may be drawn to empathise more with Humbert’s character in this version?
Lolita becomes something else, and the film is enjoyable. In the usual Stanley Kubrick way, scenes are lengthened and details can be slowly extrapolated, rendering us as patient, watchful voyeurs. I loved the additions to the character of Clare Quilty brought by Peter Sellers – fantastic. But again, this addition brings a different nature of comedy, almost a slapstick comedy, which transforms Lolita and distracts us from the brutal nature of what Humbert is doing to her (we can only presume, as we are never actually shown). That brings us on to the next adaptation of the story, a few decades later in 1997.
As per the restrictions of the Hays Code in the earlier motion picture regulations, Kubrick could only hint towards some of the horrific scenarios that unfold in Nabokov’s Lolita. Some have argued that Adrian Lyne’s later adaptation may have gone too far the other way. I would disagree. I think Lyne reveals enough for us to realise the extent of perversion that Humbert is carrying out with Lolita, but not too much to classify as grotesque exploitation cinema.
The young actress’s (Dominique Swain) work with Lolita also comes a step closer to how she is viewed through Humbert’s eyes. He describes her “fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way“. Instead of possessing the sleek pin-up figure of Sue Lyon, Swain’s Lolita seems to be only just growing into her limbs and curves, and more closely adopts the run-of-the-mill, awkward young teenage girl appearance. She’s ungraceful on her feet and unladylike. That means, to your average non-paedophile, Lolita is a normal child who is not sexually appealing. Resultantly, this later adaptation of Lolita more closely reflects what we extrapolate from the source text.
Jeremy Iron’s trickling, ashy and refined voice brings a somewhat spectral edge to Humbert, and Ennicio Morricone’s soundtrack brings the sombre tones to his desolation towards the end. All in all, it is a beautiful film, as is Kubrick’s, but in largely different ways.
The 1997 adaptation is a quite an aesthetically pleasing composition, starkly about a paedophile and how he manages to sexually exploit a young girl over a period of time. The 1962 adaptation, as an artefact separate to the book, is an even better piece of work. It’s an enjoyable movie about how an educated man becomes obsessed with a young girl, essentially kidnaps her, loses her, and lives out the rest of his days in a miserable, paranoid turmoil. The whole side story of Clare Quilty is for another discussion – he’s the brash reflection of what Humbert really is.
You can consider connotations that Kubrick both added and removed from his adaptation, and suggest that a fantasy-like sexual nature is added to the character of Lolita that never existed in the first place. And the ironic part is that the strict conservatism of the time invoked a ‘cleaner’ version, with the paedophilia a shadow lurking in the background as opposed to overtly in the foreground, causing us to let Humbert off easier, and almost become voyeurs of Lolita’s youthfulness ourselves.
What both films do on an equal level is objectify Lolita as Humbert does, in the sense that her identity and her individualism is not explored in either source, as it is not explored in the book. We only see her as the object of Humbert’s desire. She doesn’t really get a say in the matter, until towards the end when she reunites with Humbert and lets him know that she understands the extent of how he’s damaged her. She explains to Humbert that he merely broke her life.