Having just finished the novel of the same name, I delved headfirst into what was described by fans of the book as Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 “masterpiece” adaptation. This review will mostly consist of an analysis of both versions of the story through comparisons between the book and the film, since both are so fresh in my mind.
First and foremost, one can’t quite consider oneself a “fan” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita without receiving a few questioning glances in return. The novel is told from the perspective of a pedophile, H. Humbert, and his love-lust-desire for his landlady’s preteen daughter, Dolores Haze. It isn’t that Lolita ranks so high among literary classics because of its likability. Rather, its harsh, disturbing subject matter combined with Nabokov’s detailed, often flowery prose creates a contrast that keeps readers enthralled and engaged from start to finish. And it’s not that we as readers necessarily feel for Humbert–we just experience his feelings, his self-hatred, his passion firsthand as it all unfolds for us throughout the novel. Nabokov weaves a deplorable yet unforgettable tale that has shocked readers since its publication in 1952.
So upon reading the final page of the book, I wondered just how any film adaptation could do this book justice. Humbert’s narration is so painstakingly wrought that it seemed to me impossible to replicate in any other medium. The 1962 Lolita (in comparison to the ’97 adaptation which I’ve yet to see) features a script partially written by Nabokov himself.
Despite Nabokov’s involvement in the film, translating this book from page to screen inevitably had to allow for some changes. What surprised me about the film was its very immediately apparent change in tone from that of the book. There are various little plot changes–for example, Lolita’s initial age is changed from 12 to 14, though I think this was to make the film easier to stomach for viewers; and Mona is written as the daughter of Jean and John Farlow–but I think what struck me most having just put the book down was how much more open the film is to other character perspectives. It’s a bit jarring to those only familiar with the book, because we as readers are exposed to only Humbert’s claustrophobic thoughts, ideas, and fantasies. As viewers we see a much fuller picture of Humbert’s marriage to Charlotte, and a much more in-depth depiction of Clare Quilty, our main antagonist (if you don’t count Humbert as the antagonist, though that is a debate for another time). Kubrick doesn’t only make changes, but creates his own dynamics between characters and components of the original Lolita story. This takes a bit to get used to if you were expecting a direct adaptation (as I was). The film takes on an almost comic tone at times–not necessarily in regard to the disturbing feelings European Humbert has for Lo, but in Humbert’s maneuvering of the various strange American idiosyncrasies by which he’s surrounded, as well as his over-the-top interactions with others in his attempt to achieve his lofty and disturbing goals.
What Kubrick hits perfectly in his film is characterization. Charlotte Haze is portrayed near flawlessly by Shelley Winters; both her dialogue and her mannerisms truly emphasize her need to be “in” with the cultured “it” crowd (“Is it my fault if I feel young?”). Her dynamic with Lo is great as well, snippy and changing feeling constantly. James Mason’s Professor Humbert is perfectly awkward (the dancing scene between him and Charlotte is exactly how I would imagine him attempting to dance) and subtly creepy (i.e. in his longing stare at Lolita’s picture as he fondles his wife). Kubrick cast the film very effectively; the chemistry and dynamics between all the actors is brilliantly executed. For those who haven’t read the book, this film definitely gives one a sense of what the characters are like.
Kubrick’s direction, too, is unparalleled, creating sympathy for even the nastiest, most attention-seeking of characters in long-held close-ups and erratic fade-outs. He treats Lolita with the innocent softglow Humbert eternally sees her in. And he uses lighting to depict Quilty’s ever-lurking nature very effectively. What Kubrick chooses to show is just as effective as what he leaves out. The intimate scene on the cot between Lolita and Humbert ends with a fade-out on her face, and we as viewers are left to imagine what transpired between them. One of my favorite moments is, actually, the opening credits scene depicting Lolita’s small, childlike foot getting a pedicure. It’s simple, but knowing the story oddly disturbing especially as the image comes up again later in the film.
It is important to understand there’s no true way to adapt Lolita word-for-word. It is an experience that can only be done justice in Humbert’s own original words. Kubrick’s film, though, is a worthy companion to Nabokov’s original work. The 1960s could only go so far in movie-making without censors blaring at every turn, but Kubrick maneuvers around these to allow Lolita to stand on its own, separate from the novel, as a tribute to Nabokov’s ideas about the perils, joys, and contradictions in sex, youth and love.