There are some challenges that will test an adventurer to their fullest mettle but Stanley Kubrick’s gutsy decision to film Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous masterpiece in 1962 invites awe even today.
Published by Olympia Press in 1955 in two softcover volumes sporting the same drab olive-colored wrappers, the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his ill-fated obsession with the 12 year-old “nymphet” Dolores Haze met with trouble right out of the gate (the furor was christened “Hurricane Lolita” by the bemused author); the book was seized by British customs and banned outright in Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and France.
America, by comparison, welcomed Lolita to its shores with relatively open arms and by 1962 had attained sufficient critical acclaim that it could sit without protest next to The Agony and the Ecstasy and To Kill a Mockingbird in the book racks of neighborhood drug stores. But that acclaim didn’t make Kubrick’s job any easier, he still had to contend with not just the Production Code Administration and The Legion of Decency but with overeager actors (Errol Flynn, dissipated and near his end, wanted to star alongside his teenaged girlfriend in some diseased reality show stunt) and an untried screenwriter (Nabokov himself, who turned in a first draft that would have run over four hours).
Plus, to avoid being arrested, the 34 year-old director, who, sixteen years earlier, had mastered the art of visual storytelling as a photographer for Look Magazine, could never show his audience what the movie was really about.
Dodging the hoosegow would be the least of Kubrick’s problems. A tragicomic ode to a one-sided, not to mention illegal, love affair, Lolita‘s wayward characters thrive in a scandal-prone shadowy suburb of Anytown USA where tragedy and slapstick merge, detonate and eventually explode. How does a director translate such hazardous material to the screen?
Kubrick found part of the solution in a combustible cast comprised of James Mason as Humbert, Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty, Humbert’s chief rival and doppelgänger, Shelly Winters as Lolita’s mother, Charlotte (the lovelorn patsy whose betrayal sets the stage for the film’s tragic conclusion) and Sue Lyon as poor Lo.
And just as Nabokov wove parody throughout Lolita, channeling the ghosts of Poe and Lewis Carroll, Kubrick parodied the glossy tearjerkers of directors like Ross Hunter and Mark Robson, portraying the grotesque affair of Humbert, Lolita and Quilty as the cliched love triangle of a high-rent soap opera, a looking glass version of Peyton Place.
The film begins with just such a soap-operatic moment as the painfully acquiescent Humbert, as meekly servile as a lady in waiting, delicately paints Lolita’s toes while Nelson Riddle’s gorgeous mock-romantic theme swells on the soundtrack, a fitting overture for this beautiful, perverse and shockingly funny movie. If the film is not a note for note duplication of Nabokov’s tale, it’s at the very least an remarkably empathetic reconstruction of his grand design.
MGM’s ad campaign traded on the insurmountable odds of Lolita actually appearing at our neighborhood bijou with “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The wags would answer, “They didn’t!”
Well, actually, yes, they did. Lolita is not just Kubrick’s triumph over insurmountable odds; with its pitch-perfect performances, artfully balanced scenes of humor and horror and a devastating emotional trajectory that preserves the book’s sardonic tone as well as its deeply humane undercurrents, it may be his best movie.
Lolita is available here at the Warner Bros. Store.