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James Mason and Sue Lyon in Lolita

By Noel Vera

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

(WARNING: Plot and narrative twists discussed in close detail)

CREDIT where credit is due: I was invited to listen to a podcast ( on Kubrick’s film Lolita — which I’d written about some weeks ago — and while I disagreed with most of the conclusions the discussion did set me to thinking more on the film, leading to this, an attempt at elaboration and clarification.

Mention the film’s title or the Vladimir Nabokov novel it was adapted from and people immediately think of middle-aged men chasing prepubescent girls; the name was enshrined in hardbound form in The Lolita Complex — a collection of cases about young girls seducing older men presented as a serious psychological study (actually a fake, the author Russell Trainer — who could’ve stepped straight out of a Nabokov novel — was something of a con artist). When the book was translated into Japanese the title — shortened to lolicon — was adopted to refer to a whole genre of anime and manga depicting attraction to young girls, not to mention the strange sad men who obsess over them.

I’ve found one serious piece on Nabokov’s novel. Not a peer-reviewed research paper but an article by a psychology professor (Psychology Today, for the record) — and it discusses Humbert’s narcissism not his pedophilia (or hebephilia, depending on the age of the youth involved).

Unless someone can produce such a study (not saying it doesn’t exist but there’s nothing readily available on Google) I suspect Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is meant to be more of a literary fabrication (think Russell Trainer, only brilliant) than a serious psychological or psychiatric subject, the pedophilia (or hebephilia) in Lolita more a MacGuffin diverting attention away from the real purpose: “to fix once for all the perilous magic of” obsession.

The book hews closely to Humbert’s point of view; many of Nabokov’s effects are a result of this one conceit — the long ramblings, the baroque prose, the generously scattered hints and clues that the narrating “madman” (more in a literary than psychological sense) suffers from an unreliable memory or is lying outrageously. How is Kubrick to translate this kind of intricate tricky narrative to the big screen?

The answer is simple of course, as in Luis Bunuel simple: just shoot the weird stuff, let the meanings take care of themselves. As Thomas Allen Nelson notes in his essay, Humbert (James Mason) walking into Quilty’s mansion revolver in hand is the equivalent of normal society straying into the hell of unbridled hedonism — much of the source of the opening sequence’s comedy is Humbert insisting on the gravity of the situation and Quilty (Peter Sellers) defying him with one lighter-than-air improvisation after another. After Humbert leaves Quilty dead sitting behind a bullet-riddled Thomas Gainsboroughlike portrait (actually of Frances Puleston, by Gainsborough contemporary George Romney), the story rewinds four years to find our “hero” arriving at the house of the widowed Charlotte Haze (Shelly Winters) — ostensibly a “normal” household but (we soon learn) every bit as jumbled physically and emotionally as Quilty’s Gothic mansion.

And of course there’s Dolores Haze — Lolita (Sue Lyon) — dressed in a bikini, a feathered hat haloed round her head, sunning on a backyard blanket. Kubrick cast Lyon when she was 13, filmed her when she was 15, had her attend the premiere when she was 16 — the actual age is immaterial (Dominique Swain was roughly the same age when she appeared before the cameras in the ridiculously solemn 1997 version); what’s important is that Lyons dressed spoke and acted like an older youth, 16 perhaps, and I’ve heard complaints on the subject.

I don’t buy them. Twelve-year-old girls have been known to dress and make themselves up to look 14 or older — not a big fan of Pauline Kael but when she said the film wasn’t being evasive but accurate I agree with her; if anything the trend has gotten worse with the years.

If Quilty’s mansion echoes Charlotte’s house then the figure of Humbert echoes Charlotte — both are hopelessly enamored of their objects of desire (Dolores, Humbert), both objects in return barely acknowledge they exist. The echoes bounce backward and forward in time — we learn that Charlotte was married at an early age to a man 20 years older (we see a portrait of Mr. Haze and he looks suspiciously like Nabokov); we learn after that Dolores was in love not with Humbert but Quilty — who in turn functions as Humbert’s mirror-image, dogging him at every step.

Could we argue that Dolores Charlotte Clare are all but variations on Humbert? I think not; rather his voice and sensibility holds sway over all, dictating how much of each character should appear in the novel and of what nature. Thus Quilty is a shadowy menace, Charlotte a monstrous harpy, Dolores a collection of ankles, knees, elbows, braces, surrounded by a golden haze — what binds them together like links in a sadomasochistic daisy chain are their respective obsessions.

Not an easy concept to translate onscreen and Kubrick to his credit doesn’t attempt any clumsily overt efforts either; he suggests the similarities through the different homes (cluttered mansion, chaotic house), allowing the plot to reveal more of its design (Charlotte loves Humbert loves Lolita loves Clare) on its own time, as it unfolds.

I’ve suggested before that Kubrick and Winters retooled Charlotte to be more sympathetic (Nabokov’s mater Haze was a harpy, though Humbert drops the insulting tone midway through (he adopted it for his diary) and her name keeps popping up in the remaining pages, suggesting a troubled conscience), that this change had no small consequence. When Humbert finally catches up with Dolores after a two-year separation (she had run away with Quilty), Dolores has married and is pregnant and looks uncannily like Charlotte — I submit the force of the epiphany (that she has, thanks in part to him, become her mother), plus Dolores’ still-adamant refusal to come away with him, has reduced the sorely tried stepfather and ex-lover to tears.

And we pity Humbert. Well we try — we pity him in Nabokov’s novel and if you’ve read the book you’re primed to pity him here. But you don’t; Mason is sobbing and heaving all he’s worth while Bob Harris’ lush piano score is heard in the background — only the piano bangs away too loud and Lyon’s Dolores natters endlessly maddeningly (“Let’s keep in touch okay?”). Kubrick, for a final joke, leaves us with yet another echo, of Dolores as Clare Quilty driving Humbert away not with defiant silliness but with invincible banality (Lyons is a limited actress but here her inborn callowness works).

Quilty may have tossed Dolores aside like a used napkin, but the girl not only survived, she’s found contentment, however, meager and even some measure of happiness in her oblivious husband (Gary Cockrell); she doesn’t need Humbert — never did — and this destroys him. Nabokov in the novel gave Humbert some measure of sympathy; Kubrick doesn’t — he doesn’t even give the man the mercy of a dignified exit (to paraphrase from another great black-and-white film, he’s got his comeuppance. “He got it three times filled and running over.”). All that’s left for the desolate lover is the mansion, the revolver, and Quilty — and we all know how that turns out.