By Noel Vera
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
(Warning: novel and film’s overall story and narrative twists discussed in close detail)
NABOKOV’s Lolita — about a middle-aged college professor’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl — is something of a Venus Flytrap: bright colors and alluring scents (the promise of lewd sensuality) attract the unwary reader and before he knows it — woops! — he’s trapped in a fabulist wonderland of American kitsch and grotesquerie, booby-trapped with hidden caches of pain, suffering, death.
Stanley Kubrick’s film keeps its more puritanical American viewing audience in mind (the book had been controversial but a best-seller) by dropping the erotic tone and with the first scene plunges us straight into Nabokovian surrealism: a disintegrating mansion haunted by a bespectacled ogre (Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty) who noble hero Humbert Humbert (James Mason) threatens with (What else could it be in gun crazy America?) a revolver. Only — think about it — Humbert is the child molester, Quilty her rescuer.
Does the book — or for that matter Kubrick’s film — still speak to us today, in this post-Weinstein world? Louder than ever I submit.
The novel leads us to believe otherwise at first: its point of view is constantly Humbert’s and his fanciful roundabout way of explaining himself (sprinkling funny little disparaging comments on the stupidity of American pop culture along the way) makes us think “Witty, eloquent, sophisticated man, haunted by early tragedy and trapped in a nation of buffoons. If he wants to realize his fantasies around a young girl who are we to judge?” Perhaps Nabokov’s most daring provocation is his reversal of the notion of decadent Europe vs. youthful America: Lolita seduces Humbert not the other way around.
Misdirection, deception, seduction — in the less erotic, more nightmarish second half, Lolita as it turns out is not fully under Humbert’s control, probably never was; she disappears for two years and when Humbert finally catches up with her she’s a heavily pregnant woman married to a Richard F. Schiller and it’s this Dolores Haze (only Humbert calls her “Lolita”; everyone else calls her “Lo” or “Dolly” or when her mother was mad “Dolores”) that Humbert finally recognizes and loves. All delusions and justifications stripped away and left with only himself and what he has done, he goes out and (out of a sense of remorse, revenge, need for redemption) kills Quilty, then dies in prison while waiting trial. Yes, folks are right to call it a “love story”; it also happens to be a tragedy.
Kubrick claimed that anticipated censorship problems compelled him to de-emphasize the novel’s initial sensuality but I’d argue that even more impossible to capture on-screen than the eroticism is the novel’s final section — witheringly sad on the printed page, you wonder if on-screen Humbert’s self-examination might not slip that short dangerous distance into bathos.
Plus, I’m not quite sure that Kubrick is capable of capturing the voluptuousness of Nabokov’s prose — that he has ever managed to make a sexy film (Barry Lyndon maybe? Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t count; if anything it’s anti-erotic). The filmmaker comes closest early on, when the camera is picking its way through the clutter surrounding Quilty in his mansion, Lolita (Sue Lyons) mentioned only in dialogue (the obsessively accumulated wealth of detail recalls Lyndon). But the Gothic gargoyle that dogs Humbert throughout the film — that’s more Kubrick’s forte.
The foregrounded humor — which was present in Nabokov’s novel anyway, and which I suspect was what Kubrick was really responding to — has two functions: as the hook to draw us into the narrative (the way eroticism did for the book) and as a way to undercut Humbert early, cast him as the straight-man buffoon in a low-key farce (and if the film has a straight man it definitely needs a comic — hence the expanded role of Sellers’ Quilty). If the book is a seduction that goes on for a few hundred pages, the film presents itself instead as a narrative mystery: who is Quilty and why would Humbert want to kill him?
As Humbert actor James Mason turns the notion of a pedophile on its head: he’s not some overweight creep with little skill in social interaction hiding in someone’s basement; instead he’s a suavely handsome European intellectual, all dark-eyed low-key charm. With his casting Kubrick makes a powerful point: predators take all forms. There is no consistent stereotype.
Much ink has been spilled on how Kubrick tinkered with both tone and structure of the novel but not as much on how he’s changed our view of at least one major character: Charlotte Haze, Dolores’ mother (played by Shelley Winter). Nabokov stuck to his strategy of peering through Humbert’s eyes and through Humbert’s eyes Charlotte is repulsively vulgar, with an embarrassingly undisguised need to appear culturally enlightened. Somehow Winters (with the help of Kubrick’s script revisions) manages to crack open Charlotte’s brassy shell to reveal the loneliness, the vulnerability within — all mostly within the scene where Charlotte clumsily tries to seduce Humbert.
The revision serves to prepare us for the later twist of Lolita becoming Dolores, of a nymphet stepping out of her alluring haze to reveal herself as a victim. Has she been robbed of her childhood too? Yes, Kubrick seems to say, offering us this image: of Sue Lyons in glasses with a sizable bump on her belly answering the door — like Winters’ Charlotte, a frowzy hausfrau who enjoys sipping a can of beer (we don’t see Charlotte actually sip beer but you can believe she would) and offering domesticated civilities (“You’ll have to excuse my appearance, but you’ve caught me on ironing day”). That we’ve seen Charlotte’s inner vulnerability reinforces the sadness of that image; if Mason’s Humbert is overcome and weeps at the sight of what he has wrought, can we blame him?