Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) first wrote about an older man's passion for his stepdaughter in Volshebnik
("The Wizard"), a novella not published until 1986, after his death. He also included similar plot elements in his 1926 short story "A Nursery Tale," the 1932 novel Laughter in the Dark
and 1937's The Gift
, in which the protagonist outlines a novel whose plot mirrors that of Lolita
In 1947, Nabokov wrote a friend that he had started working on a short novel about a man who was sexually attracted to little girls. At the time, he called it A Kingdom by the Sea
Inspirations for the novel may have included Heinz von Eschwege's 1916 German short story "Lolita," about a lodger who falls in love with a girl living in the same house, and the real-life case of a 50-year-old mechanic who abducted and abused an 11-year-old girl for almost two years. Nabokov would also say that Humbert Humbert's passion for Lolita reflects his own love affair with the English language.
When Nabokov started sending the manuscript to publishers, one was so shocked he tore it up. Another suggested he burn the original manuscript, while still another suggested the book would be more palatable if he turned the title character into a young boy.
It took Nabokov four years to get Lolita
published in the U.S. The novel was so controversial no publisher here would touch it. Instead, it debuted in France, published by the Olympia Press in Paris, in 1955. G.P. Putnam's Sons finally published it in the U.S. in 1958, with Weidenfeld and Nicholson publishing the British version a year later.
Despite the fact that the book's initial printing of 5,000 sold out, there were no reviews of the Olympia Press edition of Lolita
. The book did not attract any notice until writer Graham Greene referred to it as one of the best novels of 1955 in an interview. Then the book was banned in Great Britain and France.
Stanley Kubrick and his producing partner, James B. Harris, bought the film rights to Lolita
in 1958, a few weeks before the novel first appeared in the U.S. They paid Nabokov $150,000 and 15 percent of the film's profits. Initially, the author declined to write the screenplay.
In its U.S. publication, Lolita
became the first book since Gone With the Wind
to sell 100,000 copies within three weeks of its release. It remained on the best-seller list for 56 weeks.
Kubrick first assigned the screenplay to novelist Calder Willingham, who had written the script for Paths of Glory
(1957). When the new screenplay proved unacceptable, Kubrick finally convinced Nabokov to do the adaptation himself.
Nabokov was delighted with his work on the screenplay, claiming he had turned the novel into poetry. The script even incorporated sequences cut from the original novel. Kubrick estimated that Nabokov's 400-page first draft would fill seven hours of screen time, so the novelist did another, shorter, re-write. Eventually, Kubrick and Harris wrote an adaptation of Nabokov's screenplay. Although they kept only about 20 percent of Nabokov's script, they allowed him to keep the screen credit.
Kubrick turned to publisher Martin Quigley, a co-author of the Hollywood Production Code and long-time supporter of the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, for help in getting his script past the censors.
To placate the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency Kubrick agreed to make no clear reference to Lolita's age and to forgo love scenes. He also tipped the audience to Humbert's romantic love for Lolita early in the film, a choice he would later regret. In the novel, the protagonist's true love for the girl is not revealed until the end. The script passed the Production Code Administration on only the second submission.
In another concession to the censors, Kubrick moved Clare Quilty's murder to the opening of the film, making it clear that Humbert's illicit passion for Lolita would have serious consequences. He also added a final title to indicate that Humbert had died of a heart attack in his prison cell.
Production Code censors labeled a scene in which Humbert cannot make love to Charlotte until he sees Lolita's picture on her night stand as "sexual perversion." When Kubrick shot the scene, Charlotte is fully clothed, and Humbert is wearing his robe.
With script approval from the Production Code Administration, Kubrick and Harris secured financing from a group of Canadian bankers whose only stipulation was that the film be shot in England to keep costs down. The final budget was $1.9 million, low for the early '60s.
James Mason was Kubrick's first choice to play Humbert Humbert, but the actor turned him down in favor of a move to the Broadway stage to star in a musical version of The Affairs of Anatole
that he hoped would boost his failing film career. Kubrick had also discussed the role of Humbert with Sir Laurence Olivier while they were filming Spartacus
(1960), but the actor later got cold feet about the project. Noel Coward, David Niven and Rex Harrison all turned down the role. Cary Grant announced that he had declined the role, too, although Kubrick and Harris stated they had never offered it to him. They also briefly considered Peter Ustinov.
Errol Flynn pitched himself and teen love Beverly Aadland for the leads in Lolita
, but Kubrick passed.
Finally, Mason agreed to accept the role, though he balked at the suggestion that his daughter, Portland, test to play Lolita.
Having been impressed with Peter Sellers' performance in The Battle of the Sexes
(1959) and his comedy album The Best of Sellers
, Kubrick offered him the role of Clare Quilty, the writer who ultimately steals Lolita from Humbert. At the time, the role was a cameo, only on screen for about five minutes.
When Sellers had trouble developing an interpretation of his role, Kubrick had jazz musician Norman Granz record the dialogue, which gave Sellers the key to Quilty's character.
Tuesday Weld, then 16 and already noted for sexually provocative performances in films such as Rally Round the Flag, Boys!
(1958), was an early favorite for the title role, but Nabokov exercised his contractual right to veto the casting. He simply didn't see her as his character.
Kubrick also approached Hayley Mills, then a hot box office star on the strength of her performances in Tiger Bay
(1959) and Pollyanna
(1960), but she turned the role down. At the time, sources said her father, actor John Mills, had made the decision for her. Later, it was revealed that Walt Disney, who held her contract, did not want her appearing in the film.
The young Joey Heatherton also turned down the title role because her father was afraid she would be typecast in sexual roles..
Kubrick spotted Sue Lyon on TV's Letter to Loretta
. One thing that convinced him to hire her was the size of her breasts, which were surprisingly mature for her age at the time (13). He reasoned her physical maturity would make Lolita seem older. She was 15 when the film was shot and 16 when it was released.
by Frank Miller