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"How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?" was the tag line for the ad campaign behind this film, Stanley Kubrick's screen version of the infamous Vladimir Nabokov novel. Actually, there was no easy answer to the question but it was used to arouse the public's curiosity about the controversial subject matter: a middle-aged man's obsessive infatuation with a prepubescent girl, or, more precisely, a 'nymphet', to put it in the words of Humbert Humbert (the book's main character).
Lolita (1962) was a significant step forward for Kubrick's career because it was the first film over which he had complete creative control. It was also the director's first movie to be produced in England; all of his subsequent projects would be filmed there. Lolita began its journey to the screen in 1958 when Kubrick and his partner, producer James B. Harris, purchased the film rights. They immediately approached Nabokov to adapt the screenplay from his own novel but he declined, later confessing in Lolita: A Screenplay that "the idea of tampering with my own novel caused me only revulsion." Kubrick was persistent, however, and eventually won Nabokov over, promising him a free hand in the adaptation. After six months, the author turned in a screenplay which was 400 pages in length and was promptly rejected by Kubrick as too long (he estimated it would run seven hours in that version); Nabokov then submitted a shorter version which, in turn, was extensively revised by Kubrick and Harris until the final script contained only about 20 percent of Nabokov's work. Still, the latter received the sole screen credit for the writing.
Casting for the film was equally challenging. Tuesday Weld was first considered for the part but by the time the film actually approached the production stage, she was already too old for the role. Sue Lyon, a screen newcomer, eventually won the part of Lolita and turned thirteen during the filming, which was significantly older than the nymphet of the novel. But the idea of casting a younger actress was out of the question because the censors were already up in arms about the central premise of the film.
As for the role of Humbert Humbert, David Niven, Rex Harrison, and Noel Coward were all candidates but declined, fearing it was too risky a venture and might actually hurt their careers; some of them reasoning that audiences might identify them too closely with the part. But when James Mason was offered the role, he took it as a challenge. Besides, his film career was currently in a slump (Kubrick, at one point, even proposed that Mason's young daughter, Portland, play Lolita but her father immediately rejected the idea). The other key roles were soon filled by Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Humbert's landlady and mother of Lolita, and Peter Sellers as the enigmatic Clare Quilty, a minor character in the novel that Kubrick expanded for the screen version. In fact, Kubrick spent more time helping Sellers develop the Quilty character than he did with the rest of the cast, causing Mason, in particular, to feel that he had taken the wrong role. Not only did the director engage jazz impresario Norman Granz to record Quilty's dialogue on tape so Sellers could find "his character," but he also had two to three cameras trained on Sellers for every take in order to catch any inspired improvisation Sellers came up with. As a rule, Sellers was usually brilliant on the first take, uneven on the second, and practically exhausted by the third. However, Kubrick only used the most inspired bits and they demonstrate Sellers' remarkable gifts for mimicry and improvisation.
When Lolita was released nationally, it received mixed reviews. Some critics complained that the film lacked the depth and psychological detail of the original novel but how could it be completely faithful in light of the censorship restrictions at the time? Nabokov, in particular, had contradictory feelings, writing, "My first reaction to the picture was a mixture of aggravation, regret, and reluctant pleasure," but later in a Playboy interview, said, "The four actors deserve the highest praise. Sue Lyon bringing that breakfast tray or childishly pulling on her sweater in the car - these are moments of unforgettable acting and directing." Other reviewers endorsed the film wholeheartedly like Pauline Kael who wrote, "It's the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick. Lolita is black slapstick and at times it's so far out that you gasp as you laugh."
Probably the film's worst critic was Kubrick himself who said, "I would fault myself in one area of the film. Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I wasn't able to give any weight at all to the erotic aspect of Humbert's relationship with Lolita; and because his sexual obsession was only hinted at, it was assumed too quickly that Humbert was in love. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end." With all due respect to Kubrick, Lolita remains a landmark film of the sixties and still stands as one of the most intelligent and clever literary adaptations ever brought to the screen. Despite the fact that it only garnered one Oscar nomination (for Best Adapted Screenplay), Lolita is an excellent place to begin if you are not familiar with Stanley Kubrick's early work.
Producer: James B. Harris
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Vladimir Nabokov (also novel), Stanley Kubrick (uncredited)
Art Direction: William C. Andrews
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Costume Design: Gene Coffin
Film Editing: Anthony Harvey
Original Music: Bob Harris (Lolita theme), Nelson Riddle
Principal Cast: James Mason (Professor Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Dolores "Lolita" Haze), Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty), Gary Cockrell (Dick Schiller), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore).
BW-154m. Letterboxed. Closed captioned. Descriptive Video.
by Jeff Stafford