1) (1955) VLADIMIR NABOKOV was still a relatively unknown expatriate teaching Russian literature at Cornell University when he published Lolita in 1955. It was his eighth novel, and to this day it remains his most celebrated, if controversial, work. It appeared in an earlier version in 1939 under the title Volshebnik (The Enchanter), about a man who marries a widowed mother in order to molest her 12-yearold daughter (he dies after the act in a traffic accident). Lolita’s story of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a 12-year old girl created a scandal immediately, and it was banned in Paris for two years (1956–1958), and not published in full in America and the United Kingdom until 1958.
   The story begins as European expatriate Humbert Humbert languishes in a prison psychiatric ward. He is penning a diary account of his fascination with pubescent “nymphets. ” His seriocomic chronicle begins with a description of his love as a child for a little girl named Annabel Leigh, who had died prematurely of typhus. In later years, the adult Humbert, after periodic bouts of mental instability, immigrates to the United States where he establishes himself as a French literature scholar. He settles down in the New England town of Ramsdale, where he meets and marries Charlotte Haze. The marriage is merely a pretext for Humbert to get closer to Lolita, Charlotte’s 12-year old daughter. He claims that the child reminds him of his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. After Charlotte dies in a freak car accident, Humbert is free to take his stepdaughter on a crosscountry automobile trip. Before he can seduce her, she seduces him, and he discovers that she had lost her virginity some time before. He and Lolita end up at Beardsley College, where he passes her off as his daughter. But their relationship, tenuous as it is, begins to sour. Humbert decides to take her on a second cross-country trip, but this time she leaves him somewhere in Arizona. Distraught, he searches for her for years. By the time he finds her again, she is 17, married, and pregnant. Lolita tells Humbert that she left him to be with Clare Quilty, a popular playwright and pornographic filmmaker, but that now she has left Quilty and needs money. Enraged with jealousy, Humbert kills Quilty. Humbert is imprisoned and subsequently dies of a heart attack. One month later, Lolita dies in childbirth after delivering a stillborn daughter.
   Key to understanding the novel is Humbert’s unreliable narrative voice. The novel’s introductory pages are penned by the hilariously pompous “Dr. John Ray,” who warns the reader that Humbert is a “demented diarist” and a “panting maniac. ” This is confirmed by Humbert’s frequent asides, which hint at his unbalanced mental state. For example, after noting Lolita’s charms in a florid rhetorical style, Humbert declares,“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. ” The reader becomes complicit in Humbert/Nabokov’s conspiracy of reality and hallucination. As critic Michael Wood puts it succinctly, “The difficulty with Lolita is not that it is an immoral book, but that it is soaked in Humbert’s morality, that it leaves us scarcely anywhere else to go. ”
   Nabokov collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on a screen adaptation of his book. And although Nabokov received sole screen credit for the screenplay, Kubrick rewrote much of the screenplay after Nabokov left the project.
   ■ Appel, Alfred, Jr. , Nabokov’s Dark Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974);
   ■ Tibbetts, John C. , “Lolita,” in John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, eds. , Novels into Film (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 134–148.
   2) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 152 minutes, 1962 Producer: James B. Harris; Director: Stanley Kubrick; Screenplay:Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel; Cinematographer: Oswald Morris; Assistant Director: René Dupont; Art director: William C. Andrews; Costume design: Gene Coffin; Makeup: George Partleton; Film editor: Anthony Harvey; Production manager: Robert Sterne; Cast: James Mason (Professor Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Dolores “Lolita” Haze/Mrs. Richard Schiller), Gary Cockrell (Dick Schiller), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore), Cec Linder (physician), Bill Greene (George Swine, hotel night manager), Shirley Douglas (Mrs. Starch, piano teacher), Marianne Stone (Vivian Darkbloom, Clare Quilty’s companion), Marion Mathie (Miss Lebone), James Dyrenforth (Frederick Beale Senior), Maxine Holden (hotel receptionist), John Harrison (Tom), Colin Maitland (Charlie Sednick),Terry Kilburn (man), C. Denier Warren (Potts, hotel assistant manager), Roland Brand (Bill Crest), Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty).
   STANLEY KUBRICK settled in England to make Lolita because Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had funds frozen there. He remained in England to make all of his subsequent films because financing continued to be easier to come by in Britain. Nevertheless, Lolita, like most of his other films made there, had an American setting.
   He engaged VLADIMIR NABOKOV, the author of the original novel, to write the screenplay for the film. Kubrick vividly recalled his consternation when he received Nabokov’s first draft and discovered that it would run for several hours if all of its 400 pages were filmed as they stood. The novelist then prepared a shorter version, of which he speculated afterward that Kubrick finally used about 20 percent. When Nabokov finally saw Lolita at a private screening, he declared in the published version of his film script that Kubrick was “a great director, and that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors,” even though much of his version of the script had gone unused. In fact, Nabokov concluded that “infinite fidelity may be the author’s ideal but can prove the producer’s ruin. ” In Lolita, PETER SELLERS plays Clare Quilty, a TV personality who is the rival of middle-aged Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON) for the affections of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (SUE LYON), known to her friends as Lolita. Because, at the time that Kubrick made the movie, the freedom of the screen had not advanced to the point it later reached, he had to be more subtle and indirect than Nabokov had been in the novel about suggesting the sexual obsession of an older man for a nymphet. Yet Kubrick has managed to suggest something of the erotic quality of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita from the very beginning. The first image of the film, seen behind the credits, is Humbert’s hand reaching across the wide screen to caress Lolita’s foot as he begins to paint her toenails, thus indicating the subservient nature of his infatuation for Lolita.
   In order to avoid giving the plot too serious a treatment, Kubrick decided to emphasize the black comedy inherent in the story. Pauline Kael writes in I Lost It at the Movies (1994), “The surprise of Lolita is how enjoyable it is; its 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. ” Kubrick strikes this note of black comedy at the outset in the prologue that follows the credits.
   Humbert threatens Quilty with a gun as the latter stumbles around the cluttered rooms of his grotesque mansion, trying to cope with a hangover. At one point he wraps a sheet around himself like a toga and says, “I am Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or something?” (This jibe at the unpleasant experience that making SPARTACUS had been for Kubrick must have given him some consolation. ) Quilty does not take too seriously Humbert’s threats to kill him, until it is too late. Quilty seeks refuge behind a painting that is propped up against a piece of furniture, and we watch the painting become filled with bullet holes as Humbert empties his gun into it. In the course of the film Quilty dons a variety of disguises in his efforts to badger Humbert by a succession of ruses into giving up Lolita. Because of Sellers’s brilliant flair for impersonation, these scenes are among the best in the film. Consequently, it is appropriate to examine one of these key scenes in detail. At one point Humbert’s relationship with Lolita has become increasingly stormy because he is jealous of her male contemporaries at school; he accordingly discourages her from dating boys her own age. One afternoon Humbert is visited by Quilty, disguised as Dr. Zempf, the school psychiatrist; he is wearing thick glasses and a mustache, and speaks with a smooth German accent. In the novel an authentic member of the school faculty discusses his concerns about Lolita with Humbert. It is much more effective to have Quilty perform this function in the film, to telegraph to the viewer that Quilty is himself interested in Lolita and wants to spirit her away from Humbert.
   “Dr. Humbert,” Quilty begins,“we are wondering if anyone has instructed Lolita in the facts of life. The onset of maturity seems to be giving her trouble. She has poor concentration and sighs a good deal in class and seems to be suffering from some acute repression of the libido of her natural instincts. She wrote yesterday an obscenity on a health pamphlet. We Americans believe it is important to prepare the majority of young people for satisfactory mating and successful child rearing. ”
   With disarming illogic, Dr. Zempf winds up his spiel with the proposition that “Dr. Humboldt, you should loosen up on the dating and the dancing. Otherwise a quartet of psychologists will have to come and inspect the home situation. We don’t want these people fiddling around in the home situation, do we?” Humbert, of course, agrees. At his wit’s end, he does not notice that when Quilty prepares to light a cigarette he has to lift his thick glasses in order to see what he is doing—clearly giving away his disguise to the viewer, if not to Humbert. The flustered Humbert is intimidated by Quilty’s monologue, but is not prepared to give up Lolita at this point.
   As the plot unfolds Lolita begins to understand that Humbert’s sexual obsession with her has at last turned into genuine love. “It is in their last encounter,” Kubrick told Gene Phillips, “in which Humbert expresses his love for Lolita, who is no longer a nymphet but a pregnant housewife, that we realize that this is one of the most poignant elements of the whole story. ” Lolita declines Humbert’s invitation to leave her husband and come away with him. He proceeds immediately to Quilty’s mansion, intent on shooting him, not just because Quilty had lured Lolita away from him but because, after he had done so, Quilty had merely used her for a while and then coldly discarded her. In the final sequence Kubrick repeats footage from the prologue and we see Humbert enter Quilty’s lair, searching for him. The film ends with a shot of the portrait behind which Humbert had finally trapped Quilty, riddled with bullet holes. A printed epilogue informs us that “Humbert Humbert died in prison of coronary thrombosis while awaiting trial for the murder of Clare Quilty. ”
   The ending of Lolita is unique. One is hard pressed to think of another film that creates as much compassion for the tragic end of its obsessed hero by employing a simply worded epitaph on the screen at the fade-out. One cannot help feeling somewhat sorry for a man who organized his whole life around the pursuit of a goal that would be short-lived in any event: the love of a nymphet who could never remain a nymphet for long. It is Humbert’s recognition that he has used Lolita and must suffer for it, however, that humanizes him in our eyes to the point where he is worthy of whatever pity we wish to give him.
   In reassessing Lolita for the New York Times in 1998, Caryn James dismissed Kubrick’s movie as a “weirdly distorted film,” in which James Mason’s Humbert comes across as a dirty old man, leering at Sue Lyon as Lolita. ” On the contrary, as noted above, Kubrick treated the film’s sensitive subject with taste and discretion; as a matter of fact, it was approved as a film suitable for mature audiences by both the film industry’s censor and by the National Legion of Decency, which rated the acceptability of movies for its Catholic constituency. In JAN HARLAN’s documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES (2001) JAMES B. HARRIS, who coproduced Lolita with Kubrick, states that initially the legion was prepared to condemn the picture on the basis of two scenes Stanley Kubrick, on location for Lolita (Kubrick estate) which they objected to. But Harris adds,“We agreed to change them,” and they did so. Hence the film was recognized by the legion as responsible adult fare. That the film passed muster with the legion as well as the industry censor was due in no small part to James Mason’s widely acclaimed portrayal of a man who has been victimized by his own obsession, but who strives nevertheless to maintain an air of surface propriety in his relationship with Lolita. There is, for example, the look of consternation that steals across his face when Lolita’s dowdy mother (SHELLEY WINTERS),whom Humbert married only to be near Lolita, tells him that she has packed her daughter off to summer camp so that they can be alone.
   Peter Sellers is equally good as Clare Quilty, especially in the scenes in which Quilty wears various disguises in his effort to con Humbert into relinquishing Lolita. In sum, Kubrick’s Lolita remains a classic of American cinema. Indeed, it took on even greater stature when it was compared to Adrian Lyne’s inferior remake of Lolita (1997). Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, 1987) announced his film adaptation of Lolita in a press release which promised “explicit sex scenes and nudity,” indicating that his version of the story would not be as discreet as Kubrick’s. Admittedly, the cast boasted some fine actors; but Jeremy Irons’s Humbert was not in the same class with James Mason’s, just as Melanie Griffith’s Charlotte was not in the same league with Shelley Winters’s, nor was Frank Langella’s Clare Quilty the equal of Peter Sellers’s; finally, newcomer Dominique Swain came across as merely a spoiled teenage brat, with none of the implicit allure that marked Sue Lyon’s portrayal of the title character. In general, the cast was hamstrung by Stephen Schiff ’s turgid screenplay and Lyne’s mediocre directing. To be fair, it would be hard for any remake to come within striking distance of Kubrick’s movie; remaking a classic film, after all, is a risky business under the best of circumstances. Kubrick’s Lolita remains the definitive screen adaptation of Nabokov’s novel.
   ■ Black, Gregory, The Catholic Crusade Against the Movies, 1940–75 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 200–211;
   ■ Chion, Michel, Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey (London: British Film Institute, 2001);
   ■ Corliss, Richard, Lolita (London: British Film Institute, 1994);
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999), pp. 73–85;
   ■ Kael, Pauline, I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1994), pp. 203–209;
   ■ Kobel, Peter, “Nabokov Won’t Be Nailed Down:Translating Nabokov to Film,” New York Times, April 22, 2001, sec. 2, pp. 19, 26;
   ■ Mainar, Luis, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, N. Y. : Camden House, 2000), pp. 48–58, passim;
   ■ Nabokov,Vladimir, Lolita: A Screenplay (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), pp. vii–xiii, Phillips, Gene, “Caryn James and Lolita,” New York Times, March 29, 1998, sec. 22, p. 33;
   ■ ———, Stanley Kubrick:A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977), pp. 83–103;
   ■ Tibbetts, John,“Lolita,” in The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film, rev. ed. , ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1999), pp. 134–138;
   ■ Walsh, Frank, Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry (New Haven, Conn. :Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 301–305.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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