It was in 1947 that Vladimir Nabokov began writing what he described as “a short novel about a man who liked little girls.” Completed in 1954, the manuscript was rejected as pornographic by at least four New York publishers. Nabokov sent it to Paris, where in 1955 Olympia Press brought out an English language edition for the expatriate trade. Two years later excerpts appeared in Anchor Review. In 1958, backed up by critical opinion vouching for its artistic integrity, G.P. Putnam’s finally published the book in the United States. The sensational reviews were everything for which Putnam’s could hope. Lolita was a best-seller and a literary landmark.
Within weeks of the book’s appearance Stanley Kubrick and his producer James B. Harris had optioned it for the screen. From the start, the project was circumscribed if not doomed by film industry standards of the time. The controversial property would be unmarketable without a distribution deal, which hinged on a Seal of Approval from the industry’s Production Code Administration. But to condone the story of a love affair between a man and a child, compounded by an aura of incest, would make a mockery of the Code, which had especially strict proscriptions against sexual perversity. Kubrick promised the censors that his film would not be the twisted saga of a nympholept. He would de-emphasize the novel’s sexual content, drawing innocent humor from the conflict between a mature man and a gum-snapping adolescent. The Quilty murder would not be brutal, and in the seduction scene Lolita would wear a long-sleeved high-necked, full-length, heavy flannel nightgown, and Humbert would be clad in bathrobe and pajamas. He even offered to have Humbert and Lolita legally married.
This was not the only way the film could have been produced. A low-budget Lolita, faithful to Nabokov and scornful of the Production code, would have been the darling of the art-house circuit, whose theaters routinely welcomed pictures without the Seal. But the thirty-year-old Kubrick wanted more than the cult status of The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), and he did not wish to repeat the bitter experience of directing someone else’s picture, as he had done that year (1959) as director of Spartacus. Kubrick and Harris saw Lolita as a ticket to financial and artistic independence (“I am Spartacus,” says Quilty, wrapped toga-like in a dust cloth in the opening scene, “have you come to set me free?”). They wanted wide distribution, and for that they needed the Seal.
United Artists, Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures all rejected the project. Finally Seven Arts put up the money, and M-G-M agreed to distribute. Kubrick and Harris purchased the screen rights to Lolita for $125,000 and asked Nabokov to write the script. Lured by this “considerable honorarium” and the hope of protecting the film of his novel from “intrusions and distortions,” the sixty-year-old Nabokov resigned his professorship at Cornell University and moved to Los Angeles in early 1960 to write the screenplay. Kubrick, meanwhile, was preoccupied with casting. He tested numerous actresses for the role of Lolita, including Tuesday Weld (“I didn’t have to play it,” Weld quipped, “I was Lolita.” Nabokov disagreed and exercised his veto). By late summer Sue Lyon had been chosen for the part, not least because she photographed much older than her thirteen years. James Mason had won out over Errol Flynn as Professor Humbert, Shelley Winters would play Lolita’s mother, and Peter Sellers had been cast as Clare Quilty. Around the same time, Nabokov delivered to Kubrick a 400-page script which the director rejected, explaining that it would run for seven hours. Nabokov then wrote a considerably shorter version, of which Kubrick ultimately used only about twenty percent, retaining some of Nabokov’s dialogue but little else.
By December 1960, Kubrick had a shooting script. Its most radical departure from the novel was having Humbert kill Quilty at the beginning instead of at the end, after he has discovered that Quilty and Lolita were lovers. It was a strategy aimed at transforming Lolita from a tale of sexual perversion into a black-comedy thriller. The novel’s suspense of waiting for Humbert and Lolita to have sex is replaced with the suspense of waiting for fate to overtake Quilty. Never mind that this dilutes the pathos of Humbert’s desperate act: for the censors a killer was more acceptable than a pervert.
The novel’s sexual content would be conveyed through looks and double-entendres: Humbert teaches at Beardsley College, Lolita spends her summers at Camp Climax, Charlotte Haze chatters on about “cherry pies” and “late snacks” as she introduces the professor to her bikini-clad daughter. The film’s only overtly erotic image is the toenail-painting scene behind the opening credits (repeated later). Removed from context, it conveys obsession and devotion (the wedding ring), subjugation and tenderness, dream and nightmare. It is the only physical intimation of Humbert’s sexual enslavement by the nymphet, just as the bullet-riddled portrait of a demure young woman is the only reference to her abuse (in the novel) by the two nympholepts.
To avoid harassment and to take advantage of European funding, Kubrick decided to shoot Lolita in England. Production began there in January 1961 and the first cut was shown to Production Code officials in Hollywood in August. They wanted changes. In the seduction scene Kubrick had already substituted slapstick for sexuality with the folding cot business borrowed from Chaplin. But the censors wanted a fadeout instead of suggestive dialog after Lolita whispers in Humbert’s ear. Kubrick agreed to this and other cuts, and Lolita got the Seal. The Catholic Legion of Decency bestowed its “Separate Classification” on the film, rather than condemning it, in exchange for veto power over all advertising and audience restriction to persons over 18.
Lolita opened in New York in June 1962. The poster and newspaper ads featured a bikini-clad Sue Lyon in heart-shaped sunglasses licking a lollipop, with the question “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” “They didn’t,” wrote the reviewer for the New York Times. The film opened to strong box office despite mixed reviews, but the attraction was short-lived. Anticipating naughty sex, audiences found Kubrick’s cool irony. Lolita was droll, absurd, tragic, but it was not salacious. It could not possibly have measured up to expectations. It was far from the blockbuster Kubrick envisioned, though it did give him the exposure he desired. Nabokov’s response, meanwhile, was guarded but kind. “Although the film demonstrated that I had wasted six months of my time,” he acknowledged that fidelity to a literary source is no criterion of cinematic excellence. He declared Kubrick “a great director” and Lolita “a first-rate film.” He thought the cast deserved “the very highest praise,” and that the scenes depicting the killing of Quilty and the death of Charlotte Haze were “masterpieces.”
Most critics today agree: Lolita is Kubrick’s most misunderstood and underrated film. Stylistically it’s a transitional work, marking the turning point from a naturalistic cinema (Paths of Glory, Spartacus) to the surrealism of the later films. Reality and fantasy coexist for the first time in a Kubrick film in the bizarre figure of Quilty’s “Dr. Zaempf.” Sitting in a darkened room in a pose that prefigures the sinister, chair-bound Dr. Strangelove, this scene anticipates the atmosphere of Kubrick’s next film.
Kubrick elicits extraordinary performances from his actors in Lolita, creating powerful emotional impact within ironic distance. Shelley Winters gives perhaps the best performance of her career, James Mason is impeccable as Humbert, and Sue Lyon has the “eerie vulgarity” and provocative whine of the novel’s Lolita. But ultimately it is Peter Sellers who gives Lolita its vitality. More mimic than comic actor, Sellers’ Quilty is the embodiment of Kubrick’s penchant for combining farce and terror, and Lolita is closest to the spirit of Nabokov’s novel when Sellers is on the screen. Thanks to the restructuring of events in the novel, Quilty has far greater presence in the film than in the book. “I’m not with anybody, I’m with you,” Sellers tells Mason at the hotel, summarizing Quilty’s role as comic Doppelganger, a grotesque projection of Humbert’s criminal self. Humbert’s desperate call for “Quilty” over the Gainsborough-like portrait at the beginning and end of the film functions as a kind of “Rosebud” that frames Humbert’s sorry fate. For in Lolita, Kubrick shows us the twofold truth Humbert never sees: Quilty mirrors the dark side of his obsession, while Lolita is never the romantic figure he projects in tragic self-delusion.