What happens when a magnet for controversy depolarizes with age? Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita still attracts plenty of analysis, admiration and disgust, in the classroom and beyond. But despite the pedigree of the beloved film-maker Stanley Kubrick, the first film adaptation of Lolita – released 60 years ago this week – is arguably more of a curio these days, forced to excise or elide some of the book’s thorniest elements for the sake of being allowed to exist at all.
The sheer unlikelihood of a Lolita movie being made near-contemporaneously with the novel was worked into the ad campaign, some of its posters adorned with a cheeky question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Good question, relatively simple answer: by ageing up the title character slightly, and relying on innuendos and implications to keep the most explicit material offscreen. In the film, middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) becomes sexually obsessed with 14-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyons), the daughter of his landlady-turned-wife Charlotte (Shelley Winters). If this sounds singularly unpleasant to watch, Lolita is even younger in the book, while less attentive modern viewers less versed in Hollywood innuendo could conceivably come away from the movie uncertain if Humbert ever acts on his predatory urges. (Not all of the alterations are confined to production-code-era morality. A 1997 film version was more sexually explicit, while still attempting to maintain some safeguards: Lolita remained 14, rather than 12, and was played by Dominique Swain, who was older than Lyons at the time of filming. That movie also supposedly cost $60m, an impossible-seeming figure for this material in 2022.)
To be clear, Humbert does prey on his stepdaughter, offscreen, and Lolita refers to their trysts with a blithe tartness. Yet rewatching Lolita today, in a world that is gradually becoming more attuned to sexual abuse and terms like “grooming” (an adult gaining a younger person’s trust in order to eventually draw them into an abusive or otherwise inappropriate sexual relationship), it’s not the movie’s level of permissiveness that jumps out. Though it keeps much of Lolita’s pain offscreen, it doesn’t exactly use her slightly raised age to excuse Humbert’s fixation, nor does it feel like a powder-keg provocation ahead of its time. Kubrick prefers to flirt with bad taste by recasting sections of the movie as a dark comedy – acting as a point of contrast that make its sadder moments all the starker.
Early on, Humbert’s repeatedly frustrated pursuit of Lolita plays almost like a deadpan sitcom farce: Humbert’s quasi-fatherly (and actually jealous) suggestion that Lolita not be allowed to consort with boys results, much to his horror, in her being sent away to an all-girl summer camp (“Camp Climax for girls – please drive carefully,” winks a sign). Wanting to still be there when Lolita returns, he agrees to marry Charlotte, only for her to suggest prolonging their marital bliss by sending Lolita off to boarding school. Winters plays this material broadly and memorably, with Kubrick inviting the audience to be vexed along with Humbert by this uncouth caricature of a woman.
But when Charlotte discovers Humbert’s journal, the rawnesss that emerges from Winters is startling. The pure loneliness of the character echoes across the screen, cutting through the movie’s sly intimations. This seems key to the movie’s effectiveness within its confines. Whether forced or inspired by the challenges of adaptation, Kubrick opens something up on film: while the novel unfolds from Humbert’s unreliable point of view, the movie shows us both less – less of Humbert, by necessity – and more, in the vividness of Charlotte’s desperation, elation and despair. Even the intentionally opaque Lolita has a similar moment: Kubrick cuts from a scene where she sips soda pop and devours potato chips with amusing ravenousness to the sound of her howling in agony as she processes her mother’s untimely death.
Not all of the attempts to share the spotlight are so concise. Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a mirror of Humbert who pursues Lolita across a variety of bizarre machinations, including disguises suiting the chameleonic comic skills of the actor who plays him, has more space here. The amusing outlandishness wears thin as Kubrick repeatedly lets Sellers run free; his one-on-one scenes with Mason seem to stretch on forever, a filibuster of shtick.
Still, there is an advantage to these scenes, and how they contribute to the jarring, unusual tone of Lolita. It seems nearly impossible for the movie to stand fully on its own; the novel has too much cultural significance and studying the book-movie differences can turn into a rabbit hole even without actually reading Nabokov. So it’s all the more impressive that it also manages to feel, in retrospect, like Kubrick building an exit ramp out of his early Hollywood work. The very first scene has Quilty introducing himself with a Spartacus joke, an impertinent reference to Kubrick’s previous film; Sellers getting to play Quilty in his preferred variety of disguises also foreshadows his follow-up collaboration with Kubrick, the one-of-a-kind doomsday comedy Dr Strangelove that followed just two years later.
Is Quilty, who mocks Humbert’s self-presentation of propriety while sharing (and later acting upon) his abusive impulses, the figure in Lolita who winds up most fascinating Kubrick? That would certainly fit the image of a controlling male director making a movie about the sexual abuse of a girl whose ultimate point of view remains oblique. It’s also consistent with the movie’s willingness to bind tragic abuse and dark comedy together. But maybe the performances of Sellers, Winters and Lyon also serve to protect the movie against the inevitable censorship, regrowing new thorns on this impossible-seeming material. Sixty years on, Lolita: The Movie remains a curio – one with the strange, unnerving power of a half-repressed memory.