The poster designed for the 1962 theatrical release of Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of “Lolita” is one of the most brilliant and famous in movie history. It features a close-up of Sue Lyon, the actress who played Lolita, gazing at us not quite directly. She wears red, heart-shaped sunglasses, one brown eye peeking over the top, and sucks on a red, heart-shaped lollipop. There’s a provocative air to this image of Lyon as Lolita in the movie poster, and a near-pornographic dimension as well — one that is found neither in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel nor in Kubrick’s film — and the provocation doesn’t end there. The poster’s real brilliance is its two-part tag line: Above the image of Lyon, in big letters, it asks: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” At the bottom right, in smaller type, is a phrase that could be read as the continuation of the question, or a censor’s warning: “For persons over 18 years of age.”
While conventional movie ads try to tempt us to see the film by directly or indirectly hinting at its subject and character, the ones for Kubrick’s movie were presented as an ironic challenge, and alluded to the fact that when it was made the industry’s internal censorship guidelines — the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code — still prevailed in Hollywood.
Despite the novel’s great commercial success – it became a best-seller that every cultured person had to read, or at least claim to have read — it seemed inconceivable when it was came out, in 1955, that it would ever be made into a movie due to its scandalous nature. In fact, most of the film’s production budget was obtained in Britain, where Kubrick had moved in 1961, and like all the rest of Kubrick’s films from that time on, was shot in Britain, even though the action is set in America and an important part of the plot involves a journey through its ugly landscapes.
The film was distributed in the United States by MGM, which was once known for putting its imprimatur on prestige films suitable for the whole family, though the company’s fortunes had been on the decline since the late 1940s. It had its American premiere on June 13, 1962. It had an estimated budget of $2 million, and it brought in $9 million in America, so it could be called a box-office success, although it was panned by most of the important movie critics of that era. It earned just one Oscar nomination — for Nabokov, for best adapted screenplay. Nabokov was credited as the sole screenwriter, but the notable differences between the book and the movie indicate that Kubrick was surely the dominant one behind the transformation of “Lolita” into a film.
Kubrick’s film is one of the boldest and most unique adaptations of a literary work I can think of. While Kubrick made some changes to the story’s structure — for one, Nabokov agreed for the movie to start where the book ends and work backward from there — that isn’t what makes it unique. One of the few critics who, despite some reservations, defended the film was Pauline Kael, and this was before she became the near-supreme authority in American film criticism. In her review, Kael called Kubrick’s movie “black slapstick,” and argued that it was the first new American comedy since the great verbal slapstick comedies made by Preston Sturges in the 1940s (“Lady Eve,” “Sullivan’s Travels”) and others. She also wrote that she found “Lolita” a much more exciting comedy that the most successful American comedy that preceded it, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.”
Kael pointed out the bigger role that Kubrick gave in the film to the archrival of Humbert (James Mason) — Quilty, played by Peter Sellers in an array of costumes. In Kael’s view, the greater focus in Kubrick’s film is not on the relationship between Humbert and Lolita but on the connection between Humbert and his alter ego, Quilty, who compels Humbert to confront his own pathetic character.
And indeed, although Sue Lyon gives a good performance, as does Shelley Winters, playing her mother Charlotte as a highly vulgarized caricature, the film belongs to Mason and Sellers. It is their relationship that redirects the movie away from the sensationalist aspects of the story of a middle-aged man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl and into more abstract intellectual and existential realms. Two images from Kubrick’s film are especially memorable. The first is that of Lolita, sunbathing on her front lawn, lying on her belly, as Humbert catches his first glimpse of her, and she gives him a welcoming look. This is the image that fixes Lolita’s image in his consciousness. The second is perhaps the movie’s only genuinely erotic moment, which does contain a degree of tawdry surrender that was enough to shock moviegoers at the time: the scene where Humbert paints Lolita’s toenails.
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British actor James Mason was one of the all-time great movie stars, and this may have been his greatest role. And Peter Sellers’ performance as Quilty established him as someone without a clearly identifiable persona, which eventually led to one of his biggest roles, in the 1979 film “Being There.”
The career of Sue Lyon, who was 14 when “Lolita” was shot, did not fare so well. Most critics panned her performance and some even said she looked too old for the role, which was utter nonsense. She did go on to appear in two additional important movies — John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana” (1964), based on the Tennessee Williams play, starring alongside Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr; and “7 Women” (1966), the last film directed by John Ford. The rest of her film roles were all minor ones and she retired from the movies in 1980.
Nor did 17-year-old Dominique Swain become a big star in wake of her 1997 performance in British director Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation of Nabakov’s novel, though she continues to have a busy acting career. Lyne’s movie aroused much more controversy than Kubrick’s had, even in the era of Bill Clinton. American theaters in America refused to show it, and it had its premiere in Britain. It was shown in the U.S. on the Showtime cable network, before having a limited release in theaters. And although the reviews for the most part were a lot more positive than those earned by Kubrick’s film, largely because Lyne’s was more faithful to the novel (and therein lay the source of its troubles, too), the 1997 movie was a financial disaster. It had a budget of $62 million and only took in about $1.5 million in the U.S.
I’m fond of most of Adrian Lyne’s films, such as “Flashdance,” “Basic Instinct,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Unfaithful” — I appreciate their ironic nature and ambivalent ideological stance; but his “Lolita,” while skillfully directed, lacks most of these qualities, unless perhaps one wants to see a type of irony in the soft-color palette that adorns the bleak story (Kubrick’s film was in black-and-white). It’s an intelligent adaptation that highlights Humbert’s obsessiveness (Jeremy Irons plays the role well), but overall it seems more like an illustration of the book than an interpretation of it, and does not exert much of an emotional pull.
In Lyne’s movie, Melanie Griffith plays Charlotte as a milder character than that of Shelley Winters in Kubrick’s film. Quilty (Frank Langella), is insufficiently developed and so remains a marginal character. One might wish to view Lyne’s “Lolita” as the antithesis of Kubrick’s movie (Lyne’s film certainly cannot be described as a comedy), but I remember that as I watched, it was constantly overshadowed in my mind by Kubrick’s movie, and Lyne’s movie ended up feeling rather pointless to me, perhaps unfairly so.
Could a new version of Nabokov’s book be made today, for film or television? In 1997, when Lyne made his movie, its more graphic portrayal (compared to Kubrick’s film) of the relationship between the middle-aged man and the 12-year-old girl elicited a strong puritanical backlash. The objections that a new screen adaptation could stir up could have implications for today’s sexual revolution. The plot of “Lolita” might be seen as depicting the agony of a man who falls victim to his obsession and fantasies, a side of the male experience for which there is zero tolerance nowadays. While some may argue that Nabokov’s novel is based in part on the idea of reciprocity, with its contrasting depictions of the power that Humbert and Lolita exert upon each other, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could make such a comparison today between the seductive powers of a grown man and a young girl. In today’s social, cultural and political climate, I doubt whether anyone would dare to take on “Lolita” again. And that’s a shame, because the spotlight the novel places on male obsession and perversion and the fantasies this can entail could potentially yield a very relevant work. Perhaps a female director will be the one to tackle the challenge.