Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.
United Kingdom, 1962. A.A. Productions Ltd., Anya, Transworld Pictures. Screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel. Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Produced by James B. Harris. Music by Nelson Riddle. Production Design by William C. Andrews. Costume Design by Elsa Fennell. Film Editing by Anthony Harvey. Academy Awards 1962. Golden Globe Awards 1962.
Humbert Humbert (James Mason) arrives from Europe to a tiny American town and takes a lodging at the home of a widow (Shelley Winters). The clincher in the deal for him is her daughter, the teenaged “nymphet” of the title (Sue Lyon) with whom he becomes obsessed, even going so far as to marry her mother in order to be near her. Lolita begins to understand the power her sexuality allows her to have over someone in a position to give her whatever she wants, while he is so overcome by passion for her that he is willing to go to whatever lengths to have her to himself. Not far behind him is the crafty Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a celebrated author who has designs of his own on the girl. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, which still to this day finds itself at the centre of heated debates on all possible levels, has been adapted to the big screen (for the first time here, before a remake by Adrian Lyne in 1997) with much more of the book kept intact than you would assume. The opening third plays out almost exactly to the novel before the film makes significant modifications to the original, for while the novel concerned itself with the idea of passion becoming denigrated once the object of that passion becomes real (i.e. he fucks her a lot and she ceases to appeal to him), the film, in its inability to show the relationship between Humbert and Lolita in too much graphic detail, maintains his infatuation with her until the end. Beyond this, the casting of Lolita places what looks like a sixteen year-old girl in the key role, which makes it a much different story from the book that was about an actual child. Still, Kubrick cannot be faulted for the censorship of his day (the more modern-day version still cast her older than the book described her, so perhaps it’s not just a problem of era), and he does elicit smooth-as-silk performances from everyone involved. Mason is cool European lust throughout, Lyons is never vulgarly appealing but always on the snide edge of manipulative, and Winters is perfection as a lonely woman who isn’t exactly sympathetic but is never a laughable caricature either. Sellers deserves to be praised for his multi-faceted work here too, except that his obviously fake accent(s?) makes his role such a show-pony spectacle that it stands out too much from the subtlety given by the rest of the cast (this kind of work would be much more organic to his work in Kubrick’s next film, Dr. Strangelove). The screenplay is credited to Nabokov himself, though he asked his name to be removed after Kubrick altered it beyond original recognition (Nabokov’s version of the screenplay is available in print).