I recently had the delights of updating the 1001 Movie page because of the latest edition of the book. For the first time ever, my numbers have remained static as I had seen as many of the entries that came in as those who went out. I still live in hope that there will be a complete overhaul of the list since years like 2011 are chronically under-represented, but I may have watched everything before that happens.
Anyway. How do you make a movie out of Lolita? I know that’s a bastardised version of the tagline, but it’s a valid question. You’re talking about adapting a novel where a grown man has sexual relations with a 12-year-old. They couldn’t even do that in the 1997 version let alone in the years of the Hays Code. Still, you have to credit Kubrick for trying… and making the compromise of her being played by a 14-15 year old Sue Lyon.
As someone who has read the book, it was interesting to watch Kubrick’s take on it. The biggest issue with this adaptation, at least for me, was the loss of the unreliable narrator. Humbert Humbert is a charmer and charlatan who spins a web of fiction around his real story that he tells through a series of monologues. That was the true beauty of reading Lolita and is incredibly hard to do in visual media. So, I can’t blame Kubrick for leaving it out.
In it’s place Kubrick is a lot more explicit in showing us the Humbert’s cruel and psychotic side. Rather than him narrating his plans to drown his wife (Shelley Winters did wonders with this role) he laughs at the note she leaves declaring her love for him. Similarly, we now have no history or context for Humbert’s hebephila… it just appears that there is something special about Lolita rather than this being a pattern of his. Again, something is lost.
What I cannot deny is the level of acting on display by the four leads. Of course Peter Sellers steals the entire thing because, you know, it’s Peter freakin’ Sellers. However, I have to give huge props to Sue Lyon who is able to stand her group despite the fact that she is surrounded by seasoned actors. Such a pity that her career stalled within a few years of this being released.
I’ve said things that would make it sounds otherwise, but I did enjoy this take on Lolita. It isn’t completely true to the book, but neither was The Shining. In all of these changes I only have one big gripe that I wish would be edited out since we no longer live in the Hays Code world. As a cheap epilogue it is announced that Humbert dies of heart complications as he is awaiting trial (since in Hays Code world a murderer must be seen to be punished or killed). It’s such a throwaway and I cannot help but wonder if it was the inspiration for this sight gag in The Simpsons:
It’s a small thing that marrs the ending of a good film. I didn’t think this was as great as I have been led to believe, but I guess that’s the issue with reading the book first. So much was lost in the translation from book to screen and Lolita suffers for it.