(Originally posted on 12 April 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
Of all the great filmmakers in movie history, Stanley Kubrick was, of course, one of the most revered. Many of his films are considered to be essential classics, and rightly so. But amidst all the attention for Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange, some other great films haven’t gotten the same amount of love, even from Kubrick fans. The Shining is as despised by some fans of the book as it is revered by movie lovers, and Eyes Wide Shut remains a point of contention for many. Yet perhaps the most overlooked great film Kubrick made was his take on Lolita.
Like The Shining, Lolita had a lot to live up to. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was a controversial bestseller in its day, and even today it’s ranked as one of the twentieth century’s great works of fiction. But Kubrick had an even more formidable problem in adapting Nabokov — its storyline. Lolita, for the few of you who don’t know already, is about a middle-aged man who lusts after a young teenage girl. Humbert Humbert, played by James Mason, is a British college professor who comes to America to take a teaching position, and after seeing young Dolores Haze (nicknamed “Lolita” and played by Sue Lyon) he moves in with and eventually marries her mother Charlotte, just to be close to the young nymphet.
This storyline would be an edgy one for Hollywood even today, but consider that Lolita was made while the Production Code, though not the power it once was, was still in force. “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” blared the ads for Kubrick’s film, echoing the thoughts of practically every moviegoer of the time. Kubrick had to be careful in bringing the book to the screen, satisfying the censors while doing justice to what made the original book a masterpiece.
While Kubrick made some key directorial decisions to get past the Code, like deliberately casting the role with an older girl than the book called for, he largely accomplished his task through the film’s tone. Some of Nabokov’s more risqué moments never made it to the screen, but Kubrick wisely recognized that the genius of the novel — what made Lolita work — was its dry and twisted wit. Many great filmmakers made an art of using laughs to run iffy material around the Production Code — Preston Sturges pretty much made a career of it — and Kubrick pulled off something even trickier with Lolita, foiling the censors not through gags and punchlines, but with a filmmaking style that subverted the seamy nature of the material.
My favorite example of this comes after Charlotte (Shelley Winters) has discovered her husband’s obsession with her daughter. Tossing aside the incriminating journal, she lashes out at him and then locks herself in her bedroom. At this point she breaks down and cries out to her first husband, dead seven years:
“Harold, look what happened. I was disloyal to you. I couldn’t help it though… seven years is a long time… if you hadn’t died all this wouldn’t have happened. Oh darling, forgive me. Forgive me, forgive me. You were the soul of integrity. How did we produce such a little beast? I promise, I promise, I promise I’ll know better next time. Next time it’s gonna be someone you’ll be very proud of.”
So far, a perfectly serviceable dramatic soliloquy, the stuff Oscar clips are made of. But then Kubrick does a funny thing. As Charlotte sobs, clutches the urn holding Harold’s ashes and collapses on the rug, the camera cranes downstairs to the kitchen, where Humbert, playing the obliging husband, offers to make Charlotte a drink to calm her down. With this one move, Kubrick subverts the drama taking place in Charlotte’s bedroom, emphasizing in a definitive way that this isn’t her story, but Humbert’s. He coolly offers up a half-assed excuse for the diary — “these notes you found were fragments of a novel I’m writing!” — but his tone suggests that he’s less concerned about losing Charlotte than he is about losing Lolita.
A more conventional filmmaker might have stayed with Charlotte, inviting the audience to empathize with her predicament, and then to be overcome with emotion as she charged out of the house and into the street, only to be killed by an oncoming car. But Kubrick knew better. He keeps the camera with Humbert as he pours a drink, only to be interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. As the person on the other end of the line tells him about the accident, he interprets the call as a gag. He can’t help but laugh at the strange suddenness of the call, and even calls upstairs, a broad smile on his face: “Charlotte? There’s a man on the line who says you’ve been hit by a car!” It’s only when Humbert notices the front door open in a rainstorm and goes to close it that he sees that the call was no prank.
Nabokov’s boldest move was to tell the entire story from Humbert’s point of view by having him narrate. It’s also, not coincidentally, why the book is funny rather than tragic. Humbert Humbert is a man so singularly obsessed with Lolita that he is blind to almost everything else. What makes this scene so brilliant is how captures this in cinematic terms, without falling back on voiceover narration or subjective camera angles. By placing Humbert, wonderfully played by Mason, at the center of the scene, Kubrick downplays the tragedy swirling around him, this conveying Humbert’s mindset perfectly.
When Adrian Lyne directed a new adaptation of Lolita in 1997, he claimed to be making a version that was truer to the original novel. But while he was able to retain more of Nabokov’s original storyline and the controversial sexuality that came with it, his version retained almost none of the author’s chilly sense of humor. Kubrick didn’t make that mistake, and while his adaptation is hardly a letter-perfect one, it’s a pretty amazing movie in its own right. As long as you don’t approach Kubrick’s Lolita as cinematic Cliff’s Notes, it works extremely well, and deserves to be mentioned as one of its director’s many classics.