“How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Lolita?” proclaimed one of the initial ad posters for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film. How, indeed? Originally published in 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name, about a middle-aged man’s obsessive relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, generated instant controversy and almost as immediate acclaim.
Today, it’s considered a masterpiece of 20th-century literature.
By 1962, Kubrick had only three major films to his credit (The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), so undertaking a film version of Lolita was risky. Enlisting Nabokov himself to do the screenplay and careful to address the concerns of various watchdog organizations, Kubrick pulled off yet another classic. Fourteen-year-old Sue Lyon makes an impressive debut as the title character, but the film’s great performances belong to James Mason as Humbert Humbert (the stepfather) and Peter Sellers as his nemesis Quilty.
It’s ironic that Nabokov won the film’s only Oscar nomination for his screenplay because much of his script was usurped by Kubrick and Sellers.
Encouraged by the director to improvise, Sellers brings much of the novel’s rich comic undertones to the film, this despite the unsavory subject matter of pedophilia. Two years later, of course, Sellers would absolutely dominate Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Thirty-five years after Kubrick’s Lolita, director Adrian Lyne undertook a new version of the novel that’s even more faithful to its source material.
The result is a beautiful film (anything but salacious or gratuitous), which created such an uproar that it went practically unseen on American screens. Rejected by stateside distributors, the film finally received its major premiere on Showtime, then was unceremoniously consigned to home video, where, even today, it is fairly difficult to find.
Set in the ’40s (like the novel) as opposed to Kubrick’s ’50s, Lyne’s film (scripted by Stephen Schiff) restores the novel’s more straightforward narrative chronology. (Kubrick opened with the end of the novel and the killing of Quilty.) The first-person narrative, again closely adhering to the novel, does more than set the scene, as in Kubrick’s version. Humbert, for instance, recalls an important relationship from his teen years (again, right out of the novel), which helps establish and explain his fixation on young girls. Thus, we see more into Humbert’s tortured soul and his growing self-hatred in tandem with his love for Lolita. As a result, the tone is far more elegiac and tragic than the earlier version, a fact underlined by the epilogue, in which we learn not only that Humbert dies in prison (as in Kubrick’s film) but that Lolita herself succumbs in childbirth on Christmas Day (curiously omitted in the first film).
Dominique Swain, 14 years old at the time of filming, is absolutely brilliant as the titular character. The same is true, not unexpectedly, of Jeremy Lyons. And Frank Langella’s Quilty is ominous and threatening, never funny.
Evocative, elegiac and profoundly moving, Adrian Lyne’s Lolita is an unjustly ignored masterpiece of important filmmaking.