Stephen King’s novel The Shining is a horror story, so its first goal is to be scary. Its second goal is to portray a family in turmoil because of a father’s alcoholism, and as we know, Kubrick chose to drop that angle. But the horror story part, he nailed. He reinterpreted the setting and the story arc and made them work for the visual medium. The terror of King’s Overlook Hotel is captured in Kubrick’s film, even if the exact chain of events is not.
Likewise, in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the gist and thrust of the story from the source material is maintained: The absurdity of the nuclear cold-war, developed by flawed humans. What is meant to protect us could just as easily destroy us. Kubrick not only changed the ending of this story, as he did with The Shining, but changed the genre of storytelling from drama to comedy. But the point is intact.
In contrast, as I touched upon in episode six of this podcast, I find the transplanting of the story of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov from book to film to be a failure. I want to expand on that here.
Yes, I know, Nabokov is credited with writing the screenplay. Unfortunately, Kubrick messed with this screenplay enough to strip the story of all meaning, and we are left with an odd film about a charming, “innocent” (producer James Harris’s word) older man having an affair with a precocious, “brat” (Harris’s word) of a young teen. Nabokov’s story includes none of this. And what is left out is, in fact, the magic of the story in the first place.
Lolita is a book about a sociopathic, child-molesting, child-raping pedophile who would have raped some other unfortunate girl if he had not raped Lolita. This is not an interpretation. This is what is in the story. And that is why the story is so brilliant. It is a portrait of insanity. It is the delusional vision of a narcissist who has convinced himself that he is justified in killing multiple people (more on that later), in lusting after girls as young as nine, in kidnapping a child and keeping her as his sex slave under threat. He drugs her, he isolates her, he brainwashes her, all while attempting to brainwash us, the audience. (“Being a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox memory…” is how he describes himself.) He tells us that orphaned, kidnapped and drugged, Lolita—surprise!—decides she must have sex with this older man who she has only known for a few months. Let me remind you: In the book, Lolita is twelve. She is four-foot-ten. She is around 90 pounds. That’s all in the book.
Lolita, the novel, is a brilliant portrayal of pathology. It is written from the point of view of a mentally unhealthy person who is delusional, narcissistic, and who feels justified in every crime he commits, which is dead-on when it comes to what forensic psychologists know about sex offenders. This sugary description of his life is the only one he can write, because he cannot see past his own pathology. Nabokov reported that part of his inspiration to write the book was hearing the story of an ape who was taught to draw in charcoals. The first thing the ape drew was the bars of his own cage. Humbert is writing the only thing he knows: His own delusion about how he has led his life. And like most sex offenders or serial killers, everything is everyone else’s fault. He is reacting to others. He is not the perpetrator. Everything is justified. Nymphets are temptresses, whether they are nine-years-old or fourteen. (But of course, his guilt also bleeds through.)
Kubrick was not alone in missing the point of Lolita. (Or choosing to ignore it?)
Reading through the major reviews of 1958 and 1959, as well as recent essays, the concept of the “unreliable narrator” is barely touched. Most of the top reviewers hit the same notes. They smarmily point out that the book is not really all that pornographic—which surely must disappoint the average saps who are too dull to buy it for any other reason. And to them it is damn funny and cleverly written. They get the jokes! Because they are smart, like Nabokov!
Some point out that it is a moving love story.
All pretty much seem to accept, along with the book-cover designers, that Lolita is a little slut.
Let’s take a look at some of the other intellectuals who, along with Kubrick, got the story wrong.
KINGLY AMIS, THE SPECTATOR (1959): The pity is that Humbert could not care less about the darkness of her life at home, and although the teenage vulgarity of Lolita’s behaviour is caught with an equal precision he could not care less either about what she was really like. She is a ‘portrait’ in a very full sense, devotedly watched and listened to but never conversed with, the object of desire but never of curiosity. What else did she do in Humbert’s presence but play tennis and eat sundaes and go to bed with him? What did they talk about? What did they actually get up to?
Mr. Amis was a revered comedic writer himself, so it is odd that he misunderstands the lack of detail around Lolita’s character. Lolita is barely fleshed out because the real Lolita is hardly in the book. He should have been tipped off by the similar portrayal of Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze. These characters speak in the language of Humbert. Out of their middle-class American mouths comes pompous diction cloyingly riddled with bits of français. (Humbert translates texts from French to English as part of his living.) In fact, that is part of the game. When the dialogue sounds like Humbert, it is a tip-off that this is a Humbert-tinted memory. When a bit of realism comes through, as when Lolita responds to Humbert telling her he is going to marry her mother, we see a glimmer of objective reality. Those are the touchstones of the story. Here, Humbert, who has been bragging to us about Lolita’s crush on him, gives her a call at her sleep-away camp, just shortly after her arrival there.
I told her—trembling and brimming with my mastery over fate—that I was going to marry her mother. I had to repeat it twice because something was preventing her from giving me her attention. “Gee, that’s swell,” she said laughing. “When is the wedding? Hold on a sec, the pup— That pup here has got hold of my sock. Listen—“ and she added she guessed she was going to have loads of fun…and I realized as I hung up that a couple of hours at that camp had been sufficient to blot out with new impressions the image of handsome Humbert Humbert from little Lolita’s mind.
This passage is meant to be funny because it reveals so clearly how Humbert fools himself, and how he must twist when his narcissism bumps with cold reality.
CHARLES J. ROLO, THE ATLANTIC (1958): There follows a sketch of [Humbert’s] tortured career up to the time when, in his late thirties, he settles in a quiet New England town…under the same roof as a fatally seductive nymphet, Dolores Haze—a mixture of “tender dreamy childishness and eerie vulgarity.” This “Lolita” is the daughter of his landlady, whom he marries with murderous intent. But an accident eliminates Mrs. Haze, and Humbert the Nympholept finds himself the guardian of his darling, who, on their first night together, turns out to be utterly depraved and plays the role of seducer…But above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.
The conservative National Review, in it’s prudishness, turned out to be in a better position to understand the book, having no need to pretend to be so esoteric and deep as to see the beauty in a humorous take on child sex slavery.
FRANK S. MEYER, NATIONAL REVIEW (1959): What happens? The critics hail his “grace and delicacy” and his ability to understand and present “love” in the most unlikely circumstances. The modern devaluation of values seems to have deprived them of the ability to distinguish love from lust and rape. And first among them that dean of critics, Lionel Trilling, who compares Lolita to the legend of Tristan and Isolde!…Without exception, in all the reviews I have read — and they are many — nowhere has even the suspicion crept in that Lolita might be something totally different from the temptingly perverted surface it presents to the degenerate taste of the age. Not a whiff of a hint that it could be what it must be, if it is judged by the standards of good and beauty which once were undisputed in the West — and if it is, as the power of its writing shows it to be, more than a mere exercise in salaciousness.
Trilling, by the way, also wrote that “In recent fiction no lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness.”
Here’s Humbert himself:
How marvelous were my fancied adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, nymphets played freely, as if he were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen…Rope skipping, hopscotch. That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a nymphet was groping under me for a lost marble), and asked if I had a stomachache, the insolent hag.
The above passage is typical. He begins the book with stories of lurking, of lusting, of wanting to commit violence. He has been in and out of mental health sanitariums, he has “wedged my wary and bestial way into the hottest, most crowded corner of a city bus full of strap-hanging school children” and regularly “…try[ed] to catch a glimpse of nymphets (alas, always remote) playing in Central Park….”
“I remember once handling an automatic belonging to a fellow student, in the days (I have not spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of enjoying his little sister, a most diaphanous nymphet with a black hair bow, and then shoot myself,” he says at one point.
He contemplated killing his first wife, and “could visualize myself slapping Valeria’s [ex-wife] breasts out of alignment, or otherwise hurting her….” (Which, perhaps, he indeed did. Again, the unreliable narrator.)
When he first arrives at Ramsdale, Lolita’s hometown, he was looking forward to living with the 12-year old at another residence. He says he “…spent a fantastic night on the train, imagining in all possible detail the enigmatic nymphet I would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish.” That family’s home burned down before he arrived, so he found other lodgings with the Hazes.
He contemplated drugging Lolita so that he could rape her. He considered the idea of getting her mother pregnant so that it “…would give me a chance to be alone with my Lolita for weeks, perhaps—and gorge the limp nymphet with sleeping pills.”
I had to be sure when my lovely child arrived, that very night, and then night after night…I would possess the means of putting two creatures to sleep so thoroughly that neither sound nor touch should rouse them. Throughout most of July I had been experimenting with various sleeping powders, trying them out on Charlotte…
Humbert decides to kill Charlotte twice, first when she informs him that Lolita will be going to a boarding school, and then when she reads his diary and discovers he is a monster. He comes up with concrete plans. By complete coincidence, Charlotte gets hit by a car. This is another magical fortuity in the world of this charming and near-innocent man who is writing from his jail cell after murdering the guy who helped Lolita escape his grip. (Two hints in the book about Humbert’s possible role in Charlotte’s death: Lolita at some point refers to “my murdered mummy,” and Humbert sees another female car accident victim, and commenting on her battered body and the minor damage to the car, he says, “I did better.”)
So, does this sound like the fella, played by erudite James Mason, we see in Kubrick’s 1962 movie?
No. No it does not.
But that is not the fault of the credited screenwriter.
The screenplay was written by Nabokov after many long discussions with Kubrick. Obviously Kubrick explained to Nabokov his vision, and there must have been some compromising up front. It is well documented that as he was filming, Kubrick changed much of the script, using only a portion of Nabokov’s words and ideas.
Ultimately, Nabokov very politely stated that he was impressed with the movie but would have done things a bit differently—a popular refrain from the many authors of Kubrick’s source material, but in this case without the anger. As far as I can find, Nabokov did not elaborate on what exactly he would have done differently. But we do have the published original screenplay, pre-Kubrickized (which should definitely be a word).
In that screenplay, we can see that Nabokov did try to retain some glints of Lolita’s innocence and victimhood. And, by extension, we see her being a survivor at the tail end of the story.
For example, Nabokov included this passage, which took place directly after the first sexual intercourse between the two:
Lolita: (smiling sweetly at him) You chump, you creep, you revolting character. I was a daisy fresh girl and look what you’ve done to me. I ought to call the cops and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man!…[Later, after more conversation] You hurt me. You’ve torn something inside.
She eventually sobs. She says, “Leave you? You know perfectly well I have nowhere to go.” She mentions this twice. She is, of course, an orphan by this point. Humbert threatens her with reform school, or a juvenile detention home. (In the book, he admits to “terrorizing” her with these kinds of threats.)
Kubrick stripped all of those bits of reality-balancing from the script.
When Lolita was made, Kubrick’s production partner was James Harris, and they collaborated on the development from the get-go.
They knew there was no way to do a film with an actual twelve-year-old, and so they settled on fourteen, and wanted someone who seemed like a full-blown teen. But they also wanted to rejigger the real star of the novel, the narrator Humbert. They seemed to think a flipping of character would make the movie more palatable to viewers and censors.
According to Harris, as quoted in John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, “If we could make [Humbert] the most innocent guy in the piece and her a little brat, and he just singled her out as someone to fall in love with—let people put their own interpretation on it. We knew we must make her a sex object. She can’t be childlike. If we made her a sex object, where everyone in the audience could understand why everyone would want to jump on her, and you make him attractive, it’s gonna work.”
Kubrick is quoted in the same book as saying, “[The story] concerns the outsider who is passionately committed to action against the social order. I mean the outsider in the [fiction writer] Colin Wilson sense—the criminal, maniac, poet, lover, revolutionary. The protagonists of Paths of Glory, The Killing, Spartacus and…Lolita are all outsiders fighting to do some impossible thing, whether it’s pulling a perfect robbery or saving innocent men from execution by a militaristic state or carrying on a love affair with a twelve-year-old girl.”
Kubrick even wished the movie to be more erotic, even though all critics and customers agreed that the novel really wasn’t very.
Nothing like the following egg scene, from early in the movie, happens in the book or in Nabokov’s screenplay.
In Nabokov’s screenplay, Lolita, at one point, half-sits on Humbert’s knee, but the writer makes clear that this is innocent and ends it abruptly, despite Humbert’s arousal. Even in the passionate scene when Lolita is going off to camp and rushes back to hug Humbert good-bye, Nabokov makes clear in his screenplay that “hers is a perfectly innocent impulse, an affectionate bright farewell.” With the swelling music of Kubrick’s version, this seems debatable.
The scene below is the depiction of the before and after of the first sexual act. As directed by Kubrick, Humbert looks baffled that Lolita is hitting on him, and afterward, she is giddy with girlish delight. He is the straight-man to her goofiness.
By contrast, at this same point in the book, we read that “…a queer dullness had replaced her usual cheerfulness…I did not like the way my little mistress shrugged her shoulders and distended her nostrils when I attempted casual small talk…It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with a small ghost of somebody I had just killed.”
We’ve obviously come a long way from the source material.
The movie does have her finally break down when she is told her mother is dead.
This scene does not take place in Nabokov’s screenplay. He cuts from “your mother is dead” to a time jump, with scenes of the two driving around the country, and Humbert buying her endless gifts. Next they pull over on a road side.
Humbert: We must have taken the wrong turning. This is awful.
Lolita: Give me that map.
Humbert: We should have turned left half an hour ago and taken 42 south, not north.
Lolita: We? Leave me out of it.
Humbert: I am sure we’ll find some place to stop, if we just drive on.
He nuzzles her tentatively.
Lolita: (flinching) Leave me alone. I despise you. You deceived me about Mother. You took advantage of me.
WHY ALL OF THIS MATTERS
I dislike Kubrick’s Lolita not just because of the deviations from the novel, but because to me it is a flat tale of unappealing characters, despite wonderful acting on the part of the players. It is impossible to feel anything but contempt for anyone in this movie. To be stuck in an elevator with any character aside from Claire Quilty would be a hovering Hell, and even then Quilty would probably be too cool to tell you any of his best stories.
In any case, the humor of the novel is lost and the supposedly romantic ending is hollow. And that Ya-Ya song. Oh my god.
But the biggest sin of this movie is it’s cluelessness, and how detached it is from everything that is good about the novel, and how because of that, it ended up a tone-deaf “love” story that really does do nothing but promote the idea that there are slutty teen girls out there, and that it is rather touching when some poor old fool is seduced by one.
And sadly, with much credit to this movie, that concept around both Lolita and Lolita has stuck. It’s the default. “Lolita” is now a noun, describing a type of young female.
In The Shining, we may have lost the heart and soul of King’s dysfunctional family tale, but we are genuinely terrified, we are dazzled, and we are absorbed in the characters. We feel the terror. We are chilled by the setting. We are sucked into the conversations and the chase. And that is enough to make for a masterpiece all its own.
Needless to say, the Peter Sellers subplot is the only spark of color in Kubrick’s Lolita, and it seems tacked on. It is almost nonsensical in the context of Kubrick’s storytelling, and it’s hard not to want the movie flipped so that we are following Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom around instead of the tepid scholar and the jaded teeny-bopper.
And in this month of Weinstein-effect avalanches of understanding how male-dominated and male-driven the business of film and television is, I think I am allowed to add this: The failings of this movie and the misunderstandings around this book are the sad result of everyone—from snooty Ivy-League celebrity literary critics to genuinely brilliant self-taught directors from The Bronx—being married to the male perspective, that men are the ultimate authority and the arbiter of justice and what is “normal,” even when they are handing you their confession from behind the bars that specify their corruption.
And I’ll leave you with a bit more of that wonderful, masterful confession from the novel, because it is such great literature, and it deserves to be rendered repeatedly, in any and all formats. This monster does arrive at something resembling “love,” a version that likely has more to do with his precious memories—which are all he has left—and, with time, the gelling of his enormous lust into something more concrete. These lines come after Dolores “Lolita” Haze gets married and is pregnant, and before she, unbeknownst to Humbert, dies in childbirth.
I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.