My Crazy 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Feminist Essay

My Crazy 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Feminist Essay

PRELUDE [“Thus Spake Zarathustra”]

My last essay for this site was about Lolita and was critical of Kubrick’s take on it—an unequivocally feminist essay. And while there are clear reasons to fold issues of sexism into discussions of Kubrick and his movies, especially in this year loaded with revelations about the film industry, I don’t want that to be the constant theme of my podcasts or this site. That being said, I do want to toss into the ring the not-so-obvious connections between the concepts of feminism and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, let’s give that a whirl.

Let me also add as prelude that any talk about sexism and the patriarchy includes generalizations about the genders. I think we are in an age in which we are teetering into a trend toward demonizing all white males, and that is just plain wrong. Just as racism, sexism and xenophobia—any form of prejudice— is about demonizing or minimizing every person within a category of humanity, portraying every white male as “bad” is a form of spreading hatred—the last thing we need. White men supported women in our fight to gain the right to vote, white men died in the Civil War to abolish slavery, white men are directing movies with strong female and minority roles and are treating all categories of humans with respect. Many are trying hard to turn things around. That men have evolved in their philosophies about women and human equality is essential to progress, and we need to keep that trend growing. When we speak of sexism and white male privilege, we are talking about the overwhelming trend of inequality over the course of history, and about the still-existing destructive trends in today’s society. We are talking about overarching problems and, yes, about millions of men who are still participating in this toxic patriarchy. Most men reading this and listening to my podcast are not part of the problem. But we are talking about a sizeable and influential force, millions among the other millions. This force has caused enormous grief and destruction on this planet. Those are the men we are talking about.

And I promise, folks, my next essay will be about horror in cinema.

Okay, that said…

THE SPAWN OF MAN [sound of wind blowing and crickets]

There is a logical connection between a discussion of patriarchy and a discussion of the movie 2001 in that the 1968 masterpiece is clearly Kubrick’s reaction to his own previous movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And Strangelove is a movie about maleness, through and through. It’s about the male obsession with sex and power. (We see this in the characters’ names, we see it in the props, we see it in the vignettes and visuals.) It directly connects those obsessions with war and the destruction of the planet. There is only one female in the entire movie, and she’s a scantily clad minor character—an intentional sex object. The film is a skewering of maleness, easy to consume because of its humor and symbolism. The movie ends with the destruction of the planet via atomic bombs, a chain of events set off by a man worried about his “loss of essence” (semen) and moved forward by the inability of men to work cooperatively.

It’s a funny, depressing film. It is also a film meant to reflect reality.

MISSION TO EARTH [“The Blue Danube”]

Kubrick meant for 2001 to be an antidote to the dismal outcome of Strangelove. In fact, at some point the working title for 2001 was “Son of Strangelove.” According to Arthur C. Clarke, co-writer of the screenplay and writer of the 2001 novel, the sci-fi movie was meant “as an extension of Kubrick’s previous film and intended to emphasize terrestrial themes in which nuclear bombs orbited the Earth only to be detonated by the Star Child in an act of cosmic purification.”  Early in the planning of Strangelove, Kubrick wanted to have the voice of an alien narrating, as if it were observing and commenting on the actions in the film. If Kubrick had preserved that, as well as the original 2001 final sequence of the Earth’s nuclear war devices being detonated by the Star Child (which is in the book), these films would be clear mirrors of each other; an inseparable dyad. Part one: Aliens pity our self-destruction. Part two: Aliens save us from our self-destruction.

2001-feminist-artThe aliens in 2001, who have existed far longer than Earth humans, not only save us from extinction millions of years ago but save us from extinguishing ourselves in the present. In the Dawn of Man segment of 2001, a drought has brought the pre-hominids close to dying out. The monolith teaches the pre-hominids how to kill for food, saving their lives. In the sequences taking place in the year 2001 (only 35 years from the film’s release date, so basically in the present) the aliens allow for a further evolution of human beings. The movie and book portray this evolution abstractly, but the take-away is that it is what will save humanity from its own destructive technology and masochistic hubris.

Kubrick’s 2001 was meant to be a message of hope, a jolt to the audience’s brain brought on by the concept that we are simply a small part of a larger universe. We are likely not alone, and if we could just look up from our Earth-bound navel-gazing we would see that the need to dominate politically (and sexually and person-to-person) is as barbaric as an ape figuring out how to slay a tapir, then turning in excitement and whacking to death everything that moves. When the alien revolution comes, we will look back at our current behavior and think it sad and quaint.

But this message of hope relies on a hard-to-conceive notion: Higher forms of life from other worlds are needed to save humanity from itself. The implication is that we do not possess the tools to move forward and prevent our own eradication.

Observing the world’s progress from 1968 to 2018, it’s hard to argue against this.

The war machine chugs on, the worldwide murder rate remains astronomic, rape is rampant, child sexual abuse is ubiquitous, and some stats suggests there is more slavery right now than in the history of the world. Our world leaders include Putin, who has poisoned journalists, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte who executes without trial, sometimes by his own hand, North Korea’s nation-starving Kim Jong Un, Iran’s radical dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whose crimes are coming to the fore. And oh, yes, we have a pussy-grabbing president here in the States. Vast swaths of humanity are gravely oppressed in India, the Middle East, China, Africa, and the bad guys in drug cartels are winning in much of South America.

So, the only logical way out of this misery-spiral is outside intervention, right? Because we simply don’t have the tools to make any of this better, yes? If we did, we’d use them, wouldn’t we?

If there was an alien species out there capable of running a better world—one of peace, prosperity, environmental turn-around, and technological progress—and we knew that for a fact, would we collectively choose to replace each of our world leaders with one of their kind in order to save ourselves? In a world-wide democratic vote, all 7.6 billion Earthilings voting, yes, of course we would.

So, Kubrick’s concept is based in some realism. In fact, he was so invested in the idea, he was intending to have an opening segment in 2001 featuring real scientists explaining the scientific thinking around alien intelligent life and its possible contact with Earth. His message was: If this is a real possibility, this would be a good thing. We should welcome this scenario in a realistic way.

MISSION TO HERTH or MISSION TO JUPIT-HER (your pick) [“Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio)”]

This leads us to another concept that is almost as hard to swallow as aliens intervening in our world: The idea of a matriarchy, or the concept of women making up the majority of leadership roles. This is not an idea that would have probably occurred to someone like Kubrick and so many other big thinkers from the last century. But it is interesting to think about why this would not have occurred to them as a possible solution. In Kubrick’s case, he practically set himself up for this idea as a response to the maleness of Strangelove.

Obviously, a matriarchy is not going to happen any time soon. If the idea of a worldwide matriarchy were proposed, whoever proposed it would be laughed out of the room and probably trolled into a life of hiding.

And yet, if you really think about it, a matriarchy is just as reasonable a solution to our planet’s problems as alien intervention, and way more practical. We have everything we need right here, all around us.

For balance, let’s be sure to note that there are terrible women. There are females who murder, abuse, corrupt, swindle, and oppress. But there are way, way, way, way less of them. (Check out murder stats, gang stats, rape states, robbery stats.) And when given power, generally, they don’t develop the tendency to do those things. (Check out genocide stats, dictator stats, corporate corruption stats.)

We’ve recently seen what happens when women are no longer oppressed and are able to pursue the same ambitions that men have for centuries. Women have become great artists, writers, and musicians. Women are doing better in college than men, and they are flourishing in fields of science and medicine. They become excellent plumbers, comedians, athletes, and university professors. Given another century of not being oppressed, there will likely emerge female Beethovens, Hemingways, Einsteins, and Edisons. Oh, and Kubricks.

And most importantly to this thesis, women have been found to be incredibly good politicians. Study after study shows that when women are given power, the community does better. The education level rises, the nutrition of constituents is improved, and the economy improves. And as far as everything going kablooey: Women in power are far more likely to maintain peace.

Some quick summaries to back this up:

  • A study by Stanford and the University of Chicago shows that congressional districts served by female legislators do better, get more spending, sponsor more bills.
  • In 2014 the average female senator ran 96 bills, the average male only 70, and with women there were more co-sponsorships.
  • Research confirms that both Republican and Democratic women are more likely than their male counterparts to initiate and fight for bills that champion social justice, protect the environment, advocate for families, and promote nonviolent conflict resolution.
  • A cross-national quantitative analysis found that higher levels of female participation in parliament (or congress) reduce the risks of civil war.
  • A study using data on international crises over four decades found that as the percentage of women in parliament (or congress) increases by five percent, a state is five times less likely to use violence when faced with an international crisis.
  • Statistical analysis of data from most countries in the world during the period 1977–1996 showed that the higher the proportion of women in parliament (or congress), the lower the likelihood that the state carried out human rights abuses such as political imprisonments, torture, killings, and disappearances.
  • A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the last three decades showed that when women’s groups were able to effectively influence a peace process, an agreement was almost always reached—only one case presented an exception. When women did not participate, the rate of reaching an agreement was much lower. Once an agreement was reached, the influence of women’s groups was also associated with much higher rates of implementation.
  • A study of 58 conflict-affected states between 1980 and 2003 found that when no women are represented in the legislature, the risk of relapse increases over time, but when 35 per cent of the legislature is female, this relationship virtually disappears, and the risk of relapse is near zero.

Nobel prize economics laureate Amartya Sen (who is male) has said that “nothing, arguably, is as important in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic and social participation and leadership of women.”

There are, more and more, real-world examples of societal transformations resulting Rwanda-parliament-770x433from female leadership. Outstanding is Rwanda. After a tribal-feud genocidal massacre in 1994 that left 800,000 dead, the country was mostly populated by females. (Only 2.3 percent of the 100,000 jailed for the genocide were women.) Because of the population shift, laws that oppressed women, such as property ownership and polygamy laws, were overturned. Women were allowed to serve on the supreme court, presidential cabinet, senior police, and on major commissions. As an act of recovery, the constitution was amended to guarantee that 30 percent of seats in parliament would go to females. The Rwandan parliament is now more than 60 percent female, and by all accounts it is safe to say that genocide is no longer a danger. Women in Rwanda still have to fight for their rights against the growingly oppressive male president—he had a female presidential candidate opponent disqualified and circulated fake nude photos of her—but females are given the credit for having rebuilt Rwanda. The country now has one of the fastest growing economies in all of Africa, is considered one of the “greenest” countries, and has averaged a GDP growth of eight percent over the last decade. These benefits were not even dreamed of before 1994.

REBIRTH [“Thus Spake Zarathustra”]

What’s interesting about the concept of a matriarchy saving the planet instead of alien monoliths is that it is simply not thought to be a viable option.

Scientists from Neil de Grasse Tyson to (the late) Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking to Brian Greene, do believe there is intelligent life out there. They say that considering the billions of sun-like stars, the billions of planets orbiting those suns, and the fact that life was sparked here with the same ingredients that are floating around everywhere in the universe, it is pretty much inevitable. And these guys generally talk about it as a positive. The day contact is made will be a good day for Earth.

But no one would dare, in the year 2018, propose the concept of a matriarchy, despite all evidence of its benefits.

There is a reason for this: Our ultimate goal as Good Guys on Planet Earth is for total equality for all humans, no matter gender, race or characteristic. A matriarchy implies that females would have power over males. This is not something that anybody who is fair and reasonable would want, because fair and reasonable people don’t want to simply flip the power structure. They want to neutralize it.

This writer agrees with that. But still, I have to ask: What would happen if right now, this very minute, we magically replaced every male world leader with a female? Randomly. Pluck average women all around the globe out of their lives and put them into the chairs of Trump, Putin, Duterte, and all around Asia, South America, Africa, and across Europe. Would the world be a better place? Would we be a few steps closer to world peace and prosperity?

Is this idea too nuts to even talk about?

Is it so outlandish that we’d best hope for the little green men with monoliths?



Essay: Kubrick’s LOLITA and the Point It Misses

Essay: Kubrick’s LOLITA and the Point It Misses

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 ITALIAN236-2the 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. “[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 not the perpetrator because he is simply reacting to others. 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 from 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 the critics 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.

KINGSLEY 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.

Here’s another review:

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.”…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…

Conversely, 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….”

cover“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 writes 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,” as if she would ever use the word “mummy,” and Humbert, after seeing another female car accident victim, says of her battered body and the minor damage to the car, “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.


lolitaWhen 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…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 consumers agreed that the novel really wasn’t very.

Nothing like the following flirtatious 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. Then, 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.


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 those and 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.


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