Did they ever make a film of Lolita?
Re-considering Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, which screens Thursday at the Central Library.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." While this hauntingly iconic phrase is almost pleasurable in its ringing familiarity, it holds little cash when looking at the portfolio and work ethic of one of history's most beloved artists and my personal favorite megalomaniac—the late Stanley Kubrick. His 1962 film Lolita, screening this Thursday, June 4, at the Central Library as part of the Cinesthesia series, is no exception to Kubrick's record of obsessive verve.
Kubrick, a dedicated fan of the uncanny, taboo, and bluntly perverse, embarked on risky film projects as if it was the only option. In this way, Lolita was a quintessential Kubrick undertaking, as he faced notable obstacles in bringing it to the screen. (Kubrick did, however, get Vladimir Nabokov to write the screenplay for the film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay—a treat to say the least.)
The famed and controversial narrative centers around a European professor relocated to America, Humbert Humbert (James Mason), who is tormented by his pedophilic attraction to little girls—particularly Lolita (Sue Lyons), a girl reminiscent of his lost, youthful love. The novel is also famous for being one of the most censored and banned books ever published. The story's provocative nature, but also simply its high literary reputation, proved burdensome with a dose of production barriers.
The poppy theatrical trailer sets this central contention ablaze—just how did a filmmaker make a film out of this story? It repeats, in a cacophony of voice-overs, “How did they ever? How did they ever? How did they ever make a film of LOLITA?"
They didn't, really.
Kubrick, in a 1966 interview with famed author and physicist Jeremy Bernstein, said the film didn't turn out quite as he'd planned. While satisfied with some aspects, such as its faithful translation of the novel's psychology, Kubrick felt that “the only thing that is regrettable about the film is the incredible pressure against making the film." The censorship needed for Lolita to actually be distributed changed the film's landscape.
Kubrick's reservations make for a fascinating revisit of the film. In watching Lolita again recently, I wondered: OK, what was missing?
If you know the story, even slightly, the missing piece is pretty obvious:The film almost completely avoids the erotic. For some—the weak-willed and easily offended—this may be a blessing. Nonetheless, the lack of eroticism in the film's narrative affects the quality of the film. Its exclusion, a by-product of a restrictive decency code, hides the more interesting and troubling human questions this famously problematic relationship raises.
The intimacy and foundation of the relationship between Lolita and H.H. is more vexing in the novel than the film. In the novel, H.H. is an older man grotesquely and woefully driven to possess, erotically, the young, “innocent" and vulnerable Lolita. He explicitly lays out in his writings his intense sexual yearnings for what he knows is unacceptable and maddeningly misplaced. These notes are detailed and openly erotic. At the same time, he is deeply troubled by his desire, and ultimately tortured by it, as it runs over his thoughts like a virus attacking someone with an autoimmune disease. It's as psychologically rich of a conflict as one could find, and thus likely what initially attracted Kubrick to the project.
In contrast, the film turns H.H. into an overly awkward, almost childishly inexpressive actor in the narrative situation. He is represented as a man stuck in arrested development, acting out his plans with Lolita as if it's all part of a childish lark or adventure. This is seen in his self-talk and giddy excitement in reaction to Lo's turbulent and continuously disobedient whims when they turn in his favor. This narrative choice is reductive and evoked in me something of a mild reaction of disgust and pity towards H.H.. The film's disappointing treatment of H.H. can be understood through the lens of Hollywood's censorship. It's the same with the forced omissions of sexually charged encounters in the relationship, which ultimately makes for a more sterile narrative.
That said, the censorship didn't manage to dampen the performances in this at times choleric psycho-thriller. Sue Lyons' performance as the cherished Lolita is remarkable. She pulls off the “eerily vulgar" youth role while maintaining the air of mystery that Lolita possessed in Nabokov's original work with notable finesse and grace. She brings a committed constancy to her representation of the aloof and fortified acts of rebellion against her pseudo father figure that serve the film in considerable ways. Lyons actually received a Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer" with her work here. Peter Sellers' wit and anxious charm in his performance as Clare Quilty is also one of the utmost delights of the film. Perhaps one of my favorite eccentric performances to date.
Despite Kubrick's notedly undesired omissions in what could and could not be depicted, Lolita holds a worthy place in the ranks of his filmography. In a way, the established censorship, or at least knowing about its existence, enriches the viewing experience, as it creates the sometimes engrossing opportunity to pinpoint what was obscured in or left out of this highly controversial narrative. Kubrick's Lolita is a chilling and pathetic psychological thriller with a noted ability to nag at your moral comfort zone, as Kubrick films intend to do—some more effectively than others. This film also keeps you curious throughout the unfurling tragic tale with well-executed emotional twists and thoughtful shot framings. Certainly not Kubrick's greatest picture—considering the censorship obstacles he faced—Lolita is nonetheless fitting of his name, and a particularly great selection for the Cinesthesia series.