When Vladimir Nabokov set out to write Lolita, one of literature’s greatest scandals and greatest masterpieces, he did so as something of a personal challenge. How, he asked, can you take the most monstrous subject possible and make him sympathetic? In Nabokov’s 1955 novel, the monster in question is British intellectual Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls “in love” with, and kidnaps, twelve-year-old Dolores (or, as he dotingly nicknames her, Lolita). Unsurprisingly, when it came out, Lolita was a bit of a tough sell. Though some critics recognized it as an expertly crafted masterpiece that probes an impossibly delicate subject with grace and thoughtfulness, many were quick to brand it as vulgar and morally corrupt. Sunday Express editor John Gordon called it “the filthiest book I have ever read,” and “sheer unrestrained pornography.”
Based on its distressing subject matter and grieved reviews, Lolita was always going to be a near-impossible Hollywood adaptation. Stay too true to the page and you run the risk of being accused of depicting child pornography; Nabokov’s more scandalous scenes are much more difficult to maneuver when you’re faced with flesh and blood rather than words on a page. But stray too far from the source material, and you lose what is so special about it: The dangerously convincing, even likable, voice of the narrator; the role of the reader/viewer as a member of a jury; the peculiar past that might explain committing such atrocities. Lose those, and you lose the fundamental point of Lolita—that is, losing yourself in the horrifying ethical void of it all.
But if anyone was up for the challenge, it was Stanley Kubrick, who never once recoiled from a weighty thematic challenge. Just look at the convoluted question of war in Paths of Glory and Spartacus, the bomb in Dr. Strangelove a few years later, and his late-career brush with sexual deviance in Eyes Wide Shut. So when Nabokov moved to Hollywood in the early 1960s and wrote a long, detailed and faithful adaptation of his novel, Kubrick seemed to be the only man for the job.
But remember, we’re talking about Hollywood in the 1960s: Censors watched over productions like hawks, and promptly shut down what they deemed gratuitous sexual content and foul language. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick and producer James B. Harris were encouraged to rewrite the whole thing. This included making Dolores (played by Sue Lyon) 14 instead of 12, eradicating any sexual scene between her and Humbert and relinquishing any mention of Humbert’s formative past. The resulting film possesses a radically different message and tone than its source. A novel about a middle-aged man’s attempt to justify his sexual relationship with a 12-year-old was mutated by censors into something entirely different. Kubrick’s Lolita is, on its most surface level, about a likable man who has a crush on, then a (possibly sexual) relationship with, a teenager. Not that Humbert is exactly morally acquitted in the 1962 film, but foregoing the nitty-gritty of it all inevitably turns it into a very different story.
While these changes were made in an effort to make the story more palatable, they actually make Lolita more morally unsettling. A large part of this comes through in a seemingly small detail. In Kubrick’s film, many characters refer to her as “Lolita.” But in the novel, that’s Humbert’s secret pet name for her. Nabokov runs through what people know Dolores as: Her nickname is Lo; she is Lola in slacks; she is Dolly at school; but she is Lolita with Humbert. By having more than one character refer to Dolores as “Lolita,” then, Kubrick opens up the corrupt lens of Humbert to the whole world. When explaining how he conceived Humbert’s perspective in the novel, Nabokov described a story he read in the newspaper about an ape who was tasked to make a drawing, and subsequently drew the bars of his cage. “I would say that my baboon, Humbert Humbert, is doing exactly that, you see,” said Nabokov. “He’s drawing and shading and erasing and redrawing the bars of his cage, the bars between him and what he terms the human herd.”
By sanitizing Humbert, the film doesn’t expel the baboon, nor the bars. Kubrick’s Lolita makes the bars ubiquitous, so that everyone in Dolores’ life is drawing and shading and erasing and redrawing them—not just Humbert. And while that is, of course, substantially different from a film about a pedophile’s long-winded justifications of his criminal actions, what Kubrick crafts ends up being, I dare say, even more damning. By making Humbert and Dolores’ relationship slightly more palatable by increasing the latter’s age, removing the former’s affinity toward other school children from the equation and, via her name, having the world see Dolores the way Humbert sees her, Lolita the film transforms into something less intense, but more universal. And that universality should be enough to make anyone squirm.
Only two filmmakers have dared adapt Lolita: Kubrick’s version, released 60 years ago, and erotic thriller director Adrian Lyne, who made his own version in 1997 starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain. Not having to deal with censors, Lyne goes all-out, not shying away from including a couple borderline-salacious sex scenes. More troubling than that, though, is that Lyne’s interpretation romanticizes the “relationship,” where Nabokov only incited Humbert to ask us to sympathize with him, and Kubrick did neither.
Whether or not Kubrick’s Lolita would have been more successful if he had been allowed to stick to Nabokov’s script, Nabokov certainly wasn’t happy with the final product—understandably so, as it strayed so far from the story he had initially tried to tell. Yet Kubrick’s film is one of his most gripping societal critiques. In looking to sanitize a horrible truth, the censors inadvertently pushed Kubrick to make a story where the line between good and evil is much less defined, and with that indefinition comes broad accusation.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.