(Warning: novel and film's overall story and narrative twists discussed in close detail)
Nabokov's Lolita--about a middle-aged college professor's obsession for a 12-year-old girl--is something of a Venus Flytrap: bright colors alluring scents attract the unwary reader and before he knows it (woops!) he's lost in a fabulist wonderland of American kitsch and grotesquerie, booby-trapped with hidden caches of pain suffering death.
Kubrick's film kept the more puritanical American moviegoing (as opposed to bookreading) audience in mind (the novel had been controversial but a bestseller) when it dropped the erotic tone and with the first scene plunged us straight into Nabokovian surrealism: a disintegrating mansion haunted by a bespectacled ogre (Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty) hunted in turn by noble Humbert Humbert (James Mason) with a (What else in guncrazy America?) revolver. Only--think about it--Humbert is the child molester, Quilty her rescuer.
Nabokov is nothing if not master of the intricately executed point-of-view and in this novel the view is exclusively Humbert's. His fanciful roundabout way of explaining himself (sprinkling funny little disparaging remarks about the stupidity of American pop culture along the way) nudges us to think: "Witty eloquent sophisticate haunted by early tragedy trapped in a nation of buffoons--if he wants to indulge his fantasies on some young girl who are we to judge?"
Humbert presents for his defense Exhibit A: Dolores' mother Charlotte, an annoyingly vulgar social climber ("the obnoxious mama;" the "brainless baba") who shows no affection for her child. By presenting Dolores as already a victim (by her mother no less), her impending deflowering becomes a kind of salvation a fulfillment of her role and destiny as a nymphet. When Humbert finally triumphs over Charlotte it's wish fulfillment of the most hilariously insidious kind (murder by car accident); when Humbert is finally alone with the girl the wish fulfillment reaches its apotheosis with Exhibit B (Nabokov's most daring provocation): Dolores seduces Humbert not the other way around.
Misdirection deception seduction--in the novel's more nightmarish second half turns out Dolores is not fully under Humbert's control probably never was. After an increasingly stormy relationship that ranges across America she flees her stepfather-lover and disappears for two years; when Humbert finally catches up with her she's a heavily pregnant woman married to a Richard F. Schiller and it's this Dolores Haze (only Humbert calls her 'Lolita;' everyone else says 'Lo' or 'Dolly' or when her mother was mad 'Dolores') that Humbert finally recognizes and loves. Left with only an awareness of himself and what he has done he shoots Quilty, dies in prison while awaiting trial. Folks are right to call it a 'love story;' it also happens to be a tragedy.
Kubrick claimed anticipated censorship problems compelled him to de-emphasize the novel's initial sensuality but I'd argue that even more impossible to realize onscreen was the novel's final section--witheringly sad on the printed page, you wonder if Humbert's self-administered x-ray might not slip that short dangerous distance into bathos.
Not quite sure Kubrick is capable of capturing the voluptuousness of Nabokov's prose either--or if he has ever managed a sexy film (Eyes Wide Shut arguably doesn't count, is if anything anti-erotic. Barry Lyndon maybe?). The filmmaker comes closest in the opening when the camera is picking its way through the post-orgy clutter in Quilty's mansion, the obsessively accumulated detail recalling the equally obsessively detailed Lyndon; Dolores (Sue Lyons) is mentioned only in dialogue. But a pair of lovers being pursued across America, with a Gothic gargoyle close behind? That is squarely in Kubrick's sweet spot.
The humor--which was present in Nabokov's novel anyway, and which I suspect was what Kubrick really responded to--has a twofold function onscreen: as hook to draw us into the narrative (the way eroticism did for the book) and as a way to undercut Humbert early, cast him as straight man in a low-key slapstick (the presence of a straight man implies the presence of a comic--hence Sellers' expanded Quilty). If the book is a seduction the film is instead a mystery: what has Quilty done that Humbert would want to kill him?
As Humbert actor James Mason turns the notion of a child molester on its head: he's not some overweight creep with little skill in social interaction hiding in his mother's basement; instead he's a suavely handsome European intellectual, all darkeyed understated charm. With Mason's casting Kubrick makes a powerful point: predators come in all forms. There is no consistent stereotype.
Dolores' 'rescuer' as played by Peter Sellers embodies Nabokov's humor better than we (or Kubrick or possibly Nabokov himself) could ever have imagined. If I were asked to describe the novel's comic flavor I imagine a decadent French pastry once served in Catherine the Great's court, now reinterpreted by a hotshot molecular gastronomy chef. Quilty's barely a character--he's barely one in the novel--but Sellers turns the thin material to his advantage, improvising not so much a buffoon as a witty commentary on buffoons, playing a double game where the real fool is Humbert, who hasn't the slightest idea he's being played.
Bad as Humbert may be Quilty is arguably worse--not just unrepentant but barely able to recall Dolores (Humbert has to prod his memory), wealth and fame giving him such an abundance of young flesh he can barely keep track, much less realize what the big deal is. If Humbert represents lustful man stripped of his rationalizations and reduced to a terrible sobriety, Quilty represents the far side of the same man, more deluder than deluded, so jaded with the corruption of it all that when confronted with his sins he surveys the landscape with appreciative eyes turns back to his accuser and responds: "Sure. So?"
Much ink spilled on how Kubrick tinkered with both tone and structure but not as much on how he's changed our view of at least one major character: Charlotte Haze, Dolores' mother (played onscreen by Shelly Winters). Nabokov stuck to his strategy of peering through Humbert's eyes and through Humbert's eyes Charlotte is irredeemably crass; Winters (with the help of Kubrick's revisions) manages to crack open Charlotte's shell reveal the loneliness the vulnerability within--all during the scene where Charlotte clumsily tries to seduce Humbert, who politely begs off. Camera lingers an extra beat on Charlotte a stricken expression on her face and we realize: why she's a person after all; not a caricature or satirical target--or at least not just a target--but a living breathing being with a point of view we've taken for granted all along.
The change isn't minor but serves to prepare us for the later twist of Lolita turning back into Dolores, of a nymphet stepping out of her alluring haze to reveal herself (just as her mother did) a victim not a provocateur. Has she (like the Dolores in the novel) been robbed of her childhood too? Yes Kubrick implies, presenting us with the sight of Sue Lyons answering the door with a sizable bump on her belly--like Winters' Charlotte, a dowdy hausfrau who enjoys sipping beer in a can (we don't see Charlotte actually sip beer but don't doubt that given half a chance and with no one looking she'd chug a can or two) offering inane civilities ("You'll have to excuse my appearance but you've caught me on ironing day"). This is Charlotte reincarnated in younger but no less polluted flesh; possibly she'll be just as wretched to her child (a daughter, we learn) and the cycle (or spiral) will be further perpetuated.
If we're moved by the earlier glimpse of Charlotte's vulnerability will the image of bespectacled and pajama'd Lyons--a reminder of Charlotte's vulnerability--move us as well? If Mason's Humbert weeps at the sight of what he has wrought are we allowed to pity him? Her? Both? Quilty may traipse away his wealth and privilege preventing capture or accountability but Charlotte, Dolores, and eventually Humbert himself offer us a different message: that in a world full of predators we all end up, in one way or another, as victims.
First published in Businessworld 11.24.17