The troubling legacy of Lolita

Lolita would become Stanley Kubrick’s first comedy, and after having just completed a for-hire job with the mammoth studio production Spartacus (1960), the director was determined to exact his now-infamous precision and control in shepherding the novel to the screen. Fifty-three-year-old British actor James Mason – who was known on both sides of the Atlantic for roles in Odd Man Out, A Star is Born and North by Northwest – was cast in the central role, playing the part with a sense of ruffled debonair charm that invited pity rather than disgust. Indeed, Mason’s Humbert is not the man we are introduced to in the book’s foreword, where the fictional John Ray Jr, describes Humbert as “horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy”. What’s more, Kubrick and Nabokov’s script entirely removes the “explanation” Humbert gives for his sexual obsession: that, one summer as a young boy, he was interrupted during a sexual encounter with his 14-year-old love, who then died. Instead his Lolita, real name Dolores, is depicted simply as a girl that has transfixed and enamoured him; there is no hint of prior paedophilia, or, as the book says, “diabolical cunning”.

A bag of contradictions

To make a releasable film, Kubrick and Harris were tasked with hiring an actress for the role of Dolores Haze who looked older than the girl Nabokov had described in the novel as a “monkeyish” 12-year-old who was “unconscious herself of her fantastic power”. Of 800 auditionees, a model and TV actress from Davenport, Iowa was chosen: Sue Lyon. Sophisticated, sunny, and – crucially – appearing far older than her 14 years, she flew to the UK for the film’s lengthy shoot. Some years later in 1969, Kubrick admitted to bowing to “the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time,” of which the casting of the older-looking Lyon was a significant part. Seemingly in agreement, Nabokov would say that Catherine Demongeot – the scrappy, tomboyish then-12 year old of Zazie in the Metro (1960) fame – “would have been the ideal Lolita” instead.

When watched today, the final film is a bag of contradictions. Lyon is made up with eyeliner, sooty lashes and permanently coiffed hair – and yet she sleeps in the nightdress of a Victorian doll, all ruffles, ribbons and bows. When we first meet her she’s rigidly placed and posed, gazing at Humbert over the top of her sunglasses. She looks imperious, knowing, and appears to be at least 18; she is not, as Nabokov describes in the book, “standing four feet ten in one sock”. In a 1974 foreword to Lolita: A Screenplay, Nabokov admitted that “the frills of Miss Lyon’s elaborate nightgown were painful”.  

One of the most notable changes from page to screen was through the character of Clare Quilty, played in this film adaptation by British actor Peter Sellers. It is with Quilty that Dolores eventually decides to run away, orchestrating her escape from Humbert by having the other man pose as her uncle to discharge her from hospital where she is staying with a phony illness. Kubrick expanded significantly the role of Quilty, an avant-garde playwright who is directing a play at Dolores’s school; the film opens with his murder, which occurs at the book’s close, after Sellers has immediately set up the film’s comic tone by popping out from behind a chair and declaring “no, I’m Spartacus!” in reference to Kubrick’s last feature.

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