By Craig Skinner
Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita, adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel of the same name, is a fascinating example of a cinematic adaptation and one that is oddly under-discussed within Kubrick’s career, even though it was something of a cause célèbre at the time of its release.
The novel upon which the film is based is a uniquely literary creation and Nabokov exploits the opportunities afforded to him as a novelist, framing the novel for instance as the confessional of the erudite Humbert Humbert – a double name possibly inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s doppelgänger story, William Wilson – a scholar who falls madly in love with the 12 year old Dolores “Lolita” Haze. Nabokov’s prose oozes high brow literary references but also constantly undermines them, parodying the ultimately pathetic figure of Humbert. This is all done through the unreliable narration of Humbert himself though and therefore even when Humbert is at his weakest, and perhaps even most sympathetic, one has the sense that we are possibly being manipulated by this crafty and learned protagonist/storyteller. The effect is without doubt intoxicating and also often disturbing. Humbert comments early on that he wants the reader to “participate” but despite this kind of explicit statement of intent from Nabokov we as a reader are not distanced, but further pulled into Humbert’s twisted world.
In translating this cinematically Kubrick was faced with a challenge and one that could have resulted in disastrous consequences had the wrong decisions been made. While the literary techniques employed by Nabokov have their kindred parallels in filmmaking (the voice-over in particular reoccurs in the film but to a significantly lessened degree), the shattered forth wall employed by Nabokov is a far trickier position to take in film and one that risks drastically distancing the viewer and making the whole affair rather farcical. Partly due to the conventions of the form but also due to the differing experiences one has with a novel and a film a simple transposition was really out of the question and in the choices Kubrick made he actually transformed the book into something entirely different whilst retaining so much of what made the book so thrilling.
James Mason’s Humbert Humbert does not involve us in the story through a collusive narration, although as mentioned snippets of voice-over are still present. Instead Kubrick involves us through an acute understanding of storytelling and character dynamics. The latter is crucially important in a film in which the audience is encouraged to follow a central protagonist who is revealed as both a paedophile and a murderer. Unlikeable protagonists are somewhat uncommon in popular cinema, and it is a rare feat to pull it off as compellingly as it is done here. This is also in part due to the note perfect casting of James Mason and his fine performance as Humbert Humbert. The roots of this casting can probably be seen in Nicholas Ray’s fantastic Bigger Than Life, in which Mason’s character, a school teacher and patriarch, transforms into a monstrous psychopath when under the influence of high doses of cortisone.
The interplay between the central and even the peripheral characters of Lolita is both well written and masterfully constructed on film. In the penultimate scenes of Humbert visiting the titular character in her new marital home the audience can understand everything that is going on, just by observing the expressions on the character’s faces and perhaps even more significantly the eye-lines, an oft overlooked but crucial aspect of any character based scene. Indeed the dialogue in the sequence in which Lolita and new husband Dick recline whilst Humbert stands seems deliberately inconsequential, as the eyes tell the true story. This is again true in so many other moments throughout the film; most notably at the dance early on, a cornucopia of complex eye-line matches, the many scenes in which Humbert gazes longingly at Lolita and also so effectively in the sequence that finds the elder Miss Haze’s plans to seduce Humbert interrupted by the playfully omniscient Lolita.
These scenes are also excellent examples of the almost hermetic world in which Kubrick seems to seal his characters. Complimented by the effect of predominantly shooting in studio locations, the characters in Lolita inhabit a self-absorbed and insular world in which figures of authority or outsiders rarely interfere, until Humbert reaches the near lowest point of his inevitable downfall. A mixture of cluttered spaces, doorways and bathroom scenes add to this closed off world and the way in which Kubrick navigates the Haze household moving between rooms, through walls in a way that manages, mostly through incredibly fluid camera work, to keep us close and personal with the characters whilst never leaving the space they inhabit. There is also an interesting approach to establishing shots in the film that enforces this idea, with some scenes even beginning with harsh cuts, such as an abrupt shot of the mummy in The Curse of Frankenstein that introduces the drive-in scene. The scene then plays out within the confines of the car in a series of close ups, never leaving the faces and limbs of the central characters. This is microcosmic of the wider approach of Kubrick with Lolita, this is a film about these characters, not the wider world.
Kubrick also uses the advantage offered by his status as the narrator, the director, the one who can control what we see and how we understand events in the story, not Humbert as is in the novel, to further complicate and layer our relationship with Humbert. In key scenes Humbert is deprived of information that puts the audience in a privileged position. This helps the audience to both actually sympathise with Humbert and also find him somewhat laughable, underlining our position as involved in the story but not under the complete spell of Humbert Humbert.
The influence that the character of Clare Quilty has on Lolita and ultimately the way he steals her away from Humbert is often revealed to the audience while Humbert still remains in the dark. Quilty’s intentions are hinted at when in a conversation with Charlotte, which Humbert is not privy to, his sleazy reaction to Charlotte’s comment regarding Lolita having “a cavity filled” by his uncle reveals to us much about this character (much which is admittedly already revealed in the prologue/epilogue) that Humbert won’t uncover until it’s far too late.
The teasing of Humbert with Quilty’s importance is subtly apparent following Lolita passionate goodbye to Humbert, replete with a swelling and exuberant score (a musical cue which returns when she again leaves him near the end of the film), when Humbert reads the letter left by Charlotte. Following his reading aloud of said letter and the increasing mocking reaction to her pouring her heart out, his position as the one in control is immediately undermined by the pan to a poster of Quilty on Lolita’s wall. Quilty is also advertising the Drome brand of cigarettes, a brand which reappears in the scene in which Quilty visits Humbert at home and offers him one. This framing of Quilty in the view of the audience but not Humbert is later mirrored in a scene that closely follows in which Humbert and Charlotte are on their now marital bed and Humbert’s eyes drift to a photo of Lolita.
Mirrored scenes and odd dualities such as this are incredibly frequent throughout Lolita and the cumulative effect of these repetitions leaves one reconstructing the meaning of the scenes that have gone before, an intelligent and layered technique that is as thoughtful and elaborate as anything achieved by Nabokov in the novel. The ultimate mirrored scene is the framing of the whole film, the murder of Clare Quilty by Humbert Humbert, a killing which not only brings the film to its narrative close but provides cathartic relief for both Humbert and the audience.
In spite of the cathartic release offered by the climax the impact of the film remains; the glossy facile pop culture that Humbert hates is all the more present in the 21st century and the potential for a dark and lurking underbelly behind American white picket fences seems no less sinister now than it did then. Perhaps this is why the director of a modern masterpiece that in many ways re-explores these ideas, Blue Velvet, when speaking of Lolita had the following to say, “It’s a time and a place and a sensibility. That thrills my soul.”
Hashtag - #kubrickproject For more Kubrick, check out the launch page for the project here.