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How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Lolita?

Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita released in 1955 to little fanfare. The story is told from the first person perspective of the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, as he, to put it lightly, describes his infatuation and eventual relationship with the adolescent girl Lolita. Because of the book’s subject matter, Nabokov had a difficult time getting it published. When it finally did get picked up by a publisher, the first release only sold 5,000 copies. But, three years later, Lolita was finally published in the United States. In 1958, Lolita became an instant bestseller, selling over 100,000 copies in the first three weeks. Reactions to the novel were mixed, but its impact was immense. Lolita became Nabokov’s most famous book, and one of the most infamous novels of all time. At this point, Lolita is considered to be a masterpiece of literature and has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. The next step for Nabokov? A cinematic adaptation.

In 1959, renowned filmmaker Stanley Kubrick would approach Nabokov about adapting his novel to film. While Nabokov was hesitant at first, he eventually agreed to make the movie and wrote the script himself. The original screenplay for Lolita was around 400 pages long. For comparison, a typical movie script that runs for about 1.5-2 hours will have a script between 90 and 120 pages. Clearly the script was too long and would have to be cut down, but this wasn’t the only issue Kubrick would run into. Lolita was made during a time when the Hays Code was the ultimate authority when it came to filmmaking. The Hays Code, defined as the “self-imposed set of industry set of guidelines that prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions, and rape.” As you can imagine, a direct recreation of the novel’s events would not be allowed to be translated to film. So, the film underwent tremendous censorship.

Though the film was released to critical acclaim, it’s not a film neither the writer nor director look on with much pride. In fact, Kubrick would say later that if he had understood how constraining the Hays Code would have been, he wouldn’t have made the film at all. It’s clear from reading interviews from both Nabokov and Kubrick that the story in the 1962 adaptation of Lolita was not the one either creator wanted to tell. Which, considering the praise around the film, was surprising to me. What I found especially interesting about this was that, though both men seem to share a general disdain for the film, their reasoning for that disdain stems from completely different places. In order to understand where they believe the film went wrong, I think it’s important to look at what their intentions were when bringing this story to life. Nabokov in his novel and Kubrick in his film, respectively. To me, it appears that this disconnect may stem from the fact that Nobokov and Kubrick seem to have had extremely different interpretations of the character of Humbert Humbert and the story of Lolita as a whole. I’d like to draw attention to two quotes, one from Kubrick and one from Nabokov.

Kubrick said: “I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s sexual relationship with Lolita, and because his sexual obsession was only barely hinted at, many people guessed too quickly that Humbert was in love with Lolita. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end, when she is no longer a nymphet but a dowdy, pregnant suburban housewife; and it’s this encounter, and his sudden realization of his love, that is one of the most poignant elements of the story. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed this erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nobokov did.”

Nabokov said: “I can only say that Humbert’s fate seems to me classically tragic…Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw. Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream figment made flesh ¾ which is the eternal and universal nature of passion.”

I cannot tell anyone with confidence what the message behind Lolita is. It can’t be that pedophilia is wrong, the people that believe pedophilia is disgusting and immoral will continue to think so whether or not they’ve read the book or seen the film, as will the people who disagree. So what are we supposed to take away from the story of Lolita? As talented and intelligent as I believe Stanley Kubrick to be, I think his analysis of the story of Lolita is not only surface-level, but significantly more self-contained than Nabokov intended. While I do believe that Lolita can very easily be the story of a man who allows his sexual desires overpower the legitimate feelings of love he feels for another person, I don’t believe that was the story Nabokov was trying to tell. Lolilta is a story that appeals to a universal feeling of desire that motivates many of us to see our goals realized despite the consequences. Humbert Humbert is not a victim of overwhelming love, but a desire so strong that he’s willing to put another person at risk to satisfy his craving. You don’t need to be a pedophile to understand that feeling.

When you look at the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, there’s one big phrase that jumps out at you: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” To me, the question almost seems like a jab from Kubrick to the industry. After all the trouble they’ve put him through, how was this movie ever completed? The answer is clearly censorship, without it the film would never have been released. However, I don’t think that answer can fully encompass the creators’ dissatisfaction. The film didn’t feel incomplete because of its lack of erotism, as Kubrick implies, but because he took making the film palatable to audiences to a new level by viewing his limitations as an inconvenience. In seeing a barricade on his creativity as a director instead of as motivation to fester it, Kubrick created a film that simply doesn’t delve into the ways in which the audience is not so different from Humbert. Lolita wasn’t the great love of Humbert’s life, she was a conquest. If there were any shortcomings in the story, it’s because Kubrick decided to portray Humbert’s “love” for Lolita as more genuine than it ever should have been. By ignoring this fact, Kubrick inadvertently censored himself in more ways than the Hays Code ever could.

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