Directed by Stanley Kubrick, released in 1962.
You know a film was difficult to make when the filmmaker says that, in retrospect, he wouldn’t have made it if he had known all the problems he would be facing. Stanley Kubrick stated that a few years after he had made Lolita, but from then to now, a lot is lost in translation.
The film is nothing by modern standards: there is no overt sexuality; it is all innuendo and implication. The title character, played by 14 year old Sue Lyon, has affairs with four men (that we know of) in the film, yet there is no nudity, no love scenes, not even one scene of her kissing any of the older men she is involved with, yet in 1962 it caused a huge fervor.
The controversy was based on the novel from which the film was based, which was more overt, more erotic, and in my opinion (based on the synopsis, I haven’t read the novel) far more creepy. Kubrick made the film in Britain, where he hoped the censors would be kinder than they would be in the United States, but they still demanded several changes, to which Kubrick acceded.
The plot, in short, revolves around a man, Humbert Humbert, in his forties who becomes enamored with a 14-year-old girl, Dolores “Lolita” Haze. He rents a room in her mother’s house to stay close to her, and eventually marries the mother, Charlotte, to remain close. After her mother dies, the two of them go on a road trip and embark on an affair. She eventually disappears, running off with another man, Clare Quilty after being chafed by her stepfather’s smothering and possessive nature. She writes him three years later, and he finds that she is married, pregnant, and in need of money. She reveals that Quilty was manipulating events along the way, including getting her to go into public more. Her stepfather goes off and kills him.
Many adjustments from the novel included the raising of Lolita’s age from 12 to 14, the casting of the more developed Sue Lyon instead of a girl who wouldn’t look likely or interested in engaging in sexual activity, as well as the expansion of the role of the character of Clare Quilty, which was also made more obvious to the viewer.
Lolita is a film that, well, I am not all that fond of. It is long, drawn out, and the payoff at the end really isn’t worth it. However, I would view it again if only to prompt discussion about the film, which stands as a great thought-provoker, especially over the significance of one’s teenage years, and the impact of that loss on the character of Lolita.
The acting is superb, though. James Mason plays the character of Humbert without hesitation, which makes him even creepier as he pursues, and later possesses, the young Lolita. His frustration when she vanishes and his emotional breakdown when he finds her seem genuine, and his anger at Quilty comes from a deep place. Sue Lyons plays Lolita with great charm, but also innocent; she does not realize how much trouble her affairs with the older men she seduces will cause her. At 14, she had to play a (very) pregnant 17-year-old who had lost her childhood to men taking advantage of her teenage curiosity, and we see how negative an impact this had had on her. Peter Sellers plays the conniving Clare Quilty, who in various guises, manipulates and toys with Humbert at various points across the film. Finally, Shelley Winters plays the superficial, in your face, and loud Charlotte Haze, a woman whose ultimate goal is to win over Humbert, and gets a surprise when she reads his journal.
Stanley Kubrick goes after a very controversial novel and idea, and handles it in a fairly classy manner, not being crude, but addressing, albeit in a roundabout manner, how devastating the effects of Lolita’s affair with Humbert is on both of them, and how her views on men are permanently skewed as a result. In the end, she cannot love; she sees men as a means to an end. Humbert loses what stability he had developed and kills Quilty, the man who ruined his relationship with Lolita.
Lolita is one of those films which is paradoxical: on the one hand, it is tame, like I said: no nudity, no sexuality, nothing that would get it worse than a PG-13 rating today. On the other hand, the topic matter, the implied topic matter, would hinder it as Christian and family values groups left and right would fight the film tooth and nail. The film would likely be passed over by the major studios, and have to emerge from the independent film market instead, which is better: Hollywood would ruin the film if it made it anyway.