At the time of its release, a lot of the advertising for this film played up the titillation by asking a question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” As many viewers through they years have found out: they did it by editing out a loooooooooooooooooot of oogy parts.
To recap quick: the original novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is presented as a confessional tale, written by a professor, “Humbert Humbert”, who is in prison for murder. But his was a crime of passion – passion for a twelve-year-old girl, Lolita. Humbert was secretly a pedophile and Lolita had been the daughter of a landlady; Humbert married her to stay close to Lolita, but his wife found out the truth one day and killed herself – prompting Humbert to sweep Lolita up on a whirlwind cross-country tour for a year or so, moving from place to place and skipping town just before anyone figured out that Humbert and Lolita were maybe a little too intimate to be father and daughter. Then one evening Lolita disappears, leaving Humbert heartbroken for three years – until she writes out of the blue, saying that she’s now married and pregnant (and about 16) and she and her husband need money. Humbert rushes to see her and learn the truth of how she disappeared, and her confession is what drives him to kill.
The film follows the basic plot, but makes some fairly important tweaks to make things more palatable. The biggest change is in Lolita’s age – here, she is fourteen instead of twelve, and played with some knowing sass by newcomer Sue Lyon. She’s still immature, but still not quite as immature; she’s the one who seems to instigate things with Humbert (James Mason), suggesting to him with a sly smirk that maybe the two of them could play a “game” she’d learned from a boy at her summer camp. Blessedly, another change is that we don’t see any sexual scenes between Humbert and Lolita – director Stanley Kubrik lets the audience’s imaginations and familiarity with the book carry the day, leaving the film to show nothing more than some slightly-too-fervent kisses or cuddles, with the camera cutting away when there’s a chance things could go further. The most intimate thing we see Humbert do to Lolita is paint her toenails.
Kubrik also seems to have made up for the lack of sex by adding in comedy. Shelley Winters is in the largely thankless role of Lolita’s mother Charlotte; she’s supposed to be bawdy and abrasive, the kind of overly-sexualized adult that Humbert usually shuns, but Winters manages to make her come across as funny instead of just crude as she puts poor Humbert through some painfully awkward seductions. Paradoxically this also makes Charlotte more sympathetic in the scene where she finds out what Humbert really feels about her.
The biggest surprise for me in the film, and also one of the biggest changes, concerned the role of the character Clare Quilty. In the novel, Quilty only turns up at the end – he’s the man Humbert kills – but Kubrik promotes him to a main supporting role, played by Peter Sellers. Kubrik also starts the movie with Quilty’s murder, and only then skips back in time to show Humbert and Lolita’s story. But Quilty is there too, as a smarmy playwright whom Charlotte has also (unsuccessfully) tried to seduce. He keeps turning up throughout Humbert and Lolita’s travels – puzzlingly disguising himself as everything from a police detective to a school psychologist to a poll taker – and knowing his ultimate fate, I kept trying to figure out how Quilty fit into the overall story. This also distracted me, fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), from Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, as well as giving Peter Sellers a chance to shine quite brightly.
Still, at the end of the day – this is a story about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with an underage girl, and letting Peter Sellers flex in the service of that tale is pretty much akin to lipstick on a pig. Fortunately our society has made some big changes since the days this film was made – I should note that when you do a search for Lolita in Google right now, the very first thing you see is a toll-free number for an organization working to combat sexual abuse of minors.