"How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" gleefully poses the question on the theatrical posters of Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel of the same name. Misogynistically misunderstood. That is how it was made. To this day, Lolita remains as one of the most controversial works of fiction ever written, transcending the 20th century standards with its unapologetic depiction of pedophilia and its abrasive exploration of child abuse.
When Kubrick tasked himself with adapting Lolita into film, he knew it would be an overwhelming undertaking, for the thematic material that surrounds the vexed plot was far too risqué and taboo for its time. The novel's original plot involves the morbid infatuation of a middle aged man with a 12 year old girl. He attempts to seduce her, he preys on her youth, and ultimately he takes her virginity. Unfortunately, due to the Hays Code restrictions, Kubrick had to make adjustments to Nabokov's script, toning down the more provocative aspects of Lolita, thus misrepresenting the pivotal context of the abuse of power as a consensual relationship.
Would you be mine? Would you be my baby, tonight? Could be kissing my fruit punch lips in the bright sunshine. Because I like you quite a lot, with everything you've got. Don't you know? It's you that I adore, though I make the boys fall like dominos.
Lolita begins in media res at the end of the story with Humbert Humbert, the oversimplified protagonist, shooting Clare Quilty, his nemesis and Lolita's mysterious admirer. By showing the ending of the film and its consequences first, the viewer is left to question what caused the turn of events to unfold how they did. But before introducing Humbert as a child-seducing hemophiliac, Kubrick chooses instead to demonstrate that the protagonist is also capable of murder. Surely, this development is meant to arouse disconcerting disgust about Humbert in the audience by allowing his deranged obsession and disregard to ramifications to drive their judgement. This is a terrific setup, except for when the film reverses the narrative to four years earlier because the tone is misguided and Humbert is portrayed as a charismatic lovelorn professor, who falls for Lolita's promiscuity, as opposed to his dark obsession with her nubile innocence, which is stated in the novel.
I could be yours. I could be your baby, tonight. Topple you down from your sky forty stories high. Shining like a God, I can't believe I got you so look at what I brought. Not a second thought, oh, Romeo.
Set in the 1950s, the present story begins with dialogue from Humbert Humbert, explaining how he has arrived in Ramsdale, New Hampshire where he intends to spend his summer before beginning his professorship in Beardsley College, Ohio. Through his exposition it is established that it is during his search for vacant room and board when he first meets the "nymphet" that will arouse his sexual indescretion. Humbert is almost dissuaded from staying when Charlotte Haze, a sexually frustrated widow, cloyingly begs to him to consider renting a room in her home. She takes him to the garden and he agrees to lease when he sees a young Dolores Haze, Charlotte's daughter, innocently sunbathing. Unaware of Humbert's intentions for staying, Charlotte sees this as an opportunity to hopefully remarry and find a father figure for Dolores.
There is an interesting scene where Humbert accompanies the Haze women to a drive-in movie, and while there is no dialogue involved, it is implicitly illustrated that he is struggling between the unwanted advances of the mother and his desire to defile her daughter. In the novel, Dolores Haze, also know as Dolly, is a 12 year old girl, but in the movie her age is never mentioned, only alluded to, and even then she is stylized as much older. These creative choices take away from the turmoil and trauma of being sexually appraised at such a young age.
A large portion of the film is dedicated to exploring Humbert's complicated integration into the family unit as he begins to express his affection for young Dolores like a loving parent would, but his concern for the little girl is not out of love, but rather lust. As Dolores is approached by boys who admire her, Humbert is jealous and feels compelled to express to Charlotte that her daughter should be disciplined and raised with a firm hand so she is not taken advantage of by the boys who pursue her. Kubrick's representation of this is darkly humorous, but in truth, the notion of a grown man worrying over the preservation of a girl's virginity for the purpose of having it for himself is not funny at all. Could it be that Kubrick was exploiting a future formula for propaganda? Or was this vile wickedness not properly expressed due to censorship?
The source material is told through Humbert's malevolent, skewed perception of his actions. He excuses his irrational behavior through deception unto others and himself. As the film progresses this focus wanes, favoring a visual representation that is still very macabre.
Time passes and Charlotte's promiscuous infatuation with Humbert causes her to force him into marriage. Earlier, Charlotte revealed that she intended to send her daughter to an all girls summer camp. After her departure, Charlotte leaves a letter for him, stating that if he were to remain when she returns then they will elope, otherwise he must leave the house immediately for she will be too heartbroken to face him. Sadistically, Humbert laughs at her desperation but agrees to marry for he too is desperate; he cannot live without his Lolita.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
This is also a major departure in the film, for Dolores Haze in the novel is known as Dolly, or Lo, for short. Never as Lolita. That is a special name Humbert gives her, as he objectifies her as a trophy. His Lolita. This theme is never explored in Kubrick's vision as everyone calls her by that name. This is a missed opportunity, but perhaps it was difficult to adapt.
Largely, the first act is devoted to showing the sour marriage of Charlotte and Humbert, who secretly still yearns for Lolita's frail figure under his possession. Ironically for the protagonist, Lolita is sent away to boarding school soon after his marriage to her mother. He loathes the woman for Inadvertently keeping them apart for he only married her to be close to his doll. He is so internally enraged and even contemplates murdering her with her own gun, but he then charismatically tells the audience that he would be incapable of such atrocity. Luckily for him, Charlotte after much disdain for his innafection and disregard to her needs (as he can only consumate in sexual intercourse with her while thinking of her daughter), decides to find an answer to his brooding distance. This causes her to go on a rampage and she succeeds in finding his diary, where he describes her as an irritable cow and professes his love for Lolita. Angered and disgusted, Charlotte runs from the house, unable to fathom her husband's sinister disloyalty and is run over on the street.
This event is treated as a comical disguise for Humbert's prayers, releasing him from her grasp as he is now in full parental control of Dolores. Charlotte's death seems to be applauded in the film, as she is certainly portrayed to be sardonic and unjustly cruel. This is not true in the novel.
Much of the sexual tension in the film had to be subdued, as depicting sexual acts between an adult and a child was considered to be incorrigible and deemed pornographic and profane. Although integral to the morals and message of the novel, the film adaptation instead opted to show Humbert painting Dolores' toenails and talking about her "cherry pie." Sexual intercourse is indeed present in the film - in the form of strategically placed fades - which leave much to the imagination. It is completely understandable that the subject matter is uncomfortable, but the method in which it is presented incorrectly alludes that the relationship between Humbert and Dolores is consensual and provoked. In reality, Dolores is coerced and preyed on by a calculating man that deceives her into needing him. The Kubrick approach slut-shames Dolores for being virginal and pure with no regard to her budding sexuality, but this is not her fault; she did not lure Humbert to rape her.
In the second act, the theme of subservience is overtly present, which is actually a refreshing look into the demented reasoning of Humbert's oppression of Lolita. She controls him with her affection, her youthful naiveté, and he prances after her like a love sick puppy. But with Charlotte dead and the two of them riding the U.S. highways like an even more deranged version of Elvis and Alabama (before those two existed), Humbert is in charge, controlling what Lolita wears, when she eats, and who she can and can't talk to. This conflict in power is the catalyst that causes Dolores to rebel. She is a child, unruly, and disobedient and the film cannot shy away from this, no matter how much it attempts to mature her.
The conclusion to Lolita is bizarre and unsettlimg even 50 years after its release. Ultimately it is revealed that Dolores, while in the care of Humbert, was in love with an equally older man named Clare Quilty. In the novel his presence is a twist at the end, but in the film he is ever present, manipulating Humbert into giving Dolores more freedom. These ruses are employed by Quilty to spend more time with her. This love triangle in the film does not consider Dolores' age or intentions, but instead portrays her as the cunning sexpot that often is utilized now as a marketing strategy to sell. In the novel, Quilty is as equally obsessed with Dolores as Humbert, but she only agrees to leave with him because she believes he will save her from his clutches.
In the end, Humbert is left without his Lolita and dies before his trial begins, Quilty loses her to his depravity and his life, and Dolores is left orphaned, impreganted, and broke. This is utterly sad and despicable, but in Kubrick's version of events, this is presented in the vein of a soap opera, where the consequences of these terrible actions are okay, because that is just the way things are meant to be.
Lolita is a dark descent into the lunacy of human vices. It is ahead of its time, considering that it addresses the topics of rape, abuse, and molestation in the familial unit. Still, the film version, although expertly filmed and beautifully scored, promotes the exploitation of women by illustrating them as sexual beings whose only purpose is to garner the attention of men by submitting their bodies for their pleausure. Lolita, the film, feels like a 152 minute romanticized excuse that avoids the torment and terror of the issue at hand, and instead it opts to present the events as "one of the world's greatest love stories." It is unclear what Stanley Kubrick aimed to state with the film as he never gave a proper interview to debunk its shock value. However, it is decidedly obvious that Lolita has had a significant impact on the way we view sex and youth today.