Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film "Lolita" feels minor in comparison to his later, more celebrated works, but it is as essential to film history as any other. Perhaps it hasn't reached the modern holiness as "2001: A Space Odyssey" because Lolita is based on a towering work of literature, written by Vladimir Nabokov, that was already celebrated in '62 as a classic. Compound that with the fact that he was restrained by the censors of the time, so the film doesn't shock as much as it once did and nowhere near as much as the book. But Kubrick's Lolita is a stunning adaptation, taking a few concentrated liberties to create an entirely different story from the same plot. Like he did with Stephen King's "The Shining", Kubrick creates an alternate universe to the original where he can explore his own themes, flex his own stylistic muscles and explore already classic characters uniquely by adding more dramatic irony and more symbolic satire.
As an adaptation, Kubrick builds new transgressions when his narrative must lose the lurid sexual details of statutory rape and detailed pedophilac thoughts. Both Nabokov and Kubrick's plots concern the secret sexual relationship between a grown man and an underage girl, his stepdaughter. While the novel's story is an emotional study of sexual obsession and corrupted thinking, Kubrick goes farther by finding a sympathetic, unrequited, impossible romance in this taboo relationship and ponders what social factors created it. The two characters (Humbert & Lolita) switch their roles from the source material with Humbert becoming the victim and Lolita, the manipulator. With Lolita matured a few years, her perspective changes and her understanding makes her more guilty of Humbert's undoing. Kubrick finds a darkly comical symbol for the mind state of henpecked, emasculated men and sexually repressed, cruel women. The film concentrates less on exposing the seductive qualities of young girls and the weaknesses of aging men; and more on satirizing the romanticized idea of love and the tortured envy of the young, lucky and powerful. The psychological gap between Humbert and Lo is more emotional and intellectual than generational or biological.
The film fleshes out the role of Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother and Humbert's wife. This change is the most crucial. Her foolishness and immaturity is expounded on to become a catalyst for the dangerous attraction between Humbert and Lo. Both characters despise Charlotte and their spite fuels the joined paths that they follow. In the tragic end, Lolita becomes just like her mother and Humbert drives Lolita to become her mother. Its a metaphor for the father-daughter sexual complex. The possessing, dominating fathering husband who cuffs and constrains his younger, less restrained, less romantic wife until he drives her away emotionally. He traps her to resent his own mother and she lets him to anger her own paternal aggression. Humbert takes in Lolita with egotistical hope of rescuing her from her future fate as an uncultured wife to a redneck nobody. The novel's Humbert robs Lolita of her childhood and forces his sexual desires upon Lolita. Kubrick's Humbert is forcing his altruism, misplaced ideals and dogmatic ideas of culture upon her. The book says, "You can't force someone love you". Kubrick says, "You can't force someone to understand you". Stanley doesn't see Lolita as passive, victimized, innocent or clueless, as she is allowed to be in her novel incarnation. She is very much in control. This version of Lolita is simply uninterested in real love, gratitude or virtue of any kind. She's more of a villain in this than in the novel. I can name a slew of films that were influenced by this distinction. And she escapes unpunished, denying her awful fate in the book, making Humbert's loss even more sacrificial and sad.
Breaking from Nabokov, Kubrick reveals the end of the story to us first, transforming the emotional ride and adding layers to all of its innuendo. When we know that Humbert is headed for tragedy and that Lolita will never grow up or accept him, we can focus on all of Kubrick's investigation of broader factors. We get to know the character of Claire Quilty, the man who drives them apart and sets both free, while understanding all that his role represents. Quilty is the biggest manipulator and fraud in the story. We begin the film sympathizing with him and later grow to fear and despise him. This creates the growing intrigue and sympathy in Humbert. Humbert is not nearly as perverted or unlikable as he is in the novel. This decision was prompted by censors, but Kubrick takes the the opportunity further than any of his contemporary directors would have.
What sets Kubrick's Lolita apart most is how he sees the ultimate innocent humanity of the situation and how he sees the obvious path of destruction & broken hearts being prevented. How any loss IS avoidable. Kubrick was a fantastic chess fan and adds a pivotal scene where chess sums up all of the looming conflict. He knows that if Humbert had been a better player in the game of life, he could have been happily married to Charlotte or given Lolita the great life he wanted to give her without ruining his own. But that would take really loving himself and others. Perhaps Humbert did love Lolita but it was with a stupid, blinded, "Romantic", self-sacrificing love that he mocked when Charlotte gave it to him and that ultimately destroys his heart when Lolita gives it to Quilty. The novel makes an enemy of irresponsible sexual whim and irrational thinking. Kubrick makes an enemy of illogical planning and self-sabotage, totally forgiving the taboo sexual attitudes and falling hopelessly in love. He creates a dark parody of the "screwball comedy" about a man who just can't tell a good move from a bad move. Kubrick doesn't see the story of "Lolita" as a story of tragic fate, but of comic choices and tragic consequences. He sympathizes with our distasteful but sincere heroes (Humbert & Charlotte) and finds a kind of brilliant savagery in the cold and uncompromising villains (Lolita & Quilty).
Its Kubrick, so its also technically brilliant. Cinematography and editing are impeccable and state-of-the-art. The screenpaly is wonderfully paced and its dialogue is often genius (the script won an Oscar). And this is maybe one of the strongest central casts in any Kubrick film. Shelley Winters maybe deserved an Oscar for her portrayal as "Charlotte", James Mason is both touching and hilarious as "Humbert" and a 14 year old Sue Lyon is incredible as the mature and devious "Lolita". I think Kubrick really grew with this cast and had some of his best moments shaping their performances.
This film marked Stanley Kubrick's first defining work in satire and controversial subjects. Cutting his teeth on Lolita definitely gave Dr. Strangelove its bite. Lolita went on to inspire a wave of dark sexually-themed films 1968's "Candy", 1993's "The Babysitter" and the recent screen adaptation of "Gone Girl". And I suspect it influenced the sexual comedies of the 1960s, 70s & 80s with its erotic double entendres and sexually motivated comic plots. Its reach is probably as far as helping to inspire "The Graduate". This film is that important and it was that radical and big in its release. Essential viewing and really one of the shiniest gems in Kubric's oeuvre and all of cinema history.