|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 12 June 2001|
There are a lot of contemporary films that could not have been made in 1962. ‘Lolita,’ director Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, probably could not be made today in this form. Things that were considered daringly implicit then would most likely have to be explicit now in order to register on most of the audience.
The film begins with the end of its story, as Humbert Humbert (James Mason) comes to a decaying mansion to kill a nervous, ever-joking Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Four years earlier, Humbert arrives in New Hampshire seeking a room while waiting to begin teaching at a university. Landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) is aggressively flirtatious. Humbert is mildly repelled -- but he’s intoxicated by Charlotte’s underage daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon). To be near Lolita, Humbert would do anything at all -- even marry Charlotte.
Author Nabokov adapted the screenplay himself, but he and Kubrick opted to make Lolita a wee bit older than the pre-teen of the novel (Lyons looks over 18). While Humbert’s desperate passion is still creepy, his Lolita here is old enough to make him seem a dirty, devious older man rather than a full-blown child molester. Then there’s Lolita herself, who is sexually precocious but (again, at the age she’s shown here) wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows in her own forwardness. However, in 1962, the themes of the film were enough to earn the equivalent of an X rating -- we’re even shown the British Censors Board warning seal at the outset. Therefore, we never see more than a hug between Lolita and her stepfather nor is it discussed in terms stronger than "what we’ve been doing."
The black-and-white hues of the film are captured cleanly for the most part by the original aspect ratio DVD, though Chapter 2 has a few white splotches. Chapter 11 has a beautiful mixture of dialogue and cha-cha music at exactly the right levels for both to come through clearly, though Humbert’s extended voiceover in Chapter 13 is oddly muted.
Kubrick and Nabokov, masters both, have crafted a smart comedy about absurd, dangerous longings. In some ways, this is a precursor to Todd Solondz’s ‘Happiness.’ One can appreciate the filmmakers’ artistry and intellect. However, since all of the characters are designed to be somewhat annoying and unsympathetic, how much one will actually enjoy ‘Lolita’ depends in large part on how long one can be entertained by watching aging men squirm and young women sulk and pout.