Desert Island movie #7
When I first saw this film in 1962 everyone I knew disliked it. They thought it crude, tasteless, and a crass betrayal of Nabokov’s controversial novel. I thought the opposite. I thought it was a near masterpiece and I still think so. I also thought that the performances of James Mason Peter Sellers and especially Shelly Winters in the principle roles were of award caliber. But I was in the minority because only the screenplay credited to Nabokov (but vastly rewritten by Kubrick and his partner James B. Harris) was nominated for the Academy Award. It lost to Horton Foote’s screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact as late as 1981 when I asked playwright Edward Albee why he had chosen to adapt Nabokov’s novel for the stage his response was; “Someone has to correct the damage that Kubrick’s film has done.”
Curiously in 1997 after seeing director Adrian Lyne’s version of the same story, that many felt was a closer and more accurate version of the novel, I had nearly the same response to it as my peers had to the Kubrick film. And to me the actors Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith and Dominique Swain, good as they often are; here they seem just shadows of the full bodied creations provided earlier by Mason, Winters and Lyons. And the Quilty character so memorably created by Peter Sellers is merely an oafish presence. Kubrick and Sellers presents him as the personification of perversity and evil whose actions justify Humbert’s final act. In the Lyne version I got no such feeling. Now this is not a critique of Frank Langella’s performance. The role was conceived along different lines that reshaped and reduced his character.
The people who hate Kubrick’s version of the story hate it for all the reasons that I love it. Apparently after paying Nabokov to write his screen adaptation of the novel Kubrick and his partner rewrote what Nabokov had given them. They rewrote it to the point where Nabokov himself felt compelled to publish his script. I read them both and prefer what Kubrick and company did with it. He shifted the emphasis away from strictly pedophilia (or in Nabokov’s parlance Nymphet love) to obsessive love. The kind of love that chokes and strangles, becomes possessive in ways that leads to petty jealousies and envy. The kind of love that consumes the lover and ultimately leads to his or her destruction. This apparently did not sit well with the purists who I guess wanted the screen version to embrace the novel’s plotline more closely. Also many felt that the tone was wrong. Kubrick had chosen to tell the story from an absurdist perspective. As a result many scenes take on a comic view of what many feel is a serious/ criminal issue. But I love it and find that many of the scenes involving Humbert, Charlotte and Lolita high comedy of the rarest kind. And Sellers entire portrayal of Quilty a comic tour de force. James Mason I think gives the best performance of his career as the redundantly named Humbert Humbert while Shelly Winters should’ve been considerably more recognized and praised for what she did with the “Haze” woman’s character. She is by turns crude, pretentious, predatory, amusing pathetic and even soulful. This was as complete a performance as I’ve seen in a long time…The dialogue of the screenplay retains much of Nabokov’s prose style and word play with things like the Town of Ramsdale, Beardsley College and Camp Climax.
The opening scene that precedes the credits could work as a one act play by someone like Eugene Ionesco. And the ending where Humbert desperetly tells Lolita that the distance from where they are to the world outside is only 25 paces. “Come with me” he implores her “Live with me; die with me, everything with me.” is to me one of the saddest and dramatically painful bits of acting I’ve ever seen any actor play.
The novel Lolita is considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century. There have been four stage adaptations, one musical Lolita, My Love (1971) by none other than Alan J. Lerner of My Fair Lady fame, two operas along with two ballets. All are considered critical as well as commercial failures. To the best of my knowledge none have succeeded at capturing the central comic/tragic essence of the novel better than Kubrick with this film. For besides being comic and tragic it is also dramatically compelling and inventive in unexpected ways. And in the final analysis it does the greatest service a film can provide a novel. It makes you want to read the book.
On my desert island I sometimes want to engage with works that move me in a variety of ways. This film takes me through elements of pity and fear and then back again a few times. And that is the reason I have it here on my desert isle.