A forbidden love: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’

❉  “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” The story of how Stanley Kubrick brought Nabokov’s controversial novel to the big screen.

“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” cried the movie posters when Stanley Kubrick’s latest opus was unveiled in 1962. Truth is, they hardly did. The director’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversy-courting novel may stand as a great work but it’s hardly the book on which it was based. How could it be in 1962? A story about a middle-aged man’s obsession and then sexual relationship with a 12-year-old nymphet was never go to be filmable in a puritan culture like early ’60s America. It had already been banned in Britain, Australia and Belgium, only to gain worldwide recognition in 1955 when Graham Greene named it one of the best novels of the year. So what was the appeal for a director like Stanley Kubrick?

“I’ve always been amused at the cries of pornography,” Kubrick said at the time, “because to me ‘Lolita’ seemed a very sad and tender love story.”

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He’d first come across the novel in 1958 whilst on the set of ‘One-Eyed Jacks’, the Marlon Brando Western that he’d be sacked from only weeks later. The film’s producer James B Harris had a copy he was halfway through and was tearing pages out as he read them and passing them over to Kubrick, just so he could keep up. There and then, they began talking about an adaptation.

By this time, the novel’s reputation as a modern masterpiece was already sealed and it had become an international bestseller so optioning the rights were hardly likely to be cheap. Nabokov’s agent, the legendary “Swifty” Lazar, was asking for $150,000 for a two-year option, with $75,000 up front. Kubrick and Harris, with no room to negotiate, paid up.

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The pair introduced themselves to Nabokov and, while Kubrick began work on Spartacus, the author, whose fee was the deciding factor in accepting the task (he said, “I don’t give a damn about what they call ‘art’. My supreme and, in fact, only interest in these motion picture contracts is money”) began writing the screenplay. But, untutored in movie scripting, his script came in at 400 pages, or, as Kubrick told him, “a seven-hour film”. Though he revised it, little of Nabokov’s screenplay exists in the final film, despite his sole screen credit. What is there is largely Kubrick’s work. “The book is a masterpiece,” said James B Harris, “and we weren’t going to change that, but when you buy the rights to make a film, you use the book as background material.”

Among Kubrick’s changes was pushing Lolita’s age from 12 up to 14 and a shift of emphasis away from the sexual relationship between the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Kubrick’s script adopts a darkly comic tone, and, by book-ending the story with Humbert’s hunt for his enigmatic nemesis Clare Quilty, it transforms the film from a tale of sexual perversion into a black comedy-thriller.

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The role of Humbert Humbert, even with Kubrick’s refashioning of the story, was considered toxic for many of the actors Kubrick approached. Laurence Olivier agreed over lunch to do the film, only to cancel hours later after discussions with his panicky agent. David Niven also turned it down and a meeting with infamous swordsman (in both senses of the word) Errol Flynn, came to nothing. James Mason, Kubrick’s first choice, had initially said no to the role. It was only later, when friends expressed incredulity at him turning it down, did he reconsider. “I contacted Kubrick and thanked God that I caught him before some unworthy rival had inherited the part.”

Seventeen-year-old Tuesday Weld was briefly considered, as was – bizarrely – James Mason’s daughter, Portland, among 800 other starry-eyed hopefuls.

Choosing Lolita herself would be even more problematic. The filmmakers didn’t want a girl too old to look convincing as a barely pubescent sex pup while no girl of 12 would ever be acceptable to the American censor. Seventeen-year-old Tuesday Weld was briefly considered, as was – bizarrely – James Mason’s daughter, Portland, among 800 other starry-eyed hopefuls. In the end, Kubrick went with 14-year-old Sue Lyon. Lyon had little acting experience and would memorise her lines so self-consciously, “they came out parrot-fashion,” according to Mason.

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Kubrick had been an admirer of ‘Goon Show’ star Peter Sellers for several years, and had love bombed the star for the role of the inscrutable playwright Clare Quilty. Sellers’s unschooled, improvisational style sat at odds with his classically trained co-stars. Shelley Winters, who was cast as Charlotte, Lolita’s amorous mother, complained to Kubrick that, “[Peter] seemed to be acting on a different planet” while Mason moaned that in rehearsals, Kubrick “seemed so besotted with the genius of him that he was the only one allowed or rather encouraged to improvise his entire performance.”

For reasons both financial and artistic, Kubrick had decided to film ‘Lolita’ in England. From here on, the director would shoot all of his movies here, even replacing ’60s-era Vietnam in London’s pre-developed Docklands. But for ‘Lolita’ it was because it was cheaper and also that UK censorship laws were more relaxed in than in the States. Second unit crews were sent over to the US to shoot footage of freeways, motels and gas stations for use as cutaways and back projection.

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After completion the film was passed uncut in Britain, but jittery US distributors held up ‘Lolita’s American premiere for months. Those expecting a sensationalist sex drama were instead greeted by a black comedy, an off-centre rom-com where eroticism had been replaced by humour. Unable to live up to the years of fevered anticipation, ‘Lolita’ received milkwarm reviews. Variety called it “an occasionally amusing, but shapeless film… like a bee from which the stinger has been removed,” yet the film went onto gross $3.7 million, twice its production budget.

Kubrick was never wholly satisfied with ‘Lolita’. “It had the psychology of the characters and the mood of the story, but it didn’t have as much of the erotic as you could put into it now,” he opined later. “It would have made it more true to the novel, and it would have been more popular.”


❉  Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Lolita’ is available on Blu-ray as part of ‘Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection’.

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