DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
KEY ACTORS: Sue Lyons, James Mason, Peter Sellers
IMDB SCORE: 7.6
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 93%
SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️Lolita does pass the Bechdel Test.
❌ But that may be the last mark this movie gets in my sex score!! It certainly didn’t inspire fantasies – the sexual premise is not supposed to be attractive!
❌ And I don’t want to fuck the cast for similar reasons. Lolita is too young and Humbert is too distasteful!
❌ While this film doesn’t overtly judge the character’s sexual choices, instead leading the audience to make that judgement themselves, it is not sex positive. In its simplest form, it is about a non-consensual sexual relationship.
❌ It’s a good film; better than I expected. But it’s not rewatchable. It made me too uncomfortable to want to watch again.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: paedophilia, non-consensual sexual relationships]
‘How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?’ the tagline on the poster asked, and I may extend the question to why. Why make a movie about a man who has a sexual relationship with a child? Why give this topic a platform and risk condoning it? I must admit that I watched this film with some trepidation. What if it got the tone wrong?
Lolita is a movie adaption of a famous and controversial book by Vladimir Nabokov, who also adapted the screenplay. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it tells the story of Humbert Humbert (Mason), a middle aged professor who falls in love with a child, Lolita (Lyon). Desperate to stay close to her, Humbert marries Lolita’s mother, becomes her guardian when her mother dies, and essentially kidnaps her as they flee around the country to evade capture. Lolita eventually runs away and Humbert goes to prison for murdering Quilty (Sellers), the man who helps Lolita’s escape.
But despite my reservations, it’s an interesting film. A weird, uncomfortable, discomforting and difficult film, but definitely an interesting one – both superficially and with a bit more study. I should have known that Kubrick wouldn’t make a bad movie, even so early in his career, and this is another time where I have gained a lot from reading reviews and taking a less superficial view. Now, I still think this is a terrible way to make a movie – films shouldn’t require actual study to be any good as they’re likely to be misunderstood by most and so not make any money – but it does make for an interesting project!
I have written about adaptations of popular and controversial books on this blog before, but there was a certain aura surrounding the publication of Lolita that can’t be ignored when considering the movie. Published in 1955 in a very small run, it was effectively banned in the UK as Customs Officials were instructed to confiscate any copies that crossed the border. Obviously, this made it a source of intrigue and curiosity and so, after it’s eventual publication in the UK in 1959 and certainly by the time the movie was released three years later, Lolita was an ‘extremely popular and well-read book; most viewers would have read the novel before seeing the film.’ Such was its popularity that Pauline Kael in 1962 even suggests that this may have affected box office sales: ‘Recommend the film to friends and they reply, “Oh I’ve had it with Lolita.”…Others had heard so much about the book, they thought reading it superfluous (they had as good as read it—they were tired of it); and if the book was too much talked about to necessitate a reading, surely going to the film was really de trop?’
But this familiarity with the plot did allow Kubrick flex and adapt the story to communicate the feel of the novel on screen while still complying to the strict demands of the Hays Code. How did they make a movie of Lolita? Simply by casting an older actor in the child’s role! Lolita, the character, may have been 12 but Sue Lyon, the actor, was 15. And I know this is an awful thing to say about any child and especially a child in a vulnerable and potentially sexual situation, but she looks older. A review from 2019 claimed that Lyon was in her ‘mid-twenties’ and, according to IMDB, this ambiguity was intentional – Kubrick wanted Lyon for the role exactly because she looked older, apparently commenting on ‘the size of her breasts, which were surprisingly mature for her age.’
Now, discovering this has caused me to once again feel revolted by this movie, involuntarily shuddering at the idea of a middle aged man noting the size of an actual child’s breasts – Lyon was 13 when Kubrick first noticed her, which is terrifyingly similar to Lolita’s story – because I had just come around to the idea that this was an important story to tell and I was about to praise Kubrick for choosing an older actress for the role, both as a good moral choice and a clever directorial one.
Because although young, Lyon was not a child in the same way as a 12 year old might be – despite the somewhat concerning contemporary review that claimed ‘adolescents and even pre-adolescents wear nylons and make-up and two-piece strapless bathing suits and have figures,’ suggesting that perhaps children do look like her. Watching it, I had thought Lyon was twenty and dressing to look younger, and that was one of the features of the movie that I really liked. I had expected a younger actress but Lyon’s apparent maturity made the sexual content, euphemistic as it was with the occasional ‘well-timed fade to black,’ easier to handle and so made the movie more palatable to watch.
Importantly, it also allowed Kubrick to represent Humbert’s perspective in a way that would be hard to demonstrate otherwise. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is considered one of the best examples of the unreliable narrator; the novel is written from his point of view with only his opinions and his version of events. As a reader, we are supposed to infer the reality from subtle hints and we’re supposed to judge Humbert for that reality without it being explicitly stated, seeing through his justifications and explanations to his true immoral actions. Lolita, for example, has no dialogue and ‘is spoken for by Humbert, but the reader can see, between the lines, flashes of her as a real girl, and of her genuine suffering.’
This, clearly, is a difficult concept to film! The action happens as it happens and the characters have to speak for themselves. But how they are and how they look can be manipulated to ensure that we see the characters as Humbert sees them – and Lyon/Lolita is a great example of this. She is a child; we are told that she’s a child and she dresses like a child and plays hoopla like a child and speaks like a child…but she looks more adult. She looks like a woman! Which, of course, is a safe way to demonstrate that Humbert is sexually attracted to her: it ‘forced the audience to see Lolita simultaneously as the juvenile she really was, reinforced by her immature clothing and behaviour, and as the legitimate object of lust she was in Humbert’s eyes…her actions at once childish and unconsciously provocative.’
Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, is similarly exaggerated to convey Humbert’s true opinion of her. Brilliantly played by Shelley Winters, Charlotte is kind of annoying! She’s demanding and whiny and perhaps unreasonable. She’s loud and brash with ‘slightly unflattering hair and makeup,’ and she is absolutely not Humbert’s type! Charlotte as seen on screen really is ‘too mature to be of any interest to him sexually.’ More, she seems like a drag on him. I found myself almost feeling sorry for Humbert as she clung to him, oblivious to his distaste. But the reaction to Charlotte from other characters suggests that she isn’t that overt and unappealing at all. In reality, she’s charming and elegant and does not deserve the ending that Humbert orchestrates for her.
The problem with all of these clever tricks, however, is that they work too well. I really didn’t like Charlotte and I did find myself doing exactly what the patriarchy has taught me and I blamed her a little. If she hadn’t been so clingy or so desperate to remarry anyone, maybe Humbert wouldn’t have married her and gained an official claim to Lolita. And the sex between Humbert and Lolita should have been more horrifying. It should have been uncomfortable and it should have been disgusting, but it wasn’t. She didn’t look like a child so it was possible to forget. And I feel even more awful about that when considering that Lyon really was a child! Casting a teenager rather than a pre-teen may have been the ‘one real concession to public decency’ but she was still a minor. At 15, she was still a child!
And so Humbert almost gets away with being a tragic hero, tormented by the women in his life. A contemporary review in the Observer when the film was first released felt that the film was much too sympathetic towards Humbert, claiming that it was a film where he is ‘given the runaround by a sly young broad’ rather than being the story of the abuse of a vulnerable child. Lolita has such sass and appears to have such power over Humbert that he is a slave to her whim and it is possible to believe that she has an equal hand in their relationship. He is a broken man because he loves her.
It’s unclear to me whether that was Kubrick’s intention. Because it did make me really uncomfortable to watch Humbert essentially get away with it. Yes, he ends the film in jail but that is for murder, rather than abuse, and his suffering is framed as being because Lolita has bewitched him; he was an unwilling victim of her beauty. But I’m hoping that I was supposed to feel uncomfortable. Just as we read our judgement of Humbert between the lines in the original novel, we are supposed to feel the judgement and disgust in our gut when watching, rather than seeing it displayed clearly on screen.
If it was his intention, it was a hell of a risk! For me, the disgust and discomfort stems from my understanding of power structures within relationships and how these affect our ability to give consent. I know that Lolita had no choice but to submit to Humbert because he is kind of keeping her hostage. She might appear to act willing and even consenting but she can’t because she has no option to say no. She’s an orphan and, regardless of how often he pathetically prostrates himself at her feet, ‘slavishly, painfully in love, absurdly suffering,’ Humbert holds all the power. Don’t forget, Lolita needed to find another man to help her escape because she couldn’t do it alone.
But if a viewer isn’t so familiar with these structures or with the message behind the original novel, and perhaps believes that man are slaves to their sex drives and can be seduced against their will, would Lolita look like the villain of the story?
It’s quite telling to me that the term ‘Lolita’ has entered popular culture to imply that ‘a young girl is sexually precocious.’ Not abused or manipulated or vulnerable, but ‘a prepubescent or adolescent girl who is attractive and sexually responsive. She lusts after older men, and is lusted by them in return.’ Gross. And what a complete and utter misreading of the story! Google also chooses to remind me that child pornography is illegal every time I search for Lolita so I dread to think how else that name is used.
I don’t know if Kubrick’s decision to make his Lolita into a comedy – a ‘peculiar, edgy comedy, tinged with horror at times, but a comedy nevertheless’ – adds or detracts from the success of his movie. Difficult and controversial topics have long been popular material for comics, either by encouraging or risking offence or by speaking out to break taboo. ‘What better way is there to change the world than to do it while laughing?’ asks Isadora Mosch in her essay on The Philosophy of a Controversial Joke.
But is Kubrick trying to change the world? And, if so, what change is he trying to make? It takes me back to my original question about why this movie needed to be made. Are we laughing at Humbert? Or are we using humour to break the taboo surrounding sex with a minor? I don’t know that that’s a taboo that needs breaking!
Except that, for me, the humour does enhance that awkward uncomfortable feeling I mentioned before. It’s funny because it’s incongruous. It feels wrong to laugh and that’s why it’s so uncomfortable. Peter Sellers’s character, Quilty, personifies this awkward-funny-discomfort, playing a number of different personalities who are all slightly sinister in their oddness. He is who Humbert should be; not the hero but the creepy guy who makes everyone uncomfortable. But Quilty closes in on Humbert, chasing him and eventually taking Lolita from him. The review in Far Out Magazine feels that ‘the uncomfortable presence of Quilty expresses Humbert’s state of mind during the time he is with Lolita, one divided between euphoria at achieving his ultimate goal, and terror of being caught.’ He’s always there, always getting closer, never letting Humbert relax, and it’s creepy.
And yet Quilty is the one who frees Lolita from Humbert’s grip and then let’s her go so she’s free to fall in love with someone who really does care for her. The creepy guy is actually the hero and he is the one who dies a tragic death, murdered by the oh-so-elegant but morally corrupt Humbert.
So I think I have to conclude that Lolita is a really really clever film. Either that or it probably shouldn’t have been made!
Next week: The Graduate