While Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is a fairly light adaptation of the book, incorporating some major elements but leaving out a number of others, it’s a great film that’s well shot and acted. After reading the novel, I wanted to see how Kubrick told the story, which I figure most directors would pass on for all the potential controversy it unavoidably stirs up and because the novel is long and heavy, probably requiring five or more hours to tell it properly as a picture.
James Mason, who plays Humbert Humbert, the man obsessed with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, the “nymphet” Humbert calls Lolita, was perfect for the role in that he brilliantly delivers the dark humor of the book that Kubrick focused on for the film. Nabokov wrote the initial script and then apparently it had to be shortened considerably, and Kubrick cut the scenes with sexual content, mindful no doubt of the strict censorship the film would have to traverse.
Reading the book, you realize early on that Nabokov is deftly, ingeniously using language to kind of trick the reader into not clearly seeing Humbert’s deviancy and depravity for what they truly are. He uses humor, through Humbert, the narrator, who is constantly muddying the water of our expected perceptions of his actions. Humbert also attempts to convince us those acts are on some level acceptable for him because he loves Lolita, and at other times we’re drawn towards feeling sympathy for him, such as when he recounts his teenage romance with Annabel Leigh, who died soon afterwards, an event which he thinks could be the very cause of his hebephilia as well as his endless search for “nymphets,” or girls of Annabel’s age when she passed.
But the dark humor in the novel is counterbalanced by another darkness, the sadly obsessive, deleteriously egotistical, and deranged nature of Humbert, and this is not the side of the story that Kubrick focused on for the film. Kubrick may have chosen the lighter, humorous side due to concerns about censorship. Or maybe because adding both elements to a film of any reasonable length is not possible?
Something else Kubrick significantly altered was the character Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Quilty is like Humbert in that he’s attracted to and aroused by children; however, we’re led to see his actions and behavior as more wicked or damaging than those of Humbert’s. In this respect, he serves as Humbert’s evil doppelganger, and he's presented as a sort of shadow who rarely materializes in the story itself. Kubrick, on the other hand, has Quilty appearing in scenes throughout the film, and I imagine he did this to add to the film's dark humor and to give it a touch of suspense as well.
Adrian Lyne’s version of the film, starring Jeremy Irons, Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, and Dominique Swain, came out in 1997. Since I watched it in the 90s, I don’t remember any of it. I’ll have to give it another watch to see how it compares to the book and Kubrick’s film.