Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita evokes thoughts of a young blonde girl, wearing red lipstick and heart-shaped sunglasses while sucking on a lollipop. At this point, it’s a familiar pop culture image even for those who aren’t acquainted with the story. Since the 1955 release (its first American edition came out in 1958, so it just hit its 50-year-mark in the U.S.) of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, there’ve been complaints that Lolita might be pro-pedophilia, especially since it’s told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s lascivious stepfather. It received harsh criticism because of its sensitive subject matter — conservatives didn’t want to read about Humbert wanting to get it on with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores Haze, even if there was a message behind it. As a result, the book was banned for a couple of years in various countries. What does one do after lifting a ban on a book once described as pornography? Hail it as one of the greatest novels of our time, of course!
It actually is a great novel, but when it comes to Kubrick’s film, I cannot call it a classic and keep a straight face. One argument some use in its defense is that Nabokov himself wrote the screenplay. Well, that’s partially true — Nabokov did write the first version of the screenplay, then Kubrick took the creative liberty of revising it to such an extent that it barely resembled the original or even the novel it owes its existence to. Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation (yes, adaptation; it is not a remake) of the story is a much more faithful version of Nabokov’s novel. Lolita is meant to be a tragicomedy and, while Kubrick nails the comedic aspect, for the most part he neglects the tragedy. Lyne manages to create more of a balance between the two.
The greatest difference between them is the vastly different portrayals of the character of Lolita. In Kubrick’s version, Lolita, played by Sue Lyon, is elegant, even mature. Later in the film, she appears to regret Humbert the way one might regret a bad relationship — which is absurd, considering the circumstances. Humbert married her mother, Charlotte, in hopes of getting closer to Lo, unsuccessfully plotted Charlotte’s death (though he ended up being an indirect cause of it) and treated Lolita as his sexual play-thing, a prisoner rather than a stepdaughter. Despite all of this, during their last meeting, Lolita ridiculously calls out for Humbert to “keep in touch” while he’s rushing off to kill Quilty, the pedophile playwright who also happened to fancy her.
Lyne’s Lolita, on the other hand, is crude and immature. Portrayed by Dominique Swain, she picks her butt in public, wears a retainer, and while she tries to mimic the Hollywood image of the celebrities she admires, she looks like a little girl trying on her mother’s lipstick. Throughout the film, it is clear Lolita feels no affection for Humbert, even when she flirts and instigates a couple sexual encounters with him. He is merely a way for her to experiment with her sexuality, though he is deranged enough to fool himself into thinking it means more, which partly fuels his determination to keep her and continuously take advantage of her (there’s a word for that, by the way: rape). Unlike in Kubrick’s film, Humbert asks Lolita for forgiveness during their final encounter (after having pleaded with her to run away with him), which she doesn’t acknowledge — which makes more sense than “keep in touch!”
Lyne is more sympathetic to Lolita than Kubrick, who treats her as Humbert’s willing accomplice in their sordid little affair. Lyne’s Lolita is an obvious captive of Humbert and takes no pleasure in the sex he bribes and bargains her into. Every increase he adds to her allowance, any time she wants to take part in activities at school, she has to repay him with sexual favors, and he has the audacity to call it love.
There’s nothing wrong with a director wanting to add their own creative flair to a film, but when Kubrick suggests that a married couple — friends of Charlotte — are interested in foursomes (or they might possibly be swingers, though having watched Eyes Wide Shut not too long ago, I assumed he was aiming for an orgy), I have to wonder what that added to the original story.
Maybe Kubrick is trying to say there is no such thing as immorality in regards to who you want to sleep with. That’s all well and good for consenting adults, but to suggest that Humbert’s relationship with Lolita was an example of an unconventional, but acceptable, couple is not only preposterous, but a complete distortion of Nabokov’s original. Some might say Kubrick’s adaptation was merely a victim of the time in which it was produced, suffering from whatever restrictions were placed on the film and its controversial story. What Kubrick’s film lacks most, however, isn’t the freedom to depict Humbert and Lolita’s relationship to the full extent, but a heart.