Review of Lolita

Lolita (1962)
Morally dubious and superficial: Kubrick's worst movie?
11 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
A great novel from one of the greatest 20th century authors adapted by one of the greatest directors... must produce a great movie, right? Wrong.

First, let us not undervalue the novel, a reference in world literature: for instance, it is included in the Norwegian Book Club's famous list of the 100 best books of all time and in Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa's selective list of his 9 favourite novels. Amongst many qualities, it is a moral opus on humanity and monstrosity: Humbert is a paedophile, yet he is also intelligent, seducing and pathetic. We understand and pity him, to an extent, regarding his shattered childhood love for Annabel, his mother's early death, his divorce, his stays in psychiatric hospitals, etc. On this perilous path, Nabokov treads carefully by avoiding two opposite pitfalls: depicting Humbert as a complete monster, which would be of limited interest; finding excuses for his behaviour, which could represent a justification for any crime. Hence everything in the novel is put into perspective: Humbert's mental illness, his thoughts about this, his intelligence, his humour and, most of all, his narration.

Indeed, Nabokov remarkably handles first-person narration: we slowly realise Humbert is unreliable, not about actual facts (we could not say if they are accurate or not, since he is the only narrator), but their interpretation. For instance, he depicts Lolita mostly as greedy, vulgar, selfish, insensitive, cheating... but we progressively realise it is largely inaccurate. Hence we question narration itself, down to its style: it is very articulate and humorous, but too much so. Isn't Humbert fooling us, as well as himself, with his neat "Confession" about his otherwise despicable self?

Back to the movie. Kubrick makes two unfortunate major artistic decisions.

1. The movie barely criticises Humbert. Granted, it is not easy to represent unreliable narration on screen, but Kubrick does worse: he adopts Humbert's point of view. Lolita is just a little brat, Charlotte a brainless dragon, Quilty a devilish manipulator. Notably, essential elements about Lolita are omitted or downsized. Lolita feels miserable only once, when she learns about her mother's death, but it is short; in the novel it lasts longer and there are other depictions of her despair. We do not see how sincerely she loves her disabled husband at the end. The tennis coach's important comment saying Lolita is talented but loses because she is "so polite", is discarded. The fact everybody calls Dolores "Lolita", while in the book only Humbert does so, is revealing: his perception of Dolores as a nymphet invades the whole story. Hence characters are not only shallow: they fit Humbert's vision.

Humbert himself is rarely shown committing fiendish acts, as opposed to the novel: Lolita seduces him in the hotel (in the book it is less clear); there are no other innuendos about their sexuality; there is no account about Humbert's plans to rape her (in the book he tries twice, by giving sedatives to Charlotte and then Lolita); he does not blackmail her; there is no indication about his attraction to other young girls, so he almost appears as a person truly in love instead of a paedophile; he just considers shooting Charlotte but quickly dismisses the idea (in the book he comes very close to drowning her); after Charlotte dies he gets drunk (in the book he gloats with joy). Eventually he is not arrested, as if the director's verdict were "not guilty". Granted, there are naturally other omissions, yet the above-mentioned constitute important choices because they exonerate Humbert. Also some alterations, notably concerning sexuality, might have been necessary because of censorship; but then, is it excusable to film such dynamite without the full possibility to do it ethically?

Apart from omissions, the original story is marginally modified in other ways: Quilty's role is expanded and minor differences are introduced (e.g. Lolita is a 14 year-old blonde instead of a 12 year-old brunette). However these changes have no effect on the movie's ethical ambiguities. Critic Greg Jenkins said: "A story originally told from the edge of a moral abyss is fast moving toward safer ground." As a direct consequence, the movie lacks depth. Indirectly, instead of being scrutinised, monstrosity becomes unchallenged, almost acceptable.

2. The movie mainly focuses on action. Kubrick could have gone down a morally perilous path by compensating with other qualities, for instance dark humour or strong themes. However there is little more than a simple account of events without perspective. Artistic direction is straightforward. Social satire is limited. Mental illness is not investigated. The US road trip remains abstract: we see little of the 50,000 km the main characters travel, probably because most was actually shot in England. The few humorous elements are only partly convincing: ironic music is sometimes added; Quilty's character is expanded and provides somewhat funny but unnecessary scenes; humorous lines extracted from the novel lack impact. The multiple sarcastic remarks, wordplays, witty literary references and the intriguing puzzle to find Quilty are mostly discarded. The only scene worth mentioning is when Humbert kills Quilty, which is grotesque enough but far from the novel's level.

Even the tragic dimension is absent, for instance Lolita's above-mentioned despair or the eventual deaths of Lolita, her baby and Humbert (disregarding Quilty's ludicrous death): the atmosphere remains very tame, without asperities. All this emphasises the moral issues mentioned in point 1, since they are not offset by interesting features.

What can be saved in the movie? Acting is excellent, notably James Mason in the lead role and Peter Sellers in three impersonations: himself, a policeman, Dr Zempf (this incidentally inspired the idea to have him play different characters in "Dr Strangelove" two years later). Action unravels seamlessly, despite the fact the last scene where Humbert kills Quilty is placed at the beginning for no valid reason (in the book it is towards the end since narration is strictly chronological). It is sometimes comical. If it can console Kubrick's fans, "Lolita" is arguably his only failure ("Spartacus" being debatable).
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