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When director Stanley Kubrick released his film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel about a hopelessly pathetic middle-aged professor's sexual obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, the ads read, "How did they ever make a film of Lolita?" The answer is "they" didn't. As he did with his "adaptations" of Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, and, especially, The Shining, Kubrick used the source material and, simply put, made another Stanley Kubrick movie--even though Nabokov himself wrote the screenplay. The chilly director nullifies Humbert Humbert's (James Mason's) overwhelming passion and desire, and instead transforms the story, like many of his films, into that of a man trapped and ruined by social codes and by his own obsessions. Kubrick doesn't play this as tragedy, however, but rather as both a black-as-coffee screwball comedy and a meandering, episodic road movie. The early scenes between Humbert, Lolita (a too-old but suitably teasing Lyons) and her loud, garish mother (Shelley Winters in one of her funniest performances) play like a wonderful farce. When Humbert finally fulfills his desires and captures Lolita, the pair hit the road and Kubrick drags in Peter Sellers. As the pedophilic writer Clare Quilty--Humbert's playful doppelgänger and biggest threat--Sellers dons a series of disguises with plans of stealing Lolita away from her captor. It's here more than anywhere that Kubrick comes closest to the novel. He extends Nabokov's idea of the games and puzzles played between reader and writer, Quilty and Humbert, Lolita and Humbert, etc., to those between filmmaker and audience: the road eventually goes nowhere and Humbert's reality is exposed as mad delusion. Perhaps not a Kubrick masterpiece, or the provocative film many wanted, Lolita still remains playfully fascinating and one of Kubrick's strongest, funniest character studies. --Dave McCoy
EDITOR'S NOTE: According to a Warner Home Video technician involved in the production of The Stanley Kubrick Collection, Kubrick authorized all aspects of the Collection, from the use of Digital Component Video (or "D-1") masters originally approved in 1989, to the use of minimalist screen menus, chapter stops, and (in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining on DVD) supplementary materials. Full-screen presentation of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket was also approved by Kubrick, who recomposed his original framing, reportedly believing that those films looked best on video in the full-screen format. (In fact, the original theatrical aspect ratio of The Shining was 1.66:1, meaning that a relatively small portion of the image is lost.) Kubrick also chose mono over stereo, believing that inconsistencies in theatrical sound systems resulted in loss of control over theatrical presentation. In every respect, the Warner spokesman said, the films in the Collection remain as Kubrick approved them. Any future attempt to remaster or alter them would have to be approved by an appointee of the Kubrick estate.
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The movie contributed to the stereotype of the prematurely sexy girl, who entraps older men.
That is not what Nabokov's book was about. I think the book can not be turned into a movie without being either illegal or messing up the contents badly and mortally. Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of the book, is attracted to female children, not to the type of 'Lolita' that has become idiomatic after the film, i.e. a sexy precocious seducer. The book is a complex construction based on the untrustworthy story teller concept. We know that HH is a lier.
Nabokov wrote not only the novel, but also the original script for the film, and when the film did get Oscars, he got one for the script, though Kubrick had in fact largely ignored the script. There is a Library of America edition which includes the novel and the script. The end product is just something else, and it is something not very appealing.
Many have baulked at that said vision, claiming that it strays to far from Vladimar Nabokov's scandalous novel. I personally have never read the novel (I really should now) and so I cannot comment on that regard, but Kubrick has been known for his personal interpretation of his source material so it doesn't surprise me. I personally was recently called out for judging a film based on its source material and was told, and I quote:
"This review is not a film review; it is a disappointed review from a reader that can't distinguish the art of movies from the art of literature."
I want to address this subject since Kubrick is the master of making each and every movie his own vision versus that of the original author or materials. The reason I criticized that particular film (`Less than Zero' for anyone wondering) was that is veered so much from the original text that it dumbed down the authors initial concept and created a generic film about drug addiction that did nothing to distinguish itself as important or vital. It took the authors marvelous concept and delivery and muddled it with clichés and in the end created a film void of any real substance. The difference between a film like that and anything Kubrick has made is that, while he may veer from the original intended impact the source material conveyed he always creates a film filled to the brim with substance and vision and thus creates a film that is socially important. Just look at what he did with `A Clockwork Orange' or `The Shining'. He may have strayed from the authors originally penned words, but he never extracted true meaning and emotional impact from his work. Both films are marvelous examples of inspired vision.
That said, `Lolita' does not disappoint in remaining true to Kubrick's style and vision.
The story follows Professor Humbert Humbert as he entertains his dangerous attraction to the underage Lolita. Humbert first meets Lolita when he is being shown a room within her mothers home he is planning on renting. It is the sight of the beautiful blonde that seals the deal and convinces Humbert to rent the room. Despite his lusting for Lolita, it is her mother Charlotte that desires to have her way with Humbert, and eventually Humbert gives in to her advances if only to have more time to spend with Lolita.
I was shocked in the route Kubrick went with the film, straddling the edges of a black comedy as apposed to embracing the film as a serious and dramatic adult film. I only had the synopsis and the many years of hearing the term `Lolita' thrown around as a backdrop so I was expecting a much darker film. What I got though was an entertaining look at the amusing side of the male psyche.
When you think about Humbert's situation, it is not as far fetched and or `scandalous' as one may initially conclude. While yes, his eventual `relationship' with Lolita is illegal and morally repulsive his initial attraction is not that uncommon for men of his age and even younger. She is a pretty young girl who is obviously mature for her age and is flirtatious beyond her years; whether out of spite for her mother or out of repressed urges caused by the loss of a father in such a dramatic way. Nevertheless, her advances towards Humbert, no matter how subtle, no doubt would draw his attention towards those not-so-grey areas in life. What `Lolita' shows is the danger in succumbing to those human desires and the aftereffect that it has on a man's soul. As Humbert dives into a relationship with Lolita he becomes raked with guilt and insecurities as he struggles to keep Lolita to himself despite her obvious desire to be free of him. Watching Humbert slowly fray until he becomes a panicked skeleton of his former self is both humorous as well as alarming. His obsession consumes and in the end controls him to the point where he is a slave to his own pagan desires even though he knows they are morally corrupt.
I think the biggest reason this `comical' approach works is that it manages to humanize the situation as apposed to over dramatize it. Sometimes when a film takes a very dramatic approach to a subject such as this one it can come across almost otherworldly, as if the situation were so horrible it could never happen. The approach taken here helps the audience to see that this is more common than one may want to admit.
The film, and Kubrick's vision, are pushed along by some very strong performances, most notably that of Peter Sellers who plays Clare Quincy, Humbert's rival. Sellers has often been lauded as the king of comedy and so it is not too farfetched to conclude that he would be the comical highlight of the film. His opening scene along is marvelously constructed. Like I said; one of the greatest supporting performances of all time. Shelley Winters is also extremely memorable and utterly hysterical as Charlotte. Her performance solidifies her as one of the greats and really defines her characters desperations beautifully.
The two main stars really had to sell this though, and so without the dedication of both James Mason and Sue Lyon `Lolita' would have fallen flat. Mason comes off a tad boring during the first half of the film, but as his characters obsessions get the better of him it becomes apparent that that `boringness' was necessary to creating the needed effect of a mind gone mad. He was just a normal guy who lost it because of the passions of a young girl. Sue Lyon is very effective as Lolita. From her first scene we can tell that she is extremely desirable. For a young actress (and a debut performance at that) she really holds her own amongst the cast and does a very fine job of making Humbert Humbert relatable, because truth-be-told, we want her as much as he does.
In the end I must call `Lolita' yet another Kubrick masterpiece. It is far from what I expected but in the end it manages to exceed my expectations because it became something so much more than a generic drama. Kubrick is nothing short of a genius, and this film fits beautifully in his catalog of marvelous cinematic gems.
The plot starts off with Humbert Humbert a college professor who goes to America for work purposes but he has one dark secret, that he is a paedophile inside. He get's a room by Mrs. Haze (widowed and desperate to find love) but only because she has a 14 year old daughter Dolores or "Lolita". While staying in the house, he confides in his diary of his desires to seduce the young girl and have his way with her. Lolita on the other hand, actually is the one who teases Humbert on purpose whenever she is around him when her mother isn't looking. So really, it takes two to tango. Nothing sexual ever happens during THIS time, but it is until her mother Mrs. Haze sends her daughter to an all girls camp in the summer and plans to marry Humbert. Humbert accepts but only to get closer to Lolita and not her mother. They are married for a couple of weeks, but one day Mrs. Haze finds Humbert's diary of his paedophilic desires to have her daughter in his arms, and threatens to kick him out. He tries to justify this, but of course Mrs. Haze is no fool. Moments later as if Humbert's wishes were answered, Mrs. Haze get's hit and killed by a car as she crosses the street to the post office to send her daughter a letter of what has just happened. Humbert is shocked but not distressed by this he takes the letter and burns them. He packs up his and Lolita's belongings and picks her up at camp. There the two go cross country to motel to motel and you can probably guess what happens.
However, something else is going on. A famous playwrite/artist named Claire Quilty is actually hunting Lolita down to take her away as well for the same desires of Humberts. He is just like Humbert but instead has ZERO conscious. Quilty works with a woman named Vivianne who knows what his intentions are and is behind it as well. Lolita knows of Claire Quilty but not of his darker versions of what Humbert's fantasy's are. Lolita even has a crush on Quilty but never says anything to Humbert. The two (Humbert and Quilty) accidentally bump into one another at the Huntress Lodge Inn and Quilty has a disturbing conversation with Humbert about liking little girls. Humbert though, poses as if he doesn't know what he is talking about and leaves Quilty to himself. Upstairs, Lolita in asleep in bed at the Inn (given sleeping pills so Humbert can have his way with her). Humbert proceeds to rape her in the middle of the night but she wakes up before he even get's to her and tells him to sleep on the floor. He sleeps on a cot, and in the morning the unexpected happens. Lolita forces HERSELF on Humbert and the two make love in the morning.
After that Lolita and Humbert go cross country again and then return to a all girls private school for Lolita to attend and Humbert the professor who teaches there. Things seem all good for the two until Humbert becomes obsessive and untrustworthy of Lolita due to her sneaky ways of skipping school, hanging around and potentially having sexual exchanges with the boys at school, along with wanting to be in a play so badly. Rumors are also going around that Lolita sleeps with her father and so the head principals ask Humbert if this is true but he denies anything. Upset at the rumors of Lolita's ways Humbert restricts her of being a normal teenage girl, which makes her rebellious and turns Lolita to hate Humbert. She begs Humbert to join a play at school, but he seems hesitant. In the end, he accepts her to go to the play but then takes her out once he finds out that Quilty is there and actually wrote the play. Humbert interrogates Lolita as to why Quilty is there but no words come out of her. He also has been told that she has been skipping her piano lessons in which she lies and says she has gone but in reality Lolita skips them to be with Quilty.
During the film sequence, Quilty actually pretends to be several people that Humbert doesn't realize to be him. He poses as a doctor, a cop and other things just so he could use Lolita as an art protoge and not to actually love her. At the mid end of the film, Lolita disappears for two years after Humbert and Lolita leave school. Humbert then gets a letter from Lolita saying she is pregnant, and needs money for her and her husband. Humbert comes to Lolita's address and he learns what really happened to Lolita and who was behind it all. She reveals it was Quilty the whole time and that she never loved Humbert but she loved Quilty. Humbert begs for her to come back with him, but due to how she has a husband, a child on the way, and no love for Humbert she declines after Humbert gives her the money she asked for saying "I'd rather be with Quilty than you". Humbert realizes that Lolita is mentally ill from the events that he posed in on her life and realizes that there is no chance in changing her mind. Humbert is heartbroken and leaves without saying goodbye, and goes to Quilty's mansion, killing him after making Quilty remember who he is and the little girl he tracked down.
In the book, Lolita dies from childbirth and Humbert dies in jail after killing Quilty and found guilty for confessing what he has done to Lolita. But, in this movie, Lolita is seen still alive and only Humbert dies.
Overall, it's a sad but yet ambiguous film that makes you think of whether or not feeling sorry for Humbert and Lolita. It's a tragic tale but it is also a great story as well. It also poses a lesson of Karma. Humbert wanted Mrs. Haze dead so he could get close to Lolita, but in order to have nice things something bad must happen in return.
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