on July 20, 2001
Devoted as I am to Vladimir Nabokov's novel of Lolita, and as much good as there was in Adrian Lyne's more accurate interpretation of it, I must confess that Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film version functions better than either as social commentary. Nabokov's novel was radically subjective - not a thing happened unfiltered by its hero's own vision. Transliterated as it was by Adrien Lyne, the result was claustrophobic. Kubrick's film, by contrast, invited us to stand outside and look in at the strange behavior of mid-20th century America's "progressive" middle-class. That was the right approach. By not asking us to relate to an obvious pedophile, or any of the other characters, Kubrick allowed us to fully absorb the ethical and emotional consequences of their interactions.
The oddly named Humbert Humbert (James Mason in, perhaps, his finest performance), comes to America from some unspecified European country. Looking for lodging, he crosses paths with Dolores "Lolita" Haze (Sue Lyon), and her mother Charlotte (brilliantly played by Shelley Winters). What follows is a black comedy swirling giddily around a host of sexual taboos - pedophilia chief among them, as Humbert finds himself sexually obsessed with the teen-aged Lolita. Had this been a TV-movie of the week, Lolita would have been the saintly victim of the villainous Humbert. Instead, Kubrick and Nabokov's Lolita is a precocious manipulator - awakening to her sexual identity and the strange power she can exert over members of the opposite sex. The difference, of course, is that she is a child and doesn't know any better; Humbert is an adult and damn well should.
So, for that matter, should Clare Quilty, Humbert's rival for the attentions of the young nymphet. Quilty, though sicker than Humbert, is a farcical character, played brilliantly by Peter Sellers - the Robin Williams of his day. The edgy, blackly comedic tone is no better exemplified than in the scenes he and Humbert have together. It becomes obvious as the film progresses that, in some twisted way, Humbert actually loves Lolita, while Quilty sees her more as the object of a fetish.
By the end, Humbert is reduced to a broken shell of a man, and it does not really matter if we approve of his behavior or not: he is still sympathetic, as much a victim of his own demons as Lolita herself, or her hapless mother. Without lifting a finger to "redeem" him, Kubrick forces us to come to terms with Humbert's humanity, as well as his perversion.
Compare that to sanctimonious pap like American Beauty, a film that nearly demands that we "understand" its main character, even daring suggest that disapproving of his infatuation with a teenaged girl is akin to the homophobic excesses of his sadistic, one-dimensional ex-Marine neighbor (apparently ugly stereotypes are perfectly OK when applied to conservatives). Add to this a few patently absurd, over-the-top plot developments and Kubrick's Lolita begins looking better and better.
Many have suggested that, had Kubrick made Lolita in a more permissive atmosphere, a different (therefore "better") film would have resulted. I doubt it. At the end of the day, Kubrick's Lolita is more about foolish, pathetic, self-destructive behavior, than pushing the limits of what salacious content we are allowed to see on-screen. It is about how obsession and hypocrisy can crush a person. It is about how very funny we are as a species, with our propensity destroy each other and ourselves for the pettiest, most absurd of reasons.