Wind up the Lolita doll and it goes to Hollywood and commits nymphanticide. Director Stanley Kubrick and Novelist-turned-Scriptwriter Vladimir Nabokov shadow the plot of Nabokov’s perverse and remarkable novel rather faithfully, but they have filtered out its shades of meaning. Those who know the book will hoot at this decontamination: those who do not will be mystified as to how the story got its lurid reputation.
The novel “Lolita” traced the carnal pursuit of a twelve-year-old American nymphet by a middle-aged European emigre named Humbert Humbert, and the rather Electrifying relationship that developed between the stepfather-seducer and the child-mistress. The book’s last scene is the movie’s first. Moving numbly through a Hollywood-style mansion full of bottles, harps, glasses, statues, bottles, grand piano, glasses, sheeted furniture and an incongruous pingpong table. Humbert (James Mason) plunks bullet after bullet into the drunk and glibly protesting Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), a TV playwright who stole Humbert’s Lolita from him but did not keep her. In the book, the shooting of Quilty was eerily comic: in the film, despite the inspired foolery of Sellers, the scene is awkwardly and ominously facetious.
With the end given away, the movie then goes on in a 2.5 hour flashback to tell the full story. Humbert, a lecturer on French literature, rents a room in the home of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a New England culture voluptuary. Charlotte has a seven-year widow’s itch for a mate. Humbert obliges, but only because he has a very special itch for her gum-chewing, Coke-swigging daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon). The shock effect of this is dimmed, since the film ducks the duty of specifying Lolita’s age and gives the part to a girl of 14 who looks around 17. Making her movie debut, Teen-Ager Lyon is simply overmatched by the demands of her part. She acts knowing rather than sexy, and she lacks what Nabokov himself has defined as the “demoniac” essence of the near adolescent nymphet, an “elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm.”
James Mason is equally misconceived as Humbert. All through the movie, he acts like an Englishman who has been caught cheating at cards in his club. He shows none of the Old World graces and cultural refinement that made the book’s Humbert seem more of a sexual gourmet than a sexual monster. In the book, it was Humbert who appeared romantically naive when Lolita quite casually and ironically seduced him. As Nabokov created her, Lolita was as completely a symbol of innate depravity as Melville’s Billy Budd was a symbol of innate innocence. But in the movie, she seems to fall into Humbert’s voracious clutches to avoid going to an orphanage after her mother is killed by a car. This destroys the underlying theme of the novel, which was a deliberate reversal of the classic Jamesian theme of American innocence vs. European corruption.
“Hum” and “Lo” enjoy no sincestuous raptures: instead they pout, sulk, rant and rail at each other with such tedious frequency that the viewer prays for the pursuing Clare Quilty to break in on the couple, as he does in several wondrous Sellers disguises. His funniest camouflage is as a transplanted psychiatrist who knows all about “ve Amerrikans — and can break the spine of the English language or rake the arms of a chair with his Teutonic ardor. Whenever Sellers leaves, the life of the picture exits with him.
“Lolita” is the saddest and most important victim of the current reckless adaptation fad, which, in sterile practice, kills the goose in order to hatch a golden egg.
Cinema: Humbert Humdrum and Lullita.” Time, June 22, 1962, p. 94