Lolita: When Stanley Kubrick made his first foray into black comedy

Peter Sellers, Stanley Kubrick and James Mason playing ping pong on the set of Lolita

“How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” – looking at a tagline like this on a poster today, a young cinephile from the present generation might be compelled to ask what the fuss was all about when Stanley Kubrick decided to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita for the big screen. Of course, there had to be a fuss, because this was a film dealing with a taboo subject – pedophilia – and was made 55 years ago when movie-going audiences were not as open-minded as they are today. The film was Kubrick’s first foray into black comedy.

It also fits into the classic definition of noir – the femme fatale here being a 15-year old girl. When the film became a success, everyone associated with the film breathed a sigh of relief, because, obviously, this was an incredibly tricky film to make. There was a 1997 remake, directed by Adrian Lyne, which turned out to be a disaster despite being more faithful to the book. Think about it: The remake appeared at a time when audiences were more receptive to such controversial subjects but failed whereas someone turned into a success by doing it with more subtlety and flair back in 1962. There is a lesson to be learned here. But, oddly enough, Lyne had more trouble making it than Kubrick did.

I’ll admit I haven’t read the novel, so I’m not going to needlessly bother with any sort of comparisons to it. From what I’ve heard, the book was much more sordid than the film was, and Kubrick had an extremely challenging task ahead of him. He somehow managed to transfer into the film the book’s black humor, and successfully so. And apparently, he had adapted only 20 percent of the book but still managed to tell a lot while keeping the central relationship – of Professor Humbert and Dolores a.k.a “Lolita” – intact. One other major alteration was that the ending of the book was moved to the beginning in the film. This made things a lot more interesting.

James Mason and Sue Lyon

By beginning the film with Claire Quilty’s (Peter Sellers) murder at the hands of Humbert, Kubrick made the viewer eager to know what it was that Quilty did so bad that led Humbert to make such a fateful decision. A similar narrative decision was made by Billy Wilder in his screenplay of Sunset Boulevard 10 years earlier – he too started his film with the murder of a man. But in Kubrick’s film, the narration is handled by Humbert and we get to learn every detail straight from the horse’s mouth. Here the audience is playing the role of a priest in a confession booth and Humbert is the playing the “sinner”. Apparently, some of the book’s more violent details were toned down in the film. Nabokov applauded these changes when he saw the film.

Kubrick hired a man called Martin Quigley, who had a hand in writing the Hollywood Production Code, to get an idea of what was deemed acceptable and what was not. Kubrick conveyed some of the “distasteful” elements through the clever use of sexual innuendos and fade-to-black shots. When I saw it the first time, I failed to find the humor in the film, but upon a second viewing recently, it struck me how funny the whole thing really was. Aside from one or two laugh-out-loud Chaplin-esque moments, James Mason’s performance is thoroughly amusing, along with Peter Sellers’ darkly comical performance as well. Kubrick loved Sellers’ performance so much that he cast him in his next film, Dr.Strangelove.

For Sellers, Lolita was a sort of warm-up for Dr.Strangelove. He played three roles, in addition to a voice in a telephone, but none were as memorable as his characters in Dr.Strangelove. Right from the outset, we get the inkling that Quilty is a bad person, and that too without seeing the whole film and knowing anything about his back story. Nothing he does makes him endearing to us. Right from that annoying Texan accent to the way he evades Humbert’s questions while distracting him with ping pong, he gets on our nerves but not as much as Humbert’s, who is trying so hard to not pull the trigger without hearing the answers from Quilty’s mouth. In effect, for a short while, Humbert becomes the audience surrogate and we want him to pull the trigger as quickly as possible.

Peter Sellers and Shelley Winters

Those who haven’t read the book prior to the film might see Humbert as some sort of avenging angel. It’s when we see his actions later on – the past events told through flashbacks – that our perception of him gradually changes and finally we regard him as someone who is as unpleasant and is in the same league as Quilty. They are both animals belonging to the same breed fighting for the same mate. Kubrick chose to cast in the role of the “mate” Dolores, a then 15-year old Sue Lyon, who looked more mature than most girls her age. Apparently, the size of her breasts played a big part in this. Kubrick picked a “more developed” girl because he sensed a possible objection from the censors if he cast a much younger looking girl.

For the role of Humbert, Kubrick had to settle for Mason after a slew of other British thespians – Laurence Olivier being one of them – turned him down. Casting Mason proved to be an excellent decision. By now he had proved his mettle playing a wide range of interesting and conflicted characters with varying shades of gray. Only three years earlier, he played the primary antagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the role of Humbert was just another feather in his cap. The slight villainous tinge to his character is revealed when he first confesses to us his desire to kill his wife – the mother of Dolores, Mrs. Haze (played by a terrific as usual Shelley Winters). I can’t imagine anyone else in this role other than him.

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