Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)

11Mar10

“Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I believe I didn’t sufficiently dramatize the erotic aspect of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. If I could do the film over again, I would have stressed the erotic component of their relationship with the same weight Nabokov did… If I had realized how severe the censorship limitations were going to be, I probably wouldn’t have made the film.”

It does not surprise me to hear Kubrick say what he did. His film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s sublimely poetic novel, despite hiring the author to also write the screenplay, fails to capture the magic of the original prose. Lolita the film, by virtue of its third rather than first person story-telling, does not give us an insight into the mind of its twisted protagonist, Humbert Humbert, and it suffers because of it. Most of the novel’s impact came from its description of what he thought and desired. We really learn to feel his lust for Lolita, and the anger and cold-blooded frustration that culminates in him when she runs away. None of this is able to be shown in the film, but only hinted at, the main explanation being because of the constraint of censorship and Kubrick’s subsequent inability to imply too much. This makes it feel unfair to criticise Kubrick, for the film’s inability to live up to the novel (which, despite common sentiment, I do feel should be the aim of adapations. Especially in cases like this, when the novel has legendary status) is not a result of his poor direction, but rather the product of the evils of censorship.

Perhaps this is all too harsh. Lolita is very well acted, and far from boring. But I do feel it fair to criticise the film as a viewing experience, on the basis of its failure to live up to the expectations and potential of the novel. If only Kubrick were alive today in this less hostile environment; but as it is, we must look forward to a more accurately sexual remake in the liberal years to come.

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