Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was deemed unfilmable when first published, but no less than two movies were adapted from the novel (along with a sad assortment of failed stage productions). Although it was one of the most notorious bestsellers of the 1950s, it’s mostly known nowadays from Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film, which reshaped the prepubescent Lolita into a willing accomplice of Humbert Humbert, an academic with an obsession for very young girls.
Graham Vickers thinks the book was better and wants to rescue “the miss from the myth.” He cares little for Kubrick as a filmmaker, but setting that peculiar prejudice aside, his Chasing Lolita (published by Chicago Review Press) is an insightful interpretive account of how Lolita was transformed in the cinema and turned into a generic term for girl child pornography and media shorthand for teenage temptresses.
Nabokov largely accepted Kubrick’s interpetation of his story but would not be pleased with what his creation has since become in the public mind. In his allusive novel, Lolita is seen through the eyes of Humbert the twisted and unreliable narrator. Lacking a voice of her own, her identity can be glimpsed nonetheless through Humbert’s self-rationalizations and fantasies. Readers can gather that she resented her irritating mom, felt the absence of her prematurely dead dad and acted out through a streak of mischievousness. Even before encountering Humbert, she had been sexually mishandled by the playwright Claire Quilty, who became the narrator’s evil shadow and nemesis.
As Vickers points out, Nabokov’s Lolita wasn’t a sexy siren but could only appeal to a pedophile “with a very specific shopping list of expectations.” The movie poster for Kubrick’s Lolita more than the movie itself turned her into a vixen, sucking on a lollipop. That image never appeared in the film, but Vickers takes exception to how the girl was otherwise transposed to the screen.
Nabokov himself was philosophical over the need to tone down the explicitness of Humbert’s account. Although the novelist was neutral about casting 14-year old Sue Lyon in the title role, Vickers isn’t alone in thinking she looked a little old for the part. He makes an exaggerated case for Lolita as inseparable from its setting in the postwar 1940s yet isn’t the only observer to feel Kubrick’s film looked “strangely adrift in both time and space.” Shot in the UK where Kubrick spent the final four decades of his life, Lolita may have suffered slightly—but only slightly—from its lack of an authentic backdrop.
More central to Vickers’ argument is the idea that Kubrick’s movie retained the names but little of the story and that the cast was mostly unsuited for the roles they played. He’s partly correct: Kubrick’s Lolita is more dark romp than journey through the heart of darkness.
Vickers is also right that in calling the Lolita remake, Adrian Lynne’s barely released 1998 film with Jeremy Irons as Humbert, as much truer to Nabokov’s vision. With concern over pedophilia at a more feverish pitch in the ‘90s and ‘00s than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a new film version of Lolita never stood a chance of finding a wide audience.