The Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was a set of morals enacted by Hollywood from 1930 to 1968 that films were supposed to abide by. This included removing unnecessary swearing, explicit sexuality (read: three seconds of kissing) or making crime look good. For instance, a gangster film had to end with the criminals getting their just desserts, just so it appeared to the audience that crime never paid.
It was thus only natural that someone would decide to make an adaptation of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel about a pedophile's obsession with 12-year-old girl. That someone was Stanley Kubrick, fresh off of his three-hour epic, Spartacus. He worked closely with Nabokov during production. The film's marketing exploited the book's controversy: the trailer for the film asks the question “How did they ever make a film out of Lolita?” over and over again. They don't say what the film is about, because chances are everyone knew already.
The film opens with the murder of a drunk (Peter Sellers) by a particularly vengeful British man (James Mason) over ambiguous reasons. The film then flashes back several years and reveals that our to-be murderer, Humbert Humbert, is the main character. Staying with the Haze family, he becomes disturbingly and unhealthily infatuated with the family's 16-year old daughter. What follows is a man's tale of obsession and ruin.
The original novel utilized an unreliable narrator, and the film tries to replicate it as best as it can. The film follows Humbert very closely, giving the audience insight into his depravity and obsession. Due to the nature of the film, however, we do not really get an insight into his mind and how it works, something the original novel does.
The shift to film format does give the adaptation one stylistic advantage over its original. The novel was written as the memoir of a guilty Humbert, giving him the power of knowledge over the reader. The reader only knows as much as they are told. The film flips this on its head. The in media res style of the beginning of the film allows the viewer to see the shadow of the man Humbert murders over the events of the film. Humbert, meanwhile, is completely ignorant of his role until the very end of the movie. This was a distinct choice made by Kubrick and Nabokov in order to maintain the viewer's interest.
I feel as though the censorship placed on the film by the Hays Code actually allowed for a better film. Rather than making things explicit, the nature of the relationship is left somewhat up to the imagination, something that works quite well due to the film's shift from a memoir format. Furthermore, the full extent of the controversial relationship is not the true subject of the book and film so much as Humbert's own obsession and flaws as a character. That said, there is at least one scene where you instantly feel like something was omitted due to regulations: and indeed, it was.
Despite its depressing story, the film is also pretty funny. The scenes with Peter Sellers are surprisingly funny, and one is essentially a prototype of his future role as Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick's next film. There is also a scene involving a cot that somehow turns into screwball comedy, of all things. The film manages to balance its tone very effectively.
Meanwhile, James Mason plays a strong villain protagonist as Humbert Humbert. Maybe it's his Britishness at work, but he manages a good two-faced personality: his affable friendliness and his manipulative nature known only to the viewer.
Lolita is an excellent watch, if you can get over the premise. I highly recommend watching it.
Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.