"How Did They Ever Make a Movie Out of Lolita?", Camp Climax, Christopher Hitchens, Claire Quilty, Film, film review, Humbert Humbert, James Mason, Literature, Lolita, Lolita Garden Scene, Novel, pedophilia, Peter Sellers, Psycho, Robert Osbourne, sex, Sexual Perversion, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Sexualization of Girls, Shelley Winters, Stanley Kubrick, Sue Lyon, TCM, Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita
“How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” is a sentence I despise, largely because I didn’t think of it first. I know it’s petty, but being a writer and being likeable is difficult enough, that’s why I suspect most of us try and begin our essays and novels with catching, opening lines that invite our reader to give a shit. And so when one of us comes up with a catchy line that nobody can forget it tends to leave us bitter and grumbling in front of our word processors.
My regular reader will no doubt have observed that I’ve been going through a dedicated Lolita phase. After finishing the novel again recently I’ve decided to sit down and really dig into the material of the book, of the writer Nabokov, and of the various books and art products that have emerged since the publication of the book. Having written now about the novel, and the novella precursor, it seemed only appropriate to tackle the 1962 film by Stanley Kubrick given the fact that it’s this film which has partly helped the Lolita phenomenon become what it was and is.
I honestly can’t remember what my earliest experience with the film actually was, though I’m almost positive that it had to be TCM. My parents were good to me in the fact that they almost always had either TCM or TV Land playing on the television, that is when I wasn’t being a little tyrant and demanding the right to watch Freakazoid and Loony Tunes. I consider Robert Osbourne a kind of third parent because he introduced me to people such as Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, Sydney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and of course John Wayne. This education of yester-year’s cinema eventually became a boon to me as I could relate and communicate with older people who had grown up watching such movies and programming, and it taught me the language of films and film history as well. My first impression of Lolita then, was one of the “commercials” that ran between the films and Osborne’s intros, and of course it began with that line that I both despise and adore.
It wasn’t long thereafter that I eventually saw the film, though I did make sure that I had read the novel first. I’d like to say that the film’s content made a distinct impression on me and that I became aware of the brilliance of the film, and of course of it’s director Stanley Kubrick, but I was a teenage boy. I was far more interested in memorizing every episode of Family Guy and every line of Pulp Fiction.
I recently bought Lolita on Blue-ray and watched it again and my impression of the film has changed dramatically because, much like the novel, Stanley Kubrick’s movie is one long fascination with a disturbing idea which Christopher Hitchens noted in his essay Vladimir Nabokov: Hurricane Lolita:
The most unsettling suggestion of all must be the latent idea that nymphetomania is, as well as a form of sex, a form of love. (76).
This observation is absolutely everything when approaching Lolita, whether it’s the novel or the film, though it’s especially important when tackling the film because the way Kubrick directs the picture is as a traditional Hollywood love story. Throughout the film Lolita and Humbert Humbert interact, not as a young girl and a fully grown man, but almost as emotional equals.
Throughout the film Delores Haze, who is oddly enough never referred to as Delores but always as Lolita, is presented a precocious teenager girl, but also as a mature individual with her own will and idea of who and what she is. When Humbert and Lolita arrive at the hotel where the first rape actually takes place, Kubrick plays the dynamic of the two not as a hungry, perverted man lusting after a child, but as Lolita seducing Humbert:
Lolita Haze: Why don’t we play a game?
Humbert Humbert: A game? Come on. No, you get on to room service at once.
Lolita Haze: No, really. I learned some real good games in camp. One in “particularly” was fun.
Humbert Humbert: Well, why don’t you describe this one in “particularly” good game?
Lolita Haze: Well, I played it with Charlie.
Humbert Humbert: Charlie? Who’s he?
Lolita Haze: Charlie? He’s that guy you met in the office.
Humbert Humbert: You mean that boy? You and he?
Lolita Haze: Yeah. You sure you can’t guess what game I’m talking about?
Humbert Humbert: I’m not a very good guesser.
Lolita Haze: [whispers in his ear and giggles]
Humbert Humbert: I don’t know what game you played.
Lolita Haze: [whispers in his ear again] You mean you never played that game when you were a kid?
Humbert Humbert: No.
Lolita Haze: Alrighty then…
There’s also an earlier scene shortly after Humbert picks Lolita up from the summer camp, brilliantly called “Camp Climax for Girls.” As they’re driving Humbert attempts small talk and Lolita speaks with him seductively.
Humbert Humbert: You know, I’ve missed you terribly.
Lolita Haze: I haven’t missed you. In fact, I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you.
Humbert Humbert: Oh?
Lolita Haze: But it doesn’t matter a bit, because you’ve stopped caring anyway.
Humbert Humbert: What makes you say I’ve stopped caring for you?
Lolita Haze: Well, you haven’t even kissed me yet, have you?
And looking near the end of the picture when Lolita is pregnant and living with a sweet but simple man named Dick, she offers Humbert a kind of apology for her “roaming” from him physically.
Lolita Haze: [Trying to console Humbert] I’m really sorry that I cheated so much. But I guess that’s just the way things are.
If the reader is somewhat sickened by these passages it’s just a sign that they recognize how bizarre, and in fact how disturbing this presentation actually is. It’s not uncommon for young women to develop crushes on older men during puberty, but this has more to do with emotional and sexual development. Such crushes and infatuations are early attempts to understand attraction and to experiment and play with it so that, when they are more mature, they can actually act on their feelings.
Kubrick might be faulted or criticized for presenting Lolita as an emotionally mature young woman who openly and freely engages in a relationship with an older man who’s clearly using her, but as I watched the film again I realized that in fact, much like Nabokov himself who manipulated his reader through prose, Kubrick is using the language of cinema to imply perversion without ever outright showing it.
Because the film premiered in 1962, Kubrick was still working with the censorships and sensibilities of film companies at that time. This can be fun for the reader intellectually if they pay attention because in one scene Charlotte Haze, while showing Humbert about the house, actually flushes a toilet. When the reader remembers that, until the movie Psycho premiered just two years before this film, a director could neither flush nor even show a toilet on camera. There’s a feeling while watching such a small act that Kubrick is beginning the small subversions that would eventually allow film makers more freedom. But of course past the toilet flush there is the now iconic garden scene in which Humbert Humbert actually sees Lolita out and about and sun bathing.
I remarked to my sister how well this scene is done while we were watching it, because Kubrick is smart enough to leave Lolita, played by a then sixteen year old Sue Lyon as the center of the everything. The viewer first sees Lolita from the back, sunbathing and wearing nothing but a large feathery hat, dark sunglasses, and a pink bikini (the film is black and white but some color photographs exist revealing the outfits actual color). The shot shifts from behind Lolita to Humbert’s shocked and obviously aroused expression before going back to Lolita and from there Kubrick works his ability as a director. Charlotte Haze describes the garden while the viewer is left to “gaze” upon Lolita. Lolita herself looks up from her book, stares at the viewer, slowly removes her sunglasses, and offers up a look that hints at curiosity and mild erotic interest, meanwhile she never steps out of her pose. The scene lingers and the viewer becomes aware that they are not looking at a young girl who is beginning to, if I can borrow the botanical term, “blossom” into womanhood. In fact they are looking at Humbert’s desire, for the lingering shot and her entire suggested sexuality is entirely Humbert’s imagining. And so the so the viewer is invited to participate in Humbert’s erotic fascination with Lolita, looking at her body and wondering to themselves if this gaze that is centered on her isn’t just implied, but something that is actually erotic.
Naturally, when you’re a teenage boy the same age as Sue Lyons was when she made the movie, the eroticism doesn’t feel weird at all because you’re the same age. It’s just crush. As I age however, I notice more and more that whatever initial erotic feelings I had at this image feels creepier and creepier. It’s now at a point where I can remember being young and attracted to girls that age, but I refuse to acknowledge any kind of erotic fascination with the image. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying that when I watched Lolita again I felt absolutely repulsed at the erotic suggestion.
But that recognition was enough for me to recognize that Kubrick was purposefully playing up that angle.
Much like the actual novel Lolita, Kubrick tries to make the story feel like a love story to show that, beneath the surface of a supposed love story there is in fact nothing but sexual corruption. This is easily apparent in the various little moments of the story, and one of the best elements is the afore mentioned “Camp Climax for Girls.” The reader actually gets a moment when Humbert is surrounded by young women, many of them wearing swim-suits, and the viewer is left watching the image of all these young girls displaying their bodies. The shot works because the viewer is invited to consider the sexual nature of all these girls, but at the same time is reminded that, because of Humbert’s presence that this erotic display really isn’t one. It’s just girls being girls. Likewise later on in the film Delores Haze participates in a play by the corrupt playwright Clare Quilty. The “play,” when the viewer actually sees it, is in fact a kind of fertility display and this lets the reader observe the sexual undercurrent running throughout.
But Quilty himself needs to be addressed because he is arguably the most incredible part of the movie, largely because he is played by the chameleon Peter Sellers. Sellers presents Quilty as this aloof yet wacky man who is sexually corrupt and, if I can borrow an old expression, “queer as a three dollar bill.”
As a queer man I should probably be offended by the implied idea that Quilty is queer, but if the reader actually observes Quilty it becomes clear that the man isn’t part of the LGBT community. Quilty is just a sexual pervert. Before Humbert and Lolita arrive at the hotel the reader is given a small scene in which Quilty and his partner, a largely silent asian woman, are conversing with a bellhop named Swine:
Clare Quilty: She’s a yellow belt. I’m a green belt. That’s the way nature made it. What happens is, she throws me all over the place.
Swine: She throws you all over the place?
Clare Quilty: Yes. What she does, she gets me in a, sort of, thing called a sweeping ankle throw. She sweeps my ankles away from under me. I go down with one helluva bang.
Swine: Doesn’t it hurt?
Clare Quilty: Well, I sort of lay there in pain, but I love it. I really love it. I lay there hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness. It’s really the greatest.
This would be strange enough were it not a later scene when Quilty so obviously attempts to get Humbert to let him see Lolita.
Humbert Humbert: Well, it’s nothing, but… she had an accident.
Clare Quilty: Oh gee, she had an accident? That’s really terrible, I mean, fancy a fellow’s wife having… a normal guy having… his wife having an accident like that. W-what happened to her?
Humbert Humbert: Er, she was hit by a car.
Clare Quilty: Gee, no wonder she’s not here. Gee, you must feel pretty bad about it. W-w-w-w-when uh eh w-what’s happening, is she coming out later or something?
Humbert Humbert: Well, that was the understanding.
Clare Quilty: What, in an ambulance? Hahahaha! Gee, I’m sorry, I-I-I-shouldn’t say that; I get sorta carried away, you know, being so normal and everything.
It’s easy to read this passage and observe that Quilty is a strange man, but it’s in Seller’s performance of Quilty as a bumbling, queer sort of man that the viewer is able to really feel the corrupt sexual nature. Sellers is the key to the movie Lolita, because while James Mason plays Humbert as a dominating, sexual deviant, Kubrick plays him up as a man in love, while Quilty is simply a sexual predator. In this way the suggestion of Nymphetomania as a form of love is progressed because Humbert becomes not a corrupt man, but just a man who loses his love to a man “more” perverted than himself. Lolita herself acknowledges and confirms this for the reader during the final scene in which Humbert discusses with her how she left him:
Humbert Humbert: [Referring to Quilty] What happened to this Oriental-minded genius? When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita Haze: To New Mexico.
Humbert Humbert: Whereabouts in New Mexico?
Lolita Haze: To a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there.
Humbert Humbert: What kind of “weird” friends?
Lolita Haze: Weird! Painters, nudists, writers, weightlifters… But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks.
This final reveal is a bit of strange experience because, when Lolita finally divulges this, many of the suspicions are confirmed and Quilty becomes the monster of the film, rather than Humbert himself. At least that is the perception that I ended the film with after watching it again. And of course, that reaction troubled me immensely because it neglects the reality that Humbert Humbert is a pedophile who seduced Lolita’s mother so that he could get closer to Lolita so that he could ultimately rape her.
I’ve addressed in my previous Lolita essays that Humbert Humbert writes the entire narrative of Lolita, leaving the poor Delores Haze in a position where her story is told without her consent or input. The film offers something different than this vision, and while Lolita does seem to have some kind of agency in the film, it’s important to remember that Kubrick, as a director, was always concerned about the narrative structure of films and how the images crafted his visions.
At first glance Lolita appears to be a love story, but a closer examination reveals a troublesome story about a man manipulating a young woman who is still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants. Lolita is never given any kind of freedom to determine who she is, and while on the surface she seems to be inviting Humbert and Quilty to engage with her sexually, this still is undercut by the reality that she’s a young teenage girl who’s barely figured out her sexuality, let alone her actual personality.
Lolita is a story about the troublesome surface and reality of sexuality in America during the early 1960s. And Kubrick is successful in constantly pointing out that sexuality was always hiding beneath the surface of everything. Under the veneer of the gardens and suburban homes there was a lurking sexuality that was at times troublesome and even corrosive. Children were vulnerable to predators, and because the narrative of sex was something that was still taboo, even when it was out in plain sight, what was obvious couldn’t be actually said aloud.
Lolita as a film is a story about the constant suggestion and implication that is hidden beneath what is actually said and done. In this way the film offers a beautiful way of storytelling because, unlike prose, more viewers will recognize the leering gaze as Lolita Haze lays in the backyard. They’ll recognize what’s being suggested is the idea that Lolita is a sexual object, and, hopefully, they’ll recognize that it isn’t their suggestion but in fact the suggestion of a corrupt man who’s writing her story right out of her control.
All quotes taken from the film Lolita were provided by IMDb.
It’s actually pretty difficult to find ANY video bloggers who have attempted to analyze to explore the film. However I did find two people on YouTube who seemed up to the challenge. If the reader would like they can follow the link below to the videos:
I’ve also found a brief video that is a three minute interview with Suellyn Lyon, the main star of the film, about the actual movie:
The life story of Sue Lyon is not particularly pleasant, and Kubrick’s film is largely the reason for it. I suppose that’s why I wanted to end on a positive note, and so I found two pictures of Lyon and Kubrick rehearsing lines and seeming to enjoy themselves. A lovely reminder that beneath the “sexual icon,” there was a young woman wanting to become an actress and working with one of the greatest directors of all time.