This is a final paper I wrote for a class called "Sexual Revolution: Hollywood in the 1960s", taught by the lovely Michael DeAngelis of DePaul University. Again, not really journalism but definitely in the realm of pop culture academic noodling, so I thought it would fit in nicely on here.
"While it is true that in ancient Europe, and well into the 18th century (obvious examples come from France), deliberate lewdness was not inconsistent with flashes of comedy, or vigorous satire, or even the verve of a fine poet in a wanton mood, it is also true that in modern times the term 'pornography' connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration."
-- Vladimir Nabokov, On a Book Entitled 'Lolita' (1959)
For as long as the rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita have been bandied about Hollywood, the story has had a reputation for being unfilmable. As Jon Lewis says, “The negative buzz was complicated by the fact that the topic of the screenplay – Humbert’s affair with his underage stepdaughter – was, to many in the business, unfilmable and doomed in the first place” (294). Nonetheless, market potential was realized, coupled with an opportunity to capitalize on the censorship stir the book had made, and initially Nabokov was brought in to write the screenplay for his novel. It turns out that his tyrannical brilliance as a prose stylist and creator did not translate well into the medium of film – he delivered a monster of a screenplay, lengthy and obtuse, giving himself a cameo as a butterfly collector that Humbert Humbert bumps into (BBC). It was ultimately rejected, and Lolita’s first Hollywood treatment came from Stanley Kubrick in 1962. Sue Lyon, a 14-year-old girl from Iowa, was her first incarnation on celluloid. This paper examines the representation of the character of Lolita in American media, specifically the notoriety and cultural situation of Kubrick’s film adaptation.
The sad truth that one immediately comes up against when examining Lolita is that Lolita herself only exists through Humbert’s own artistic interpretation of her, because the novel is presented as his written confession (or, Confession of a White Widowed Male). So from the start, she is an image perceived by someone else. Urbane, educated, pedophilic Humbert makes for an unreliable narrator to say the least. Lolita’s personality still shines through, but she is mostly engaging as an extension of Humbert’s imagination and vivid dream-life. In trying to recreate her character on film, as a real starlet rather than just the starlet of Humbert’s eye, a director has to take on Humbert’s perspective to some degree in order to tell his story. “Lolita is at once a chance for the male narrator (and author and director as well) to redeem and make immortal their own stardom, and the recognition that this stardom will always entail failure since it depends on making into a star a girl who will outgrow those features which made her capable of being a star in the first place” (Power, 3). The novel is framed as a confession, an apology; the story instantly has an element of the pathetic in it, the failure – desires impossible to be realized. This does not translate well into the setting of moralistic 1962 Hollywood.
Pedophilia – what Humbert calls nympholepsy – is a hard sell, and the way that Kubrick chooses to frame it is questionable: as a black comedy. In his adaptation, the character of Claire Quilty (originally a shadowy, corrupted side-character who eventually abducts Lolita away from Humbert and tries to get her to act in his pornographic films) is inflated beyond all recognition by Peter Sellers. Humbert (James Mason) is relegated to playing Quilty’s straight man in a number of scenes, giving terse answers and chilly responses to Quilty’s bumbling. In one such scene the two are on the balcony of a hotel lobby and Quilty, disguised as a policeman, offers to procure a bridal suite for Humbert and his little girl, saying, “She wasn’t so little! Fairly tall little girl!” and laughing nervously all the while. The dominion of the Motion Picture Production Code at this time perhaps made this kind of lukewarm, joking innuendo necessary. If Kubrick wanted to have any kind of commercial success with his film, he would have to somehow make pedophilia palatable by distracting as much as possible from the true implications of the story.
Another way in which Kubrick attempts to downplay the pedophilic aspects of Lolita is by making actress Sue Lyon appear as mature as possible. In the film, the first shot of Lolita (pivotal in sealing Humbert’s helpless, lavishing devotion to her) is of her lounging on a towel in the garden, in a modeling pose, wearing a bikini, feathered sunhat, and cats-eye sunglasses. She slowly tips her glasses down her nose and stares frankly back at Humbert. All throughout the film this Lolita is perfectly groomed and poised, with smooth, curled hair and neat clothing. This scene is treated very differently in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 re-imagined adaptation; Lo is lying on her stomach, in pigtails, reading a movie magazine and wriggling her bare feet in the shower of the lawn sprinkler. She turns her head, notices Humbert staring, and smiles widely. The audience keenly feels the hideous shock of her mouth full of braces, her obvious girlishness, after following Humbert’s and the camera’s gaze up and down her body. This is much more in keeping with the novel’s description of the moment: “In the course of the sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child…while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty…” (Nabokov, 39).
It is obviously much more comfortable, morally, to have Lolita be a teenager rather than a child. “Certainly Kubrick had a vested interest in making his Lolita look as old as possible on the grounds that a teenager was less likely to fall foul of the Production Code Authority than might an ostensible twelve-year-old. In keeping with the general calculated vagueness of the film, however, Lolita’s age is never actually given at all on-screen” (Vickers, 117). The interesting thing about this avoidance of the pedophilia issue is that Kubrick’s marketing strategy relied entirely on the book’s controversial reputation. This reputation was mostly based on hearsay rather than legal action: “But the feared American obscenity trial never took place – at least not in a courtroom. Instead the book became the butt of endless jokes and cartoons. Again America was absorbing something controversial into its popular culture instead of subjecting it to a witch hunt” (Vickers, 51). According to promotional materials, Kubrick’s film was not an attempt to make Lolita respectable; the film was labeled “For Persons over 18 Years of Age,” making Sue Lyon unable to attend the premiere. So, the audience was tantalized by the air of scandal surrounding the story but ultimately denied any visual representation of it in the film. There is no sex in Kubrick’s Lolita – the scene always fades to black before anything morally questionable happens. As Elisabeth Landsenson says, “The publicity campaign for the film featured the rhetorical question ‘How did they ever make a film of LOLITA?’; Hollywood wags aptly responded: they didn’t” (217).
This lack of sexuality was thoroughly remedied by Adrian Lyne in his 1997 adaptation, which was initially denied release in the United States but received high praise from Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son and manager of his literary affairs. Lyne knew what he was getting into with this allegedly unfilmable story, but was eventually able to get circulation in the U.S. with the support of Showtime; “Unlike major studios, which continue to protect their public image and decline to take risks with films that might cause them trouble with the general public, Showtime successfully hawked Lolita as a film everyone else in the business was too ‘chicken’ to screen” (Lewis, 296). So even in a post-Production Code era, adapting Lolita to film becomes a kind of defiance – a protest to censorship in the name of art. I would argue that Lyne’s film does have more artistic merit than Kubrick’s, as it stays very faithful to the story arc and narrative style of the novel. It does not excise certain elements of humor from the story, but doesn’t go down the farcical black comedy route that the 1962 version does – instead the film evokes an atmosphere of overwhelmingly poignant tragedy, portraying the desperate wreckage of Humbert’s life and the pain it causes everyone around him.
Although the story is Humbert’s, Lolita the girl will become the central image of the film by virtue of Humbert’s obsession with her, making her casting choice seem much more important. There is more riding on the power of her image on screen, just by nature of her role in the story. Adrian Lyne’s casting call for the part was as follows: “Lolita: legally 18, must look 13-17, she is very much a regular American kid, but more knowing, sensual and un-inhibited than we might expect. Possesses the sort of ambiguous beauty that can go from childlike to intensely erotic at the blink of an eye. A combination of innocence and provocation that should affect every man in the audience. Nudity required” (Lewis, 293). Actresses Dominique Swain (1997) and Sue Lyon become the bearers of meaning – the heavy implications of Humbert’s own obsessive devotion and the tragic waste of their childhoods. So although they are the faces of the film, so to speak, their powerful presence is not as characters but as tools of sexual insinuation. Laura Mulvey articulates this phenomenon beautifully: “The man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as a bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralize the extra-diegetic tendencies represented by women as spectacle” (5). Disturbingly enough, these Lolitas cannot be sympathetic characters because they are not even really characters: they are part of the spectacle of the movie’s titillating central theme. Moreover, they are idealized hallucinations of Humbert’s fascination, recounted for the audience through the viewpoint of his narrative.
The staging of Lolita’s actions is essentially fetishistic, perhaps inescapably so. The opening title sequence of Kubrick’s adaptation shows a young foot being cradled and its nails painted by a rough, masculine hand. The effect is appropriately chilling, but mostly because of what the audience already knows about the story in the film to come. This scene also foreshadows the way in which the film will continually strive to present seemingly innocuous actions as sexual innuendo – being unable to show the real thing, according to the Production Code. An early moment of this innocuous innuendo occurs when Lolita is hula-hooping in the backyard with Humbert watching her from a lawn chair. There is nothing sensual or lascivious in the utilitarian movement of her hips, and yet the audience put on their guard to notice any hint of lewdness. The moment ends with Charlotte – Lolita’s mother, enamored of Humbert – snaps a picture of him from the front porch and crows, “See how relaxed you’re getting?” It seems that the voyeuristic aspect of cinema is heightened when you tell the story of Lolita; because of context, the audience is forced to view the young actress in a sexual light. The camera pulls your gaze in, focuses it, as a constant reminder of who the narrator is and what his intentions are. Sue Lyon smolders and smiles, seeming to enjoy the attention of Humbert and the audience.
Sexual innuendo takes an interesting turn in the appearance of Jean and John Farlow, friends of Charlotte’s who – in the 1962 film – meet Humbert at a middle-school dance. When Charlotte leaves to dance with John, Jean turns to Humbert and says, “We could sorta swap partners… When you get to know me better you’ll find that I’m extremely broad-minded. In fact, John and I, we’re both… broad-minded.” She might as well have winked at Humbert and jostled him with her elbow, the insinuation is so clear. Instead Jean just smiles up at him mischievously, in the lingering silence, waiting for the movie-going audience to get it. This small episode, entirely absent from the novel, seems to be an attempt to make Lolita more timely by referencing the swinger phenomenon that came to prominence in the 1960s. It also paints Humbert as a stodgy relic of a sexually repressed Victorian/Old-World sensibility, a social misconception that works to his favor in hiding behind an air of false respectability. Charlotte will sometimes delightedly coo to him, “Oh, Hum, you’re so delightfully Old World!” and try to get him to break out of his shell, unaware of his complete lack of attraction and faint repulsion to her.
Although Lolita has been described as a story of young, innocent America being corrupted by the Old World that Humbert is said to represent, Nabokov vehemently denies that that was his intention in writing the novel. Referencing the charge that Lolita is anti-American, Nabokov says, “This is something that pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality. Considerations of depth and perspective (a suburban lawn, a mountain meadow) led me to build a number of North American sets. I needed a certain exhilarating milieu” (315). Kubrick’s film does not fall into this anti-American trap, and does not even acknowledge the aspects of the novel that critique Hollywood culture and its early oversexualization of young girls. In the novel, there are references to Humbert resembling a movie actor on which Lo has a crush; once he realizes this he exploits it to his advantage. He says to himself, as narrator, “All at once I knew I could kiss her throat or the wick of her mouth with perfect impunity. I knew that she would let me do so, and even close her eyes as Hollywood teaches” (Nabokov, 48). In Kubrick’s film adaptation, Lolita carries herself like a movie-star and revels in Humbert’s attention, at times aping the flirtatious technique of a Hollywood temptress. Charlotte, played by Shelley Winters, at one point rants about her daughter, “Now she sees herself as some sort of starlet! Well I see her as a sturdy, healthy, but decidedly homely child!” On the cue of “decidedly homely child,” Humbert cracks a walnut he is holding in his hands in exaggerated shock – another attempt at comedy.
In addition to critiquing popular Hollywood culture, the novel hints at cinematic ideas that might’ve been in Nabokov’s later “unfilmable” screenplay. Looking at a wanted poster, Humbert muses, “Sullen Sullivan came with a caution: Is believed armed, and should be considered extremely dangerous. If you want to make a movie out of my book, have one of those faces gently melt into my own, while I look” (222). Nabokov had an awareness of the problematic implications of translating his novel to film, but its dependence on linguistic style makes the task very difficult. Perhaps he was predicting the cultural impact, the stir his story would create, and wanted to influence some of the early incarnations of Lolita. Although his screenplay was rejected, he was still asked to provide input on some production decisions in Kubrick’s film (as a gesture of courtesy more than anything, as none of them were heeded.) As Graham Vickers tells it, “We may charitably assume that Nabokov’s otherwise absurd suggestion that a ‘dwarfess’ be hired to play Lolita was simply a comment designed to avert any charge of being implicated in the corrupting of a living, breathing child. He had no need to worry: others would take care of the corrupting. They had been doing it in Hollywood for years” (53).
There are many, many rich themes in Nabokov’s Lolita aside from pedophilia: obsessive love, loss of childhood, the rose-tinted glasses of memory, high culture meeting low culture, sociopathy, the voluptuous beauty of descriptive language (“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” [Nabokov, 9]): these are all mined to great effect by Adrian Lyne in his reimagining of the film. And yet the narrative framing of Kubrick’s film has endured in population culture, with the heart-shaped glasses from the promotional poster becoming cultural shorthand for a sexual young girl. In a recent music video, pop artist Leah LaBelle tries to twist this imagery in a female-empowerment way, by surrounding herself with fawning, shirtless men in heart-shaped glasses (to unclear effect), while singing lines like, “Baby I was born to make you do something you’ve never done / You’ll be forever young / I’m your Lolita / Uh oh oh oh” (Epic Records). She also culls the look of her blouse and skirt worn in the music video from Lyne’s 1997 Lolita – it’s a potpourri of cultural references. This endurance of the heart-shaped glasses symbol leads one to the age-old fetishization of schoolgirls, the Gothic Lolita fashion trend in Japan, and a Danish child pornography franchise that churned out films under the name “Lolita 1-36” from 1971-1979 (Vickers, 161). These perversions would exist regardless, but Lolita’s reputation in pop culture has given them a grim moniker.
Eventually, the question emerges: why did they make a film of Lolita at all in the 1960s, under such restrictions by the M.P.P.A. and elsewhere? The most straightforward reason was capitalize on the hot-topic reputation of the book in America, a literary work falsely perceived as pornographic. According to Elizabeth Power, “Kubrick’s rejection of Nabokov’s screenplay and its rewrites also suggests his desire to distance his film from the novel and its potentially salacious content when he represented it on screen. His failure to adapt Lolita on film seems to be just that, his failure. As Kubrick conceded in a 1972 interview, ‘if it had been written by a lesser author, it might have been a better film’” (2). The story is certainly filmable, as Lyne later proves, but his faithful adaptation is emotionally shattering in a way that Kubrick does not even approach. Yet even though his attempt at adaptation can be pronounced a failure, the methods in which Kubrick chose to evade restrictions put upon his film – while injecting additional elements winking innuendo and humor – provide a picture of the ways in which a 1962 American audience could deal with sexual neurosis and allow a pedophile onto their screens, in the suave disguise of “a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood” (Nabokov, 39).
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