“How could they make a movie of Lolita?” the adverts for Stanley Kubrick’s film demanded. The answer was, they did – up to a point.
A significant difference between Vladimir Nabokov’s screenplay and his best-selling novel is that the age of the nymphet in the book has been raised into the teens from 12 to make it more palatable to movie audiences, thereby changing Humbert Humbert’s “perverse passion” into something less shocking.
This alteration, and the reduction of the American landscape’s importance in the novel (the film was shot in England) did not diminish the impact of this acerbic tragi-comedy. Apart from the obvious differences between the novel and the film, the story is basically the same.
Humbert Humbert (James Mason), a middle-aged professor of French literature at an American university, rents a room for the summer in the house of Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), a snobbish widow whose 14-year-old daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon) he finds irresistibly attractive.
He marries the leopard-print-clad mother to be closer to the daughter, and Charlotte dies in a freak accident shortly after learning the truth. Humbert takes the girl on a long car trip across America but is dogged all the way by eccentric playwright Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). Although outwardly peculiar, Quilty is shrewd and calculating and it doesn’t take him long to guess Humbert’s true purpose.
Both Mason and Sellers play their off-beat roles to perfection, and Shelley Winters touchingly and humorously suggests emotional starvation and middlebrow pretensions.
Sixteen-year-old Sue Lyon, in her first film, wonderfully catches Lolita’s blend of gum-chewing vulnerability and quivering animal tenderness and sensuality.