It is an oft-quoted fact that “if Stanley Kubrick had realized how severe censorship limitations would be, he probably never would have made Lolita.” The sexual tension in Lolita is certainly muffled, reduced mostly to suggestive double entendres, and on these grounds there is a large portion of Kubrick’s fanbase willing to give him a free pass on the film. Lolita certainly does not live up to Kubrick’s high standard—his next two films in particular are often cited as among the best ever—but much of its shortcomings are the fault of Kubrick himself, who fails to grant his characters much depth and substitutes conflict with sly humor.
The film begins as its story ends, with Humbert Humbert (James Mason), professor of French Literature, step-father of the titular character, murdering Quilty (Peter Sellers). Kubrick stated that this was a way of maintaining narrative interest. He and Nabokov (who is credited with the screenplay, though Kubrick and James Harris rewrote most of it) agreed that an unexplained murder would make the conflict not about the erotic tension between Humbert and Lolita, but the murder itself. Unfortunately, without being able to emphasize the erotic aspect, Lolita becomes the story about a lead-up to a murder, told by Humbert, beginning with how he finds himself in care of Lolita after the death of her mother Charlotte. The more interesting story is the one that pokes through as a result of the censorship but is undermined by starting the movie in media res: The story about tension that is growing between Humbert and Lolita because of his attempts to be a father and desire to be a lover. As the film goes on, the two begin to clash more often, but knowing that this leads to Quilty’s murder instead of character-driven revelations renders much of the downplayed sexuality and melodramatic screaming matches as rather trite. Even if they had never occurred, we learn at the film’s end that everything would have played out just the same.
Humbert has little backstory, and the lack of any strong lust for Lolita makes it easy to guess that he is genuinely in love with her. Because Sue Lyons plays Lolita closer to 16 than to 12, there is a vaguely appropriate air about the romance. Humbert has a debonair likability that is contrasted sharply with the unlikability of Lolita’s overbearing mother, Charlotte. With all this in Humbert’s favor, it is hard to root too hard against him. Most of what would turn us against him—his reaction to Charlotte’s death, his overprotectiveness of Lolita—is stifled by Kubrick’s tendency to find humor in tragedy and to make Lolita quite unlikable and snobby herself. This is essentially a filmmaker’s conceit; it sets Humbert up to, quite absorbingly, attempt to balance his love, his new role as a father, and his characteristic role as an educator with the unpredictable Lolita. This section of the movie is by far the most morally complex, and it’s a shame that so much of what comes before it makes it appear simpler than it is.
Perhaps the biggest question mark that keeps Humbert’s crossroads so interesting is that Kubrick goes to no lengths to show us her feelings. In the scene where Lolita learns her mother has died, her cries are quelled by Humbert’s eloquence, and Lolita seems to forget all about this. Aside from growing outbursts, we learn little about how she actually feels, so the focus is kept mainly on Humbert, the flawed but strangely likable character whose devilish scheme perhaps took him a little bit past the line. We watch Humbert try to be both father and lover, and although Lolita’s feelings could grant us a bit more clarity about how we should be responding, the ambiguous silence is Kubrick’s greatest departure from the novel. We get a feeling that Humbert’s likability is a mask, and Lolita’s hidden motives are always compelling.
Still, Lolita is held back by so much in becoming all of these more interesting stories that it contains, but what Kubrick does do—find dark humor in unfortunate situations, twist our sense of morality, and create irony and discomfort through wordplay—is done well. What exactly happens at Camp Climax? Well, “games” of course. What does Kubrick have to say about it all in the end? If anything, it’s something about art. Humbert enrolls Lolita in a school where she will learn “to read more than comic books and movie romances,” expresses disdain at her distaste for foreign films, and gives her a copy of a Joyce book during at one point (she reads a magazine instead). She also rejects Quilty’s offer to put her in “art films” (changed from the novel’s pornography). Is it Kubrick pointing out differences between children and adults? Lolita is a kid who reads comic books and ignores Joyce and art films, and a grown man, intellectually developed enough to grasp those same things has no place in being with a child. It’s an interesting motif, but another undeveloped one. Kubrick has many things to say but does not say anything terribly well.
Quilty is the biggest instigator of the ineloquence, having a far larger part in Kubrick’s story than Nabokov’s but providing little more than a few stifled laughs and some discomfort. He is present throughout the film, but mostly as comic relief and as a MacGuffin to be explained at the film’s end, confirming what we suspected about Humbert’s feelings to begin with and adding nothing to the numerous themes that appear in brief glimpses throughout the film.
Essentially, Lolita plays like an average character study, weakened by its avoidance of the novel’s narration, which keeps Humbert more of a question mark than a person. It finds its own place to succeed, but only thanks to a few too many missed opportunities. The kind of anti-sentimental, black humor that Kubrick wants so desperately to convey is successful, but only by clouding more compelling roads that could have been taken. Censorship certainly hurt his film, but it also opened up doors that are not explored by the film or the novel. Even on the merits of its great director, whose visual style here is competent and skilled but not yet attention-grabbing, Lolita is the mildest of successes.