Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” – A Most Ambitious Fantasy

The fourth entry in Plot and Theme’s year-long look at the filmography of Stanley Kubrick.  Check out all entries here.


Introduction

In 1962, Stanley Kubrick adapted the Vladimir Nabokov novel Lolita for his sixth feature film.  Though published only 7 years earlier, Nabokov’s novel was already reaching the status of a classic work due to its controversial subject matter, witty wordplay, and themes of erotic fantasy, hebephilia, and sexual predation.  Working with Nabokov on the screenplay, Kubrick’s adaptation faithfully recreates the key aspects of the novel, capturing the sexuality, irony, and tragedy of a man who lusts after a prepubescent girl.

Still shackled by the Hayes Code, Lolita was thought to be unfilmable, and the director himself later expressed that had he known how severe the censors were going to be, he probably wouldn’t have bothered to adapt Lolita.  Fortunately, he did.

To communicate the eroticism of Lolita on the screen, Kubrick relies on inference and suggestion.  Kubrick strikes an irreverent tone through liberal application of his sardonic sense of humor.  Lolita is replete with innuendo, wordplay, and even pratfall – all of which convey different erotic and comedic aspects of the film.  The four main characters of the story (Humpert, Lolita, Charlotte, and Quilty) are cast as archetypes, but Kubrick gives them complexity by examining their relationships.  These relationships can be organized into a pair of love triangles that help organize and portray the sexuality of the drama without being overt.  Through these characters, this irreverent tongue-in-cheek tone, and the satire of sexuality, Kubrick explores the themes of Lolita:  the tragic psychosexual journey of Humpert, and his doomed pursuit of gratification.

Irreverent Tone and Sense of Humor

In Lolita, Kubrick’s sarcasm is practically a requirement.  Thanks to the Hollywood censors, he was forced to convey the overt sexuality of Nabokov’s novel in more subtle ways.  He strikes an irreverent tone, establishing the ridiculousness of the proceedings through the character of Quilty and then continuing along in the same vein throughout the film.  He keeps up the dark sense of humor and the sexuality through innuendo, both in the dialogue and the imagery that he chooses.

Kubrick establishes his tone immediately, leaning on the comedic stylings of Peter Sellers.  Kubrick knew that the audience would approach Lolita with certain expectations, as the novel was already infamous for its subject matter.  To subvert this, Kubrick begins the film in the least serious way possible:  Entering Quilty’s house, Humpert asks, “Are you Quilty?” and Quilty, wearing a bed sheet like a toga, responds, “No, I’m Spartacus.  Have you come to free the slaves or something?”  Audiences would catch Kubrick’s reference to his previous film, and realize that the director wasn’t acquiescing to the seriousness of Nabokov’s source material.  Quilty continues through the scene with this cartoonish behavior, adopting accents, mocking Humpert, and even facing his own death with sarcasm.

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Roman-Ping, Roman-Pong

Kubrick’s tone is consistent, and he applies it to the sexual subject matter of Lolita through innuendo and wordplay.  It’s not subtle, and Kubrick is able to get away with it because of his outlandish treatment of the opening of the film.  The opening scene itself features Quilty talking about how professionals “use their bats”, calls Humpert a “horn toad”, and asks him if he “likes watching”.  When Humpert is looking around her home, Charlotte apologizes for a “soiled sock”, talks about her home being “stimulating”, and then remarks about her “cherry pies” and “late night snacks”.  At the dance, Lolita’s friend Mona is in “a cloud of pink” and is off to “Camp Climax” soon, and Charlotte and Humpert share pink champagne later in the evening.  Also at the dance, Humpert talks with Mona’a parents, who call themselves “broad-minded” and suggest that they “swap partners” (meaning dancing partners, only not really).  These sexual innuendoes all occur in the first 30 minutes of the film; there are myriad examples.

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 In the novel, Lolita attended “Camp Q”.  Kubrick is less subtle.

Kubrick also takes advantage of sexually suggestive imagery throughout the film.  Charlotte has a phallic urn where she keeps the ashes of her husband, and Humpert strokes it suggestively before realizing what it is.  A clock on the wall is particularly phallic, as are the soda bottles that Lolita is constantly drinking.  Charlotte dresses in leopard print while trying to seduce Humpert, and Lolita is introduced in a bikini and cat-eyed sunglasses.  Humpert himself is characterized by his costuming:  he’s often shown in white before having sex with Lolita and in darker clothes once he has indulged in his fantasies.

As a wonderful synthesis of visual and spoken innuendo, consider the scene where Humpert unfolds a cot at the foot of the bed while Lolita is sleeping.  He fights the cot with a bellhop, and the two struggle to unfold the bed.  Perhaps a cot is just a cot, but the difficulty with which Humpert erects the bed suggests otherwise.  The physical quality to the humor in this scene further suggests the ridiculousness of  Humpert’s intended goal.  This monster intends to take advantage of his 14-year old stepdaughter, without telling her that her mother has just died (because that would sour her appetite for sex).  What should be disgusting is instead hilarious, as Humpert struggles with the cot, approaches Lolita on the bed, and then has her wake up, look around and say, “The cot came” in a dismissive tone.  Not tonight it didn’t.  Humpert then lies on the cot, and it collapses.  Kubrick goes to great lengths in this scene to detail the anti-climax, it is simply unthinkable that he didn’t intend the sexual inference here.

As suggestive as Kubrick was in Lolita, the director himself admits that he wasn’t quite suggestive enough.  Kubrick believes that the eroticism of some of the relationships was not properly dramatized, especially between Lolita and Humpert.  Still, Kubrick’s decision to exploit irony, sarcasm, and dark comedy pays great dividends, especially as we further explore these relationships.

Characters and the Twin Triangles

Lolita is essentially a character study, focusing on the sexual deviancy of Humpert Humpert (James Mason) and the ramifications of his pursuits.  The object of his affection is Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon), a “nymphet” kept ambiguously young by Kubrick (though, somewhere in the range of 13-15 years old).  In his way is Lolita’s dullard mother Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters), and Humpert’s competition Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers).  These four characters form a pair of contrary love triangles, which Kubrick exploits and alters to dramatize the major elements of the plot-theme.

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The Twin Love Triangles, with the major dramatic conflict between Humpert and Quilty (who participate in both triangles) shown in red.

Humpert is the major player.  He provides unreliable first-person narration throughout Kubrick’s film, establishing the setting after big shifts in time or place and also using the audience as a confidant for his erotic thoughts.  Humpert is an intellectual through-and-through, considers himself above the other characters, and isn’t concerned with the standard ideas of morality.  His worldview seems is built around his sexual conquest of Lolita, the pursuit of this fantasy thoroughly consumes his character.

Lolita is shown as a young woman with blooming sexuality.  She’s is shown to be intelligent, manipulative, and a thoroughly sexual being from Humpert’s standpoint, as these characteristics provide rationalizations for his arousal.  Later, we learn more about her own feelings and desires, but early on we only get characterization of her from Humpert’s decidedly biased viewpoint.  Sue Lyon plays Lolita with a coquettish charm and confidence, and actually feels in control of all situations.  This facade is peeled back a bit later in the film, in the few moments when Kubrick allows us to consider the plight of Lolita.

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Humpert’s (and our) introduction to Lolita.

Clare Quilty is the dramatic foil for Humpert and is a constant presence in the film.  The novel begins and ends with the same word:  “Lolita”; the film also begins and ends with the same word:  “Quilty”.  Even when it seems Quilty is removed from the action, he is still a powerful force.  His picture is seen hanging from the wall of Humpert’s rented bedroom.  He appears at the school dance.  He runs into Humpert by chance at the hotel.  Quilty is the most obvious source of Kubrick’s sense of humor, and Sellers’s performance here almost matches his brilliant turn in Kubrick’s next film Dr. Strangelove (but we’ll get to that next month!).

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Quilty sneaks around in the background, shown here on a page torn from some magazine.

Lolita’s mother is Charlotte Haze.  She is a boring, haughty widow who constantly annoys Humpert with her romantic advances and her ersatz intellect.  She is immediately cast as a woman who thinks far too much of herself, and her character exists primarily as a roadblock between Humpert and his desire to have sex with Lolita.  Nonetheless, Charlotte plays a vital role in the negative love triangle between Humpert and Quilty, and as the jealous foil of her own daughter.

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The characters in Kubrick’s Lolita are interesting; the relationships between them are fascinating.  These relationships take two primary forms:  Love Triangles, and Competitive Pairs.  The triangles are important for conveying the sexuality in these relationships, so Kubrick is sure to draw attention to their existence.  Quilty recites the first score of the Roman ping-pong game, “3-Love”.  Humpert looks for Lolita in Room 3 of the hospital, and asks for her at 3:03 in the morning.  These aren’t accidents; Kubrick wants you to recognize the relationships and their conflicts.  Both triangles feature Humpert, Quilty, and one of the Hazes, and both pairs involve the members of the same sex acting as dramatic foils.  Sex and sexual competition positively fuels the relationships of Lolita.

The first love triangle in the film features Humpert, Quilty, and Charlotte.  It is a bizarre unrequited love triangle, on account of Charlotte.  Neither Humpert nor Quilty are particularly interested in her sexual advances.  Quilty doesn’t even remember that he had sex with Charlotte in the past, though it is fresh in her mind.  Quilty is shown as a kind of pan-sexual, interested in older women, younger women like Lolita, and even men.  In fact, Quilty is so quick to mention Lolita during the conversation with Charlotte that one gets the feeling that he is far more attracted to Lolita.

This parallels the way Humpert feels about Charlotte, but Humpert takes it to a new level.  His contempt for Charlotte is obvious to the audience, but the characters in the story don’t seem to recognize it.  From the moment they meet, he doesn’t treat Charlotte and her faux intellectualism seriously.  When he meets Lolita, Charlotte becomes a barrier that Humpert has to navigate.  We see this visually at the drive-in theatre, and the hula hooping sequence, where Humpert’s preference for Lolita and his distaste for Charlotte is palpable.  Humpert’s blatant mistreatment of Charlotte culminates in his murderous thought experiment, followed immediately by his cavalier response to her death.

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Humpert gazes at a photo of Lolita while embracing Charlotte.  When Charlotte claims, “I have a most ambitious fantasy”, Humpert responds, “What’s yours?”.  As yet another example of the effect that the censors had on Lolita, Kubrick wanted to show the reverse-shot, so you could actually see Humpert, Charlotte, and Lolita in the same frame.  The censors considered this too suggestive.

Later, a second love triangle emerges between Humpert, Quilty, and Lolita, this one decidedly more lustful.  It isn’t obvious early on that Lolita and Quilty are sexually involved, but Lolita’s revelations at the climax of the film indicate that she was always interested in Quilty.  There is an obvious perverse quality to this triangle, as two middle-aged men fight over the prepubescent Lolita, though only Quilty knows that the fight is occurring.  This triangle is epitomized by abuse, as both men “take advantage of [Lolita’s] disadvantage”, to borrow a line from Humpert.

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Quilty reading the “smutty letter” in an old-timey prospector’s voice.

We can recognize a number of pedophilic techniques at work in this triangle.  Both Quilty and Humpert infantilize themselves while ascribing maturity to Lolita, in an attempt to “balance” the age difference and justify their attraction to this child.  Quilty acts like a buffoon in the opening scene of the film, and says things like “drinkie” and “smokie”.  Humpert allows himself to be fed eggs from Lolita’s hand.  Both men characterize Lolita with a maturity uncommon for her age.  We never see Quilty interact with her directly, but it is intimated that he appreciates her for her acting acumen and trusts her to be as duplicitous as he is.  Humpert is impressed with Lolita’s appreciation for poetry and her ability to make intelligent critiques, saying, “If you were in my class, I’d give you an A+” – all during the recitation of Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe: a poem about happening upon the tomb of your past love while in the presence of your current love, written by a man who married his 13-year old cousin at the age of 27.  Again, these are not accidents.

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What the fuck, Humpert?

Aside from the love triangles, the characters of the same genders are direct dramatic foils.  Charlotte and Lolita are often in conflict, and Charlotte’s jealousy of her own daughter is obvious.  Charlotte’s harsh treatment of Lolita begins after the daughter interrupts the mother’s attempt to woo Humpert, and only increases in intensity.  She calls Lolita a “spoiled brat”.  She sends her away, and plans to do so again.   The jealousy reaches a baffling height during the discovery of Humpert’s smutty journal, where Charlotte’s immediate reaction is not to protect Lolita from Humpert, but to condemn her daughter right along with her husband.

But the main dramatic conflict of Lolita is between Humpert and Quilty.  The film begins and ends with their ultimate confrontation, and Quilty is a constant in the background.  These two men never interact honestly; it’s always through some performance by Quilty meant to trick or torment Humpert.  Because he shares Humpert’s mindset, Quilty is the one man who recognizes Humpert’s psychopathy.  Both men lust after Lolita, though there are stark differences in their approach.  Humpert’s interactions with Lolita are fraught with an awkwardness, a kind of manipulative hesitancy.  Quilty is a more overt trickster.  While Humpert experiences a palpable paranoia and accumulating dread once he “wins” Lolita, Quilty is shown as confident and in control.  The two are opposite sides of the same hebephillic coin.

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Quilty immediately understands what Humpert is up to.  Later, when confronting Humpert directly, he describes Humpert as “normal” so often, that it is clear he is being sarcastic.

The characters in Lolita are the foundation for Kubrick’s adaptation of the story.  The director exploits the underlying structure to their relationships, found in love triangles and dramatic pairings, to convey the nuances of his greater themes.  We’ll explore these nuances further in the next section.

The Themes of Lolita

Kubrick’s tongue-in-cheek tone, twin love triangles, and investigation of sexuality all contribute to the overall plot-theme of Lolita:  the psychosexual journey of Humpert, first to fulfill his lustful desires and then to protect himself from the ramifications of his conquest.  This is the tragedy of Humpert’s arc:  in his attempt to attain that which his heart most desires, he brings about his own fall.  Kubrick means to show the total destruction of a man who allows his fantasies and perversions to consume him, a destruction that comes not because Humpert fails, but because he succeeds in his monstrous quest.

Humpert’s rise occupies the first half of the film, where Kubrick allows the character’s sexual musings to convey the majority of the theme.  Humpert is something of a psychopath.  His portrayal of Lolita completely removes any humanity from the girl and objectifies her.  Humpert mostly walks a knife’s edge early on, content to fantasize about Lolita and justify his lust by contemplating the “twofold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity”.

Humpert is positively monstrous in his pursuit of Lolita.  He marries Charlotte in an effort to stay in Lolita’s life, despite dismissing Charlotte’s love letter with derision and hysterical laughter.  He contemplates murdering Charlotte, and then openly celebrates her “fortuitous” death by taking a casual bath and listening to the same music he heard when first meeting Lolita.  Upon collecting Lolita from Camp Climax, he withholds news of Charlotte’s death to make sure that Lolita’s mood for sex isn’t spoiled.  It is clear that Lolita contributes to the sexuality of their relationship, but it should be expected that Lolita is awakening as a sexual being.  Humpert’s responsibility should be to allow that growth – not participate in it, even if Lolita believes it is something she wants.  She is not acting on the full information of the moment, exemplified by her ignorance of the death of her mother.  She is acting on a growing libido that she can’t understand, and Humpert is content “taking advantage of [her] disadvantage”.

But the acquisition of Lolita’s sexual attention isn’t the downfall of Humpert.  Instead, it is his struggle keeping the true nature of their relationship secret, and then the realization that the object of his affection despises him.  It begins as he obsesses over how Lolita spends her free time.  Humpert is horribly over-protective of Lolita.  He can’t afford losing her affections, as he has arranged his entire life around the sexual relationship with her.  More importantly, he cannot afford their secret getting out, as it will reveal his predatory and perverse nature.  He must make sure that Lolita keeps the secret, and that no one guesses how they spend their evenings.  The dishonesty that pervades their relationship dooms it.  It is no wonder that Lolita routinely lies to him, manipulates him, and eventually effects her escape from the hospital into the arms of Quilty.

In the climax of the film, all of these issues come to a stirring conclusion as Lolita reveals the true nature of their relationship, and how one-sided it actually was.  Lolita enjoyed the sexual exploration of her youth, but she acted upon it thinking she was free to tease and titillate older men as an experiment.  Once she knows that her mother is dead, she’s forced to choose between sex with Humpert and “one of those horrible places for juvenile delinquents”.  The resulting relationship, the secrecy, and everything else she experienced with Humpert was a facade, a means for her survival.  Once Lolita reveals that Quilty was, “the only guy [she] was every crazy about”, Humpert recognizes that his obsession was unrequited.

Consider the repugnance with which Lolita interprets Humpert’s offer to come away with her:  “You mean you’ll give us the money only if I go to a hotel with you?”  For her, their relationship was a pragmatic means of survival, a pitiful decision forced upon her by an old man staking his claim to an unprotected pussy.  The recognition of this truth is far more devastating to Humpert than Lolita’s abandonment.  It reflects the depth of his depravity, which he cannot rationalize away or escape from.  Confronted with his monstrosity, he is off to destroy both of the men who “took advantage” of Lolita.

Conclusion

In Kubrick’s Lolita, sexual gratification, eroticism, and even perversion are not always evil.  But like most of his films, the director deigns to show us the destruction of characters who presume to be above morality.  Just as The Killing showed the downfall of a grifter who thought he could outsmart everyone and Paths of Glory showed the destructive ridiculousness of wartime, Lolita examines the uncontrolled pursuit of sexual fantasy by a man who considers his own passions immutable and incorruptible.  Humpert sacrifices others to his desires, takes advantage of a young girl’s burgeoning sexuality, and must live in a world of deception in order to sustain such a relationship.  Through a deft use of dark humor and innuendo, brilliant characterization and relationship structures, and an honest exploration of a deviancy, Kubrick shows these are not the proper foundations of a sexual relationship, and condemns those whose sole focus is gratification.

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