Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Well, the poster raises a good question: How did they make a movie of Lolita? A screenplay by Nabokov and direction from Kubrick begin the action as Humbert confronts Clare Quilty (a truly standout performance from Peter Sellers). What an extraordinary beginning to a film. James Mason, struggling to hold his gun and purpose straight, Sellers draped in a bed sheet, hilarious as he attempts to play Roman ping-pong with his intruder. After the shots ring out we go back four years to Humbert's hopeful arrival in Ramsdale and his fateful meeting with Mrs Haze and her daughter Dolores.

Compressing the action of the novel into a film means that there's an awful lot of plot and precious little of the character that makes the novel such an enjoyable read. What to do with James Mason now that Eddie Izzard has pretty much built a career on mocking that extraordinary voice? It's almost perfect for suggesting the European difference of Humbert amongst the all-American community he moves in to, but there are also several moments where it's hard to stifle the giggles. The script doesn't give any real opportunity for him to display the wit, erudition and humour of the novel's narration, which is a shame given that that is its definitive aspect, outside of the subject matter itself. Making the film in 1962 Kubrick was severely limited by the censor in what aspects of the novel he could realise on screen and has since said that he wished he could have focused more attention on the erotic component of Humbert and Lolita's relationship. Without it there is no hint of the underlying danger which makes their every appearance in public together such a threat to the sanity of Humbert.

Shelley Winters is enjoyable as Mrs Haze and Sue Lyon nicely in control as Lolita (although despite being 14 at the time of filming she looks a bit too old to my mind to really embody the nymphet qualities described with such specificity by Nabokov). But Sellers really steals the show of course. My wife, not having read the book, raised an eyebrow during the scene where Humbert is visited by 'Doctor Zempf', asking if that was the same character or whether Sellers was being indulged. It clearly anticipates his turn as Dr Strangelove which was to come a couple of years later but also demonstrates Sellers unique ability to change his voice entirely. Watch the opening scene with your eyes closed and you'd be hard pressed to identify him as the actor playing Quilty. There's something a tad ironic about him being coupled with Mason whose voice is so distinctive and unchangeable.

It's a shame that a film missing so much of its source material still feels very long, perhaps I was just tired, but it certainly helped me to appreciate even more the unique qualities of the book, particularly the humour that challenges the reader, making you complicit with its anti-hero.


gary davison 21 July 2009 at 15:56  

I've picked this book up a million times and still not read it. I think next time I'm going to purchase. Films are rarely as good as the books, though, are they?

Take Pappion. Okay not a literary read, but one hell of a story, but the film only touches on it. Shame.

William Rycroft 21 July 2009 at 23:32  

Hi there Gary. It's definitely worth reading, far more detailed about the psychology than any film could ever hope to be and much funnier than I was expecting. My review in case you missed it is here

gary davison 22 July 2009 at 15:41  

Good review, William. I'm back to be unsure whether i want to read this one now!

William Rycroft 22 July 2009 at 17:24  

Definitely, definitely worth reading Gary. My view of the book has changed slightly with the passing of some time and since seeing the film too. I can appreciate far more the humour and sympathy in the book. I'd love to hear your own thoughts if you do go for it.

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