Lolita: The girl who knew too much



Many problems had to be solved before ‘Lolita’, the story of two men fighting for the same woman, could be made. To begin with, the producer director team James B Harris-Stanley Kubrick had to acquire rights to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel ‘Laughter in the Dark’, while buying the rights of his highly controversial novel ‘Lolita’ as both books closely resembled each other thematically. This ensured that while ‘Lolita’ was being made, a rival producer did not use ‘Laughter in the Dark’ as a base for a similar film. More difficult was the task of adapting a controversial literary work for screen, which was rejected by American publishers since it narrated the distasteful story of a 39-year-old man desiring a 12-year-old girl. Interestingly, ‘Lolita’ the novel had sold almost 3,00,000 copies in America and 14 million copies worldwide when it was eventually published in Paris, and first released in 1958.

After Nabokov wrote 400-page-long first draft of the screenplay for the movie version of ‘Lolita’ by incorporating ideas and scenes he had not included in the novel, Kubrick and Harris decided to rewrite the same to fit the director’s cinematic vision of the story that would also satisfy the censor. With script in hand, all that the producer-director team now needed to do was sign a 1 billion dollar deal with Warner Brothers, and look forward to 50 per cent of the profits. However, Warner Brothers added a phrase to each clause of the contract giving the company complete control over every aspect of the film. Refusing to give up their autonomy, Harris rapidly signed the same deal with Eliot Hyman’s Associated Artists by including a clause that the company could not touch a single frame of the film.

It was decided to shoot the film in England as the ‘Eady Plan’ devised by the UK government to provide a boost to the British film industry allowed producers to write off costs if 80 per cent of the crew were English. Luckily James Mason, who was to play Humbert Humbert, had retained his English passport. To meet the remaining quota of English talent, Peter Sellers more than filled the space, especially with his various disguises.

Once shooting commenced, cinematographer Oswald Morris had a major fall out with Kubrick. The director was furious when images from the film appeared in the press during shooting. He blamed Morris, who as cinematographer was responsible for managing rushes of the daily shooting, and which was where the leaked images had apparently come from. It was later revealed that it was in fact a junior lab assistant at the film processing lab who had sold them to the press. Kubrick never apologised to Morris for the accusation and an angry Morris vowed never to work with the director again. Interestingly, as the film shooting arrived to its conclusion, one ending that was considered was to have Humbert and Lolita get married in a state that allowed young people to wed. This ending was considered in order to appease the censors.

The music for the film was composed by Nelson Riddle, while the main theme was composed by Bob Harris. The recurring dance number first heard on the radio when Humbert meets Lolita in the garden later became a hit single under the name ‘Lolita Ya Ya’ with Sue Lyon credited with the singing for the single version. The flip side was a 60s-style light rock song called ‘Turn off the Moon’ also sung by Sue Lyon.

The film is deliberately vague about Lolita’s age. Kubrick had in fact commented: “I think that some people had the mental picture of a nine-year-old, but Lolita was twelve-and-a-half in the book; Sue Lyon was thirteen.” Actually, Lyon was 14 by the time filming started and 15 when it finished. Although passed without cuts, ‘Lolita’ was rated ‘X’ by the British Board of Film Censors when released in 1962, meaning no one under 16 years of age was permitted to watch. The Production Code Administration passed the film with a few snips on the soundtrack and an early fade to the scene in which Lolita seduces Humbert after her mother’s death. The British and Australian prints, however, contain the scene as originally shot.

‘Lolita’ was shot at Elstree Studios in England in 88 days for just over 2 million dollars. It was then slightly edited to comply with the ‘suggestions’ of the censoring bodies. Harris and Kubrick had been sensible enough to liaise with the censors throughout the production process to lessen any effect they might have.

Stanley Kubrick held a special screening for Vladimir Nabokov a few days before the film’s premiere. That was the first time the author learned that most of his screenplay had been jettisoned, but he reported himself very happy with the picture, praising Kubrick and the cast.

‘Lolita’ premiered on June 13, 1962 in New York City. It performed fairly well, with little advertising and relying mostly on word-of-mouth; many critics seemed uninterested or dismissive of the film while others gave it glowing reviews. However, the film was very controversial, due to the hebephilia-related content, and therefore while many things are suggested, hardly any are shown. ‘Lolita’ registered box-office receipts of 3.7 million dollars on its opening run.

Sue Lyon, the American actress, who played the title role was later again cast as a seductive teen in John Huston’s ‘The Night of the Iguana’ (1964). After acting in films like ‘The Flim-Flam Man’ (1967) and ‘Evel Knievel’ (1971), she was relegated to secondary roles. She ended her film career after playing a news reporter in the 1980 cult movie, ‘Alligator’ (1980).

‘Lolita’ was remade in 1997 and directed by Adrian Lyne. It starred Jeremy Irons as Humbert, Melanie Griffith as Charlotte and Dominique Swain as Lolita. The film was widely publicised as being more faithful to Nabokov’s novel than the Kubrick film.