Lolita’s Transition to the Screen

In any book-to-film adaption, there are certain elements that are flawlessly translated onto the big screen, and there are other elements that just aren’t visual enough to make an impact on viewers in the same way that they would as written words. Implications get overlooked, certain themes may lose their precedence, entire characters may actually change because of how different things must be onscreen. One such example of this dramatic shift is in Vladimir Nabokov’s extremely poetic novel Lolita. So much of Lolita relies on the power of narrator Humbert Humbert’s words, his elaborate and fantastical way of speaking, and his perspective on every single event that occurs throughout the story, whether or not we can rely on him as a narrator. In the film, not only do we have less of a narrator of the story as a whole, but there is very little to do with voiceover or even Humbert’s journal, and so Kubrick needed to rely on other elements to tell the story of Humbert and Dolores Haze (aka Lolita). So what can you do to tell a story that is mainly inside an unreliable character’s head when you’re using the medium of
film? For Kubrick, the answer was to enhance the body language of his actors and to enlarge the parts of characters besides Humbert. Admittedly, Kubrick went on record saying that if he had known how difficult a project Lolita would be to adapt, he may not have taken it, but it is an interesting case into how books and films differ, even with the same material and story being told.

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One of the biggest differences between Lolita the film and Lolita the novel is the fact that the novel is chock full of expressive and intelligent language, if only because the story is told through the eyes of Humbert Humbert and he believes that he is a smart man, capable of all sorts of impressive speech. Humbert speaks in the film, of course, but when he does we are hearing the words in the same way that Lolita hears them, that Charlotte Haze hears them, how any normal person passing by would hear them. In that context, Humbert sounds completely different when you listen to him from someone else’s ears than his own. He acts differently too, in a way. Humbert primarily describes himself with his accomplishments, discussing how “my studies were meticulous and intense…” (Nabokov 17) and hardly ever describes himself at all. In the film, however, we don’t need Humbet to describe himself – we can watch him ourselves, and the portrayal that Kubrick chose to show us is the awkward and unsure side of Humbert. Several times throughout the movie he flinches away from someone touching him, as though he is uncomfortable with anyone in his bubble and likes to keep people at bay unless he initiates the contact, which connects very greatly to Humbert’s need for control in every situation. One of the reasons he likes nymphets, after all, is the fact that he can mold them into the girl he wants to be with, while older women have already begun living their lives and are harder to change. You can also clearly see Humbert’s awkward side when he is alone with Charlotte Haze, a woman he has admitted to the audience in the novel that he does not particularly like (though in the film, it just seems like he ignores her mainly). When she dances with him, he does everything he can to back away from her, even bumping into a wall with a pan hanging on it and fumbling to stop the noise and make Charlotte back up a little more. While in the novel Humbert’s need for control can be read in his language, his excessive way of speaking and choosing every word carefully, Kubrick could not have Humbert narrating the entire story, if only because that would eventually bore the audience. But by putting Humbert in situations that would make him uncomfortable and having him react to those situations with his body language, Kubrick allows for us to still see the controlling side of Humbert that Nabokov invented for us. It may help us understand Humbert in that way, but it doesn’t mean that pieces of Humbert Humbert aren’t lost from the adaptation from book to screen. Much of Humbert’s backstory is not shared with us as an audience because we are viewing the tale as a flashback, rather than as a confession, and therefore much of what shaped Humbert Humbert into what he is was lost. With no tale of Annabelle, the first girl he ever loved, or his previous marriage, Humbert’s attraction to Lolita and his willingness to kill an obstacle is less impactful than it may have been otherwise, and Kubrick couldn’t seem to find his way around either of those things. Another change that was made when creating the world of Lolita on film was the inclusion of her nickname. In the novel, Humbert is the only one who calls her Lolita, and only ever to himself or to her. He never uses that name around anyone else. However, in the world of the film, not only does Humbert use the name in front of other people, but even Lolita’s mother Charlotte calls her by that name, with no real reasoning behind it. The only thing it really does is take another bit of Humbert’s power away from him, because he is sharing the name Lolita with everyone that Lolita has ever come into contact with, rather than just having a special name for her all his own.

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Because Humbert Humbert is no longer narrating us through the story of his pursuit of Lolita, certain characters begin to gain more and more importance in the narrative of the film. Claire Quilty, for example, almost begins to steal the film away from Humbert (not unlike how he stole Lolita), though in the novel he is a very minor presence. This is because the novel is told from the point of view of Humbert, who did not know that Quilty was a player in the game until after he had already lost. Because the film is told from the point of view of every character, and not just Humbert’s, the audience can see very clearly that Quilty takes a much larger role in the narrative than Humbert was able to see himself. In fact, what Lolita reveals Quilty’s role in the story to Humbert at the end of the novel, he admits that she had expected him to already know, that “she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago” (Nabokov 273-274). Lolita then points out that Quilty had seen them together at the Inn, that he had been following them ever since they first got together. In the novel these details may have been overlooked because, well, even Humbert overlooked them in his search for a safe place to be with Lolita. In the film, however, the audience can see that Quilty is always there. He is there at the inn, hiding behind a newspaper, speaking with Humbert candidly on the porch. He follows the pair to Humbert’s teaching position, posing as a German psychologist from Lolita’s school in order to get closer to her without drawing Humbert’s attention. Because of Quilty’s larger presence in the film, the readers get more of a reason for Humbert’s paranoia, if only because we realize he has a reason to be paranoid. The overwhelming presence of someone tailing behind the two main characters (whether we like them or not) puts us just as much on edge for the film as the presence that Humbert can’t quite place in the novel.

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Quilty is not the only character who’s image is changed when transferred from page to screen, though his may be the largest. Lolita herself is very different onscreen than she was in the novel. Of course there was the obvious change in age – Kubrick couldn’t work around the censors to use an actual twelve-year-old, and therefore had to settle for a fourteen-year-old – but some of the changes are even more dramatic than that. This also leads back to the fact that the story is not being told from just Humbert’s gaze. Throughout the novel Lolita is described as the nymphet that Humbert imagines her to be – indeed, he almost needs her to be the nymphet he sees her as, if only because that makes what he feels towards her more acceptable in his own mind. But after Lolita finds out about her mother’s death, things change. Humbert almost doesn’t notice it – he talks about how he buys her presents to make her feel better, how he treats her well, how “she came sobbing into [my room] and we made it up gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (Nabokov 144). He doesn’t see quite what the audience sees when they watch this scene on film. There, they see a girl who is scared and alone and completely at the whims of a stepfather who finds her sexually attractive, whereas in the book Humbert tells us only that she is upset about the death of her mother. From that moment on Lolita starts to be more resistant towards him, to try and escape his grasp, but in the novel it seems to be more paranoia on Humbert’s part than actual planning on Lolita’s. Of course you discover at the end that she was planning with Quilty to escape all the time, since he was the man she was truly in love with, but in the film, where you can see her fighting with Humbert and actually sobbing at the news of her mother’s demise, the audience is treated to a much better view of Lolita as a scared girl who is in over her head and just want dot escape to a safer situation (whether it actually is or not is not the issue). Kubrick was able to give Lolita more lines and more of a presence in the film than she was given in the novel because the novel is all about Humbert, and the film is all about everyone in the novel.

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I can only imagine that Kubrick’s main issue with this film was in changing something so descriptive into something that could very easily be seen by any viewer. He did say that changing the novel into a film was difficult, even though he had Nabokov’s help on the script for the film. In all honesty, Kubrick was probably taking on a thankless task in trying to turn Nabokov’s novel into a film, if only because there was no way to do it without losing some of the subtlety that made the novel great in the first place. In order to get past the censors of the film, Lolita had to not only be aged but look older than she was, for Humbert’s sexual fantasy of her to almost be justified, rather than something dark and dangerous, as the novel intended for it to be. By removing Humbert as the narrator, the audience might have seen the true horror of what Lolita was, but by aging Lolita up and appeasing the censors, the main story may have lost what made it a great tale in the first place. Kubrick did his best, giving more actors a chance to shine and emphasizing different bits of those characters, but perhaps Lolita is a story better read than viewed.

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