The troubling legacy of the Lolita story, 60 years on

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The dubious aesthetic of Kubrick's film has endured in pop culture. But is it the film or the original book that is to blame for this perplexing phenomenon, asks Steph Green?

Simply uttered on its own, the word Lolita conjures up a certain collective image: an "underage" girl who is aware of – and deliberately overt with – her own sexual attractiveness, developed beyond her years. This troubling pop culture legacy, that propagates throughout music, fashion, photography and beyond, feels worlds away from the tomboyish, unselfconscious girl described in Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel of the same name. On the infamous poster for Stanley Kubrick's adaptation, a 1962 "black slapstick" comedy, as critic Pauline Kael called it, a young girl peeks at us over a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses, sucking on a lollipop, accompanied by the sentence: "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?" The photograph, taken by Bert Stern, is hazy and soft-focus. Memorable for its "come-hither" quality and flippantly daring tagline – that overlaid the film with a smug defiance in the face of strict censorship laws – it's this image that has come to define the long-debated film which turns 60 this month. Is this where the misunderstanding of Lolita can be traced back to?

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The film Lolita (1962) has long been accused of adopting too breezy a tone in its depiction of a story that involves a middle-aged professor grooming and raping his pre-teen stepdaughter. It was adapted from Nabokov's novel by the author himself. But it later emerged that his draft was considered overlong and unfilmable by the director and by producer James B Harris. Twenty years after the film was released, Nabokov recalled "an amiable battle of suggestion and countersuggestion on how to cinemise the novel," and that the final script was heavily edited by Kubrick, heavy on wink-wink, nudge-nudge double entendres, exonerating plot tweaks and a perplexing moral stance. Made with Kubrickian flair, the adaptation is also laden with pratfalls and wordplay – and appears to be more concerned with sending up the idea of sexual repression than critiquing the real sexual crimes of the protagonist. While this is understandable due to aforementioned censorship laws that banned, loosely, "obscenity", many questioned why the director bothered to adapt the book in the first place, given the restrictions; writing in Esquire in 1963, Dwight MacDonald noted that Kubrick had been "evidently scared stiff of the Legion of Decency and such self-appointed guardians of our morals". According to an anonymous Motion Picture Association of America spokesman at the time of release, the script had "turned an important literary achievement into the worst sort of botched-up pastiche that could be imagined".

The poster for Kubrick's 1962 film Lolita featured a photo that has since become familiar and iconic (Credit: Getty Images)

The poster for Kubrick's 1962 film Lolita featured a photo that has since become familiar and iconic (Credit: Getty Images)

But who is to blame for the historic misjudgement of the Lolita story? The book was variously debated as comedy ("wildly funny," according to TIME magazine), tragedy ("Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw," mused the New York Times), and a paedophilia enabler ("Anyone who published it or sold it here [the UK] would certainly go to prison," according to Sunday Express editor John Gordon). So is it fair to blame the film for the role of Lolita in the cultural conversation? Whether the web was spun by Kubrick and Harris, or by Nabokov himself in writing the book in the first place, is open to argument. What can be examined is how the film has prevailed in pop culture, with bubblegum-chewing pop stars adopting the film's aesthetic, and how one salient voice – that of Sue Lyon, the film's co-lead – has been left out of the discussion of it, while people busy themselves debating the "genius" or not of the men involved in its creation.

Perhaps it is unfair to blame Kubrick's film for adding comic levity to the story, when many argued it was in the book in the first place

Lolita was already much talked about in cultural circles by the time it was optioned for the screen. Published in Paris to both fanaticism and furore, before finally finding a home three years later in the US in 1958, contemporary reviews were split down the middle about this lyrical tale of a tortured paedophile. New York Times critic Orville Prescott dismissed the novel as "florid and archly fatuous" surmising: "Perhaps [Nabokov] thinks of his book as a satirical comedy and as an exploration of abnormal psychology. Nevertheless, Lolita is disgusting." Others were moved; even famously sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker described it as "the engrossing, anguished story of a man, a man of taste and culture, who can only love little girls".

Perhaps it is unfair to entirely blame Kubrick's film for adding comic levity to the story, when many argued it was in the book in the first place. Much of the moral outrage surrounding the novel focused on how the attempts at comedy were crude and ill-suited to the subject matter, noting a sour taste left by Humbert's swooning, sickly prose. This was a factor that hindered the book getting published in the United States for three years, forcing Nabokov to publish his work with Olympia Press, the Parisian publisher helmed by Maurice Girodias that specialised in books which could not be published (without legal action) in the English-speaking world. But certain contemporary reviews made note of the book's jocular tone: Charles J Rolo deemed it "one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read" that "parodies everything it touches" with its "charge of comic genius". Many couldn't get past what they saw as an excuse to detail child abuse; others found it impossible not to give in to a wry smile as the unreliable narrator performed Olympic-standard mental gymnastics in order to justify his actions. 

It took Vladimir Nabokov several years to find a publisher for his novel Lolita (Credit: Getty Images)

It took Vladimir Nabokov several years to find a publisher for his novel Lolita (Credit: Getty Images)

Lolita would become Stanley Kubrick's first comedy, and after having just completed a for-hire job with the mammoth studio production Spartacus (1960), the director was determined to exact his now-infamous precision and control in shepherding the novel to the screen. Fifty-three-year-old British actor James Mason – who was known on both sides of the Atlantic for roles in Odd Man Out, A Star is Born and North by Northwest – was cast in the central role, playing the part with a sense of ruffled debonair charm that invited pity rather than disgust. Indeed, Mason's Humbert is not the man we are introduced to in the book's foreword, where the fictional John Ray Jr, describes Humbert as "horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy". What's more, Kubrick and Nabokov's script entirely removes the "explanation" Humbert gives for his sexual obsession: that, one summer as a young boy, he was interrupted during a sexual encounter with his 14-year-old love, who then died. Instead his Lolita, real name Dolores, is depicted simply as a girl that has transfixed and enamoured him; there is no hint of prior paedophilia, or, as the book says, "diabolical cunning".

A bag of contradictions

To make a releasable film, Kubrick and Harris were tasked with hiring an actress for the role of Dolores Haze who looked older than the girl Nabokov had described in the novel as a "monkeyish" 12-year-old who was "unconscious herself of her fantastic power". Of 800 auditionees, a model and TV actress from Davenport, Iowa was chosen: Sue Lyon. Sophisticated, sunny, and – crucially – appearing far older than her 14 years, she flew to the UK for the film's lengthy shoot. Some years later in 1969, Kubrick admitted to bowing to "the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time," of which the casting of the older-looking Lyon was a significant part. Seemingly in agreement, Nabokov would say that Catherine Demongeot – the scrappy, tomboyish then-12 year old of Zazie in the Metro (1960) fame – "would have been the ideal Lolita" instead.

When watched today, the final film is a bag of contradictions. Lyon is made up with eyeliner, sooty lashes and permanently coiffed hair – and yet she sleeps in the nightdress of a Victorian doll, all ruffles, ribbons and bows. When we first meet her she's rigidly placed and posed, gazing at Humbert over the top of her sunglasses. She looks imperious, knowing, and appears to be at least 18; she is not, as Nabokov describes in the book, "standing four feet ten in one sock". In a 1974 foreword to Lolita: A Screenplay, Nabokov admitted that "the frills of Miss Lyon's elaborate nightgown were painful".  

One of the most notable changes from page to screen was through the character of Clare Quilty, played in this film adaptation by British actor Peter Sellers. It is with Quilty that Dolores eventually decides to run away, orchestrating her escape from Humbert by having the other man pose as her uncle to discharge her from hospital where she is staying with a phony illness. Kubrick expanded significantly the role of Quilty, an avant-garde playwright who is directing a play at Dolores's school; the film opens with his murder, which occurs at the book's close, after Sellers has immediately set up the film's comic tone by popping out from behind a chair and declaring "no, I'm Spartacus!" in reference to Kubrick's last feature.

James Mason played middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's film (Credit: Getty Images)

James Mason played middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's film (Credit: Getty Images)

Instead of fulfilling the novel's expectation of his role as the manifestation of Humbert's guilt or his tragic foil, instead Sellers displays his comic timing and predilection for skits. Quilty disguises himself as characters including a policeman, a queer-coded lisping playwright, and a newly invented deadpan German psychologist named Dr Zempf, who phones Humbert and tells him that Dolores is sexually repressed and simply must be allowed to socialise by participating in the school play. And it isn't just with Sellers where the supposedly comic tone lies, but also in the film's frequent innuendo, for instance Humbert complementing Dolores' mother Charlotte's "cherry pies".

But just because the film is different to the book, does that automatically make it a failure? In one cutting contemporary review, New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther recalled the poster tagline of "How did they ever make a movie of 'Lolita'?" before answering: "they didn't," pointing to the adaptation's "strange confusions of style and mood". Later, Adrian Lyne's 1997 version starring Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain was considered far more loyal to the source text, yet was itself surrounded by controversy, and drew accusations of sentimentalism and unnecessary romanticisation. If Kubrick had made the film he really wanted to make, audiences may well have been too repulsed by the abuse unfurling on screen to differentiate between depiction and endorsement.

Determined to adapt the book in the face  of strict censors, Kubrick and Harris diverted focus away from Lyon's age. According to Harris: "We knew we must make her a sex object [...] where everyone in the audience could understand why everyone would want to jump on her." In a 2015 interview with Film Comment, the producer reaffirmed: "We made sure when we cast her that she was a definite sex object, not something that could be interpreted as being perverted." Then comes an admission that makes the entire film seem like a wilful misunderstanding of Nabokov's book: "we wanted it to come off as a love story and to feel very sympathetic with Humbert." Harris's gamble worked. "Though 14 during filming," wrote critic Daniel De Vries in 1974, "Lyon appears to be a well-developed 17, and Humbert's desire for her comes off as ordinary lust."

I defy any girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex-nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter – Sue Lyon

Sue Lyon became famously reticent about speaking to the press after she stopped acting, giving a rare statement in 1996 that lambasted the effect Lolita had had in her life. "My destruction as a person dates from that movie," she said. "I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to stardom at 14 in a sex-nymphet role to stay on a level path thereafter." While there have been appraisals of Nabokov's novel and Kubrick's film, Lyon has been markedly absent from the cultural conversation. James Fenwick, senior lecturer in the Department of Media Arts and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, says that "what is missing from these studies is the voice of Lyon and of the way in which she experienced the production of Lolita. She is absent, silent, and silenced". Obvious parallels to the source novel arise here: in an essay titled The Art of Persuasion in Nabokov's Lolita, Nomi Tamir-Ghez writes that "not only is Lolita's voice silenced, her point of view, the way she sees the situation and feels about it, is rarely mentioned."

Sue Lyon played the role of Lolita in the 1962 film, and was 14 years old at the time (Credit: Alamy)

Sue Lyon played the role of Lolita in the 1962 film, and was 14 years old at the time (Credit: Alamy)

Speaking to BBC Culture, Lyon's daughter Nona Harrison Gomez explains that the reputation thrust upon her mother negatively affected Lyon's career: "She was so much stronger than this twisted, complicated interpretation of what a girl or woman is." While Kubrick and Harris were determined to cultivate a star, this never truly came into fruition."[They] had her in a contract," Harrison Gomez continues. "She was supposed to do something like five to six movies after Lolita. And instead, she had to keep promoting Lolita for years afterwards [...] that movie pigeonholed her in ways that didn't allow her to move forward within her career."

While Lyon went on to act in films like The Night of the Iguana (1964) by John Huston and 7 Women (1966) by John Ford, her roles began to dwindle drastically, and she made her final film appearance in 1980, aged 34. "Being typecast wasn't a positive experience for her," Harrison Gomez acknowledges. "I think my mother was a very funny actress. She had the ability to do other things, not just the seductive thing she was associated with when she was 14."

"She was an activist. She was an amazing writer [...] she did really amazing work in New York, helping women prepare for jobs that didn't have the income for finer clothes." She elaborates: "Don't get me wrong. There was a lot of darkness in her life. But I think being young in Hollywood – we've seen it 1,000 times with young actresses – they'll pull you to the top, let you do whatever you want, until you do one thing that's too much, and then they'll just destroy you."

Those heart-shaped sunglasses have become a stand-in for "sex-kitten" tendencies – wilfully ignoring the dark elements of the story it cribs from

Today, the iconography associated with Lolita (1962) has been adopted in varying degrees of earnest by wider pop culture. Those heart-shaped sunglasses, symbolic of knowingly babyish kitsch, have become a stand in for "sex-kitten" tendencies – wilfully ignoring the dark elements of the story it cribs from. 

By making his version of Dolores a wordly participant, Kubrick's adaptation set off a domino effect that continues to poison pop culture to this day. She appears in the lyrics of the song Don't Stand So Close to Me by The Police, that details a teacher's sexual attraction to one of his students, in which one lyric reads: "He sees her / He starts to shake and cough / Just like the old man in / That book by Nabokov". Or she rears her head as the sordid moniker used to describe disgraced sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's private jet: the "Lolita Express". In 1992, Ellen Von Unwerth shot Kate Moss for Glamour Italia, in a cover and spread titled "Charming Lolita". In the photos, 18-year-old Moss is styled with a red lollipop, a doll, ringlet curls – years earlier, John Galliano had selected the 15-year-old to open his show as his "Lolita", launching her career as a forever-young waif. This alone reflects how the word has become a stand-in for a young girl who is a willing participant in her own premature sexualisation. It’s fair to say that Lolita walked so that Alicia Silverstone's sexually aggressive 14-year-old Adrian in The Crush (1993) could run. 

It's this lack of context in the imagery of Lolita that leads to a fundamental retrospective misunderstanding of the character and story, the name now a proxy term for a type of bratty coquettishness: see Katy Perry's 2014 Twitter selfie, complete with the caption "Feeling v Lolita rn". Pop contemporary Lana Del Rey's 2012 album Born to Die is stuffed full of references to Nabokov's novel, too. In Off to the Races, she begins: "My old man is a bad man, but / I can't deny the way he holds my hand", before warbling the very opening lines to the book in the chorus: "Light of my life, fire of my loins". On the same album, her song Lolita opens with the lines: "Would you be my baby tonight? Could be kissing my fruit punch lips in the bright sunshine". She is, ironically, doing exactly what Nabokov satirises through Humbert's voice – using cloying, poetic metaphors to dress up a hazy fantasy of concealed horror.

The character Dolores 'Lolita' Haze in the film is very different from her depiction in Nabokov's 1955 novel (Credit: Alamy)

The character Dolores 'Lolita' Haze in the film is very different from her depiction in Nabokov's 1955 novel (Credit: Alamy)

In 2020, singer-songwriter Madison Beer was forced to apologise to her 3.2 million Twitter followers after she made a pithy comment on a TikTok livestream that she "definitely" romanticised the book. After the hashtag #madisonbeerisoverparty went viral soon after, she wrote to her Twitter followers: in a characteristically Gen-Z low-caps notes app apology: "i see now that the book is triggering for some people, evoking a very complicated emotional response". An even more infamous story came in 2013 when a then-38-year-old Bradley Cooper was photographed alongside his then-21-year-old girlfriend Suki Waterhouse as he read Lolita to her in a Parisian park. As the press at the time were constantly trailing the couple, many news outlets hinted that they believed this to be staged; like Kubrick's film, perhaps this was a participatory in-joke. Or it is entirely possible, too, that it was a stroke of serendipity that the couple – while in a legal relationship – were caught reading an infamous story of an age-gap liaison.

When it comes to Kubrick's version of Lolita, there may never be a cultural reckoning with the film when the jury is still out on what it is trying to achieve – or make us feel – in connection with its source novel. But with its leading actress as an unwilling, lash-batting icon for a culture that has long romanticised statutory rape, we can only think that Kubrick's film – divorcing itself from the careful context of Nabokov's satirical novel – has spawned a monster.

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