Kubrick is a great director, but this is not a great film. There’s a cleverness to starting with Humbert’s murder of Quilty and there are some wonderful locations for the events (it was, after all, not so long after the 1950s in which the novel is set), but even allowing for the limitations of what the Hollywood production code deemed appropriate in 1962, the film sort of withers on the vine. Part of my resistance is undoubtedly a firm attachment to the novel, and I’m not sure you could make a great version of this film back in 1962 (the 1997 Adrian Lyne version, which I much prefer, has the advantage of contemporary production freedoms, to be sure). Still, if you’re going to change the story and its characters, why not write a new (even if similar) story of your own and call it something else? (This is also my beef with the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, though the TV shows are far better.)
Kubrick adds tons of dialogue, a ridiculous school dance scene, and a Lolita who slavishly adores Humbert – her reason for leaving at the end of the film is that she didn’t love him, a phrase that’s present in the book and other film version, but contextualized by the shadow of rape that must attend it. Here, it’s simply another thing she says before hoping she can “keep in touch from Alaska.” What? There’s a key materiality to Lo’s body (and the world around it) that’s just absolutely absent here – there’s no intimation that she needs to stop at the gas station after their first sexual encounter to do anything but make a phone call, and even her pregnancy (in a far too nice-looking house) is so slight that it barely alters her pretty frame from what it was before.
Not to mention the fact that everyone calls the child Lolita – even her mother! What America is this where middling white people name their daughters things like Lolita? What about the fact that his renaming her is a vital part of his violation? It’s less that Kubrick seems to be making deliberate artistic choices to compensate for what he can’t tell (because it’s not a novel) or show (because of the code), and more that it seems like he’s careless with the original work. Again, why not just write a new story then? By starting with the murder and jamming a maddeningly garrulous and neurotic Quilty (where did these traits come from?) into every other scene of the film, Kubrick twists the tale into a competition between two men over a girl who toys with them both, rather than the potentially hallucinatory revelations of a rapist justifying (and pleasurably reliving) his experiences.
The one scene I love is the fight scene at Beardsley, which is really almost as good as the 1997 movie. The other thing that’s nice is Kubrick’s repetition of what’s “normal,” and his demonstration of how desperately Lo wants normalcy over and above everything else (this reminds me of Lauren Berlant’s “imagined communities”). “You have a nice normal face,” Quilty even says to Humbert. Still, the issue with the film is that it is less about pattern than repetition, and this is an important distinction. Without pattern (repetition with a difference), the ways into Lo’s personhood are blocked – you can’t film this completely ‘flat,’ just as the novel can’t be as flat in its second half, as the image falls to pieces, as it is in its lovely and dreamy first half. This film falls flat because it’s shot too flat – not in a productive and interesting way, but one that misses the forest for the trees: the Lolita for the male leads.