Why Lolita’s Author Initially Refused To Write The Screenplay For Stanley Kubrick

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In a postscript to his 1955 novel “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov stated, quite shockingly, that it was a love story. Not between an adult man and a 12-year-old girl, as the dark plot of the novel details, but between Nabokov and the English language.

Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg in 1899, always had a strange affinity for the English language and often translated his own works from their original Russian. He also had an equally strange affinity for American culture as it looked in the 1950s, and “Lolita” was his full exploration of that. Among many other things, “Lolita” is about how post-War America — featuring a money-raking landscape of hotels, kitsch, and secrets — was all too willing to offer its youth as prey for a seemingly respectful European aristocracy. The book’s main character, comically named Humbert Humbert, was a morally bankrupt transplant who saw himself as the king of his own story, almost royal in his desires. His desires, however, are for children. 

In a 1964 interview with Playboy Magazine, Nabokov, who rarely discussed his own works in such terms, felt the need to clarify the meaning of “Lolita.” It was, he felt, something of a psychological study of a truly monstrous man. Monsters, the author posits, are heroes and romantics in their own minds. The horror of “Lolita” is reading Humbert’s florid, silky narration of what are unspeakable acts. That America is amenable to such a creature speaks volumes to Nabokov’s thesis. 

In 1964, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick elected to do the impossible: adapt “Lolita” to film. It’s likely many readers asked the very question that was seen on the film’s eventual posters: How did they ever make a movie of “Lolita?”

How Did They Ever Make A Movie Of Lolita?

The eventual film version of “Lolita” would star James Mason as Humbert Humbert, and Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mother Charlotte. Lolita herself was played by Sue Lyon, who turned 15 during production. In order to placate various decency and censorship bodies, Lolita’s age was left vague in the script, and any scenes of sexuality were left mercifully in the realm of cheeky jokes and “wink wink” implications. Despite the dark subject matter, the film version of “Lolita” plays like a slapstick satire more than an opulent essay on America’s lost soul. 

Nabokov himself would co-write the screenplay with Kubrick, a curious detail, given that the film strays from the book in multiple ways. The screenplay for Kubrick’s film was eventually published in 1997, about the time director Adrian Lyne was making his own, more faithful film adaptation. In a forward, Nabokov said — in his brilliant prose — that he initially and staunchly refused to write a screenplay for “Lolita.” He had spent five years writing the novel and felt that the work was complete. In Nabokov’s words: 

“They had acquired the film rights of ‘Lolity’ [sic] in 1958, and were now asking me to come over to Hollywood and write the script. The honorarium they offered was considerable, but the idea of tampering with my own novel caused me only revulsion.”

Nabokov, a lepidopterist, was only concerned at the time with his hobby. Given that butterflies weren’t entirely plentiful, he decided to entertain the Hollywood studios’ ideas. Nabokov’s works have only been adapted to film seven times. “Lolita” was to be his first movie.

The Nocturnal Illumination

Nabokov went to Los Angeles, listened to censors, gave some meditation, and still said no. He wrote:

“After a meeting in Beverly Hills (at which I was told that in order to appease the censor a later scene should contain some pudic hint to the effect that Humbert had been secretly married to Lolita all along), followed by a week of sterile meditation on the shores of Lake Tahoe (where a calamitous growth of manzanita precluded the presence of good butterflies), I decided not to undertake the job and we left for Europe.”

Nabokov recalls, however, the moment he changed his mind. While on a sojourn throughout the European continent, he had what he called a “nocturnal illumination,” allowing him to see how “Lolita” could actually be written into a film. By coincidence, he then received a telegram from the studios imploring that he write a draft, but with fewer restrictions. Nabokov then met with Kubrick in early March, and they began what the author called “an amiable battle of suggestion and countersuggestion” as to how to write the movie. During this time, the two worked out a cinematic outline of what a “Lolita” movie might look like. After some casting sessions, the two finally landed on the same page. Nabokov said:

“On March 11, Kubrick sent me by messenger a rough outline of the scenes he and I had agreed upon: they covered Part One of the novel. By then his attitude had convinced me that he was willing to heed my whims more closely than those of the censor.”

The film was released in June of 1962. It has courted controversy ever since. Nabokov was nominated for an Academy Award. He lost to Horton Foote and his screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Read this next: 15 Best Movies Of The 1960s, Ranked

The post Why Lolita’s Author Initially Refused To Write The Screenplay For Stanley Kubrick appeared first on /Film.

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