"How did they ever make a movie of 'Lolita'?" asked the poster for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation, which premiered 50 years ago this week (on June 12, 1962). Short answer, as many critics noted at the time: They didn't.
That is, there was no way, given the Hollywood self-censorship of the era, to capture even a fragment of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel, even with a screenplay by Nabokov himself. In fact, it's remarkable that Kubrick managed to get a studio to let him adapt and distribute any version of the story. Today -- as the ill-fated 1997 "Lolita" movie showed -- no one in Hollywood would even touch the material.
So how did Kubrick do it? He chose the right collaborators, starting with Nabokov; he filmed far enough away so that Hollywood couldn't touch him (a pattern he'd maintain for the rest of his career); he carefully politicked among the various censorship organizations; he compromised when he had to; and he had the good fortune to work during a window when movies were becoming more open and permissive and mature regarding previously taboo topics.
Even before the novel found an American publisher and became a bestseller in 1958, Kubrick (then a little-known director) and producing partner James Harris bought the film rights for $150,000. According to "The Dame in the Kimono" (Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons' history of the Hollywood Production Code), Kubrick and Harris were determined to make a mainstream film that would get wide distribution and earn a profit, which meant making a movie that would pass muster with Code administrators and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Hiring Nabokov to adapt the book himself lent the project some literary cachet. Besides, who would be a better custodian of the book's sensitive material?
Actually, Nabokov was a bit too zealous a custodian; his original screenplay ran 400 pages and would have resulted in a seven-hour film (he eventually published it in 1974 as "Lolita: A Screenplay"). Kubrick and Harris would have to rework it and throw out all but about 20 percent of Nabokov's work (he still received sole credit).
Despite making the necessary revisions regarding the length of the script, there would be no getting around the film's central relationship, between middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert and pubescent "nymphet" Dolores Haze, a relationship that had led one studio after another to turn down the property (just as most American publishers had). For awhile, Kubrick mulled such ideas as casting an actress in her older teens, or having the couple get married in a state like Kentucky that permits young girls to wed. In the end, however, Kubrick did neither and stuck more or less to the story as Nabokov had plotted it, eventually finding a distributor in MGM.
When it came to the differences between novel and script, one major change was moving the book's climactic murder of nemesis Clare Quilty to the beginning, then spending the rest of the film explaining what drove Humbert to violence. Like most of the movie's salacious material, the gory details went unseen; Kubrick figured that innuendo and clever staging would convey what discretion and censorship kept offscreen.
Plenty of double entendres found their way into the shooting script, as Kubrick was able to keep the prying eyes of Hollywood away by shooting the film in London. He figured he'd be able to present the finished film to the censors as a fait accompli and not have to worry about script approval.
To be safe, he hired consultant Martin Quigley, who had helped write the Hollywood Production Code in the first place, and who was close to the clerics in the Legion of Decency, to lobby both groups on behalf of "Lolita." The Code Administration objected to some of the smirkier lines of dialogue and to the lengthy scene where the precocious Dolores seduces Humbert. So did the Legion, threatening the film with its "Condemned" rating, a commercial kiss of death. In response, Kubrick trimmed the offending lines and cut short the seduction scene with an earlier fade-to-black, thus earning Code approval and a milder "Separate" rating from the Legion. The posters advertising the film also claimed that it was only for adults 18 and over. (Indeed, at the New York premiere, star Sue Lyon, then 15, was denied admission.)
To play Dolores, Kubrick cast a then unknown Lyon, who was 14 when filming finally began in late 1960. (Tuesday Weld reportedly wanted the role but, at 17, was already too old. Kubrick considered Disney starlet Hayley Mills, of "Pollyanna" and later "The Parent Trap," but Walt Disney reportedly barred her from accepting.) A number of prominent British actors -- Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Noel Coward -- turned down the role of Humbert, fearing it would damage their reputations, before James Mason accepted the part. (Errol Flynn was interested, but only if his 15-year-old girlfriend Beverly Aadland could play Lolita; Kubrick wisely turned him down.) Completing the casting was Shelley Winters as the amorous Mrs. Haze and the chameleonic Peter Sellers as Humbert's elusive nemesis, Clare Quilty.
Curiously, the overall nature of the relationship between Humbert and Lolita -- which would have kept the film from being greenlit even a few years earlier -- wasn't an issue for censors. That was odd because, for most of its existence, the Code forbade any depiction of "sex perversion," including homosexuality, incest, and pedophilia. But times were changing, and audiences were becoming more accepting of such adult content, as seen in imported films from Europe and Japan, which didn't need a Hollywood Code seal to be made or marketed. By 1961, Hollywood films were starting to compete on the same turf. Going into production were such movies as "Advice and Consent," "The Children's Hour," and "The Best Man," all of which dealt with homosexuality. Rather than fight everyone, the Code office amended the rules to permit depiction of "sex perversion" as long as it was presented with taste and discretion.
"Lolita," then, had the good fortune to come along at a time when Hollywood (along with the culture in general) was becoming more open and frank about sexual matters. Even so, its success at the box office (it was the 12th highest grossing film of the year in North America) and at the Oscars (Nabokov was nominated for his adapted screenplay) turned out to be one more example of the Code's obsolescence, as it was clear that studios could now make films strictly for adults without fear of offending the marketplace or the Academy. (Still, it would be another six years before the Code would be replaced by the self-policing ratings system we have today.)
Nonetheless, Kubrick felt the censors had forced him to compromise too much in depicting Humbert's sexual fixation. "Because of all the pressure over the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency at the time, I wasn't able to give any weight at all to the erotic aspect of Humbert's relationship with Lolita," Kubrick said in an interview, years later, "and because his sexual obsession was only hinted at, it was assumed too quickly that Humbert was in love. Whereas in the novel this comes as a discovery at the end."
Kubrick was wrong, however, to assume he would have had it any easier if he'd tried to make "Lolita" in the post-Code years. In recent decades, as concerns about pedophiles and sexual predators filled the news and resulted in more stringent laws, the subject matter of "Lolita" became even more untouchable. That's what director Adrian Lyne found out when he remade "Lolita" in 1997, using a script by critic-turned-screenwriter Stephen Schiff that was more faithful to the letter of Nabokov's novel than the Nabokov/Kubrick/Harris screenplay had been. Despite a cast of stars (Jeremy Irons played Humbert, Melanie Griffith played Mrs. Haze, and Frank Langella played Quilty; Dolores was played by 15-year-old newcomer Dominique Swain), handsome period production values (the movie was set in 1947, like the book, rather than being updated to the era of TV and rock 'n' roll as in the Kubrick version), and some critical acclaim, Lyne's "Lolita" couldn't find an American distributor. Instead, it was dumped to cable, premiering on Showtime. Indie distributor The Samuel Goldwyn Company eventually released the $62 million film in North American theaters and sold just $1.1 million worth of tickets, making Lyne's "Lolita" one of the least profitable flops in cinema history.
Compared to the Kubrick movie, Lyne and Schiff's version was truer to the details of the novel, as well as to its lyricism and to Humbert's ultimate moral reckoning over how he'd robbed Lolita of her childhood. But it lacked any of the novel's humor, something the Kubrick/Nabokov version had in spades (especially with the protean clowning of Sellers, which inspired Kubrick to cast him in three roles in his next film, "Dr. Strangelove"). And maybe that's the final lesson of how Kubrick managed to get "Lolita" made: the comedy made it go down easier. Seen today, the 1962 version plays as a droll, satirical comedy of manners, with the laughs papering over the more unsavory, cringeworthy reminders of what's really going on. Thirty-five years later, the culture had decided that relationships between Humberts and Lolitas were no laughing matter, and Lyne and Schiff didn't even try.