Lolita (1962): Kubrick’s Superb Adaptation of Nabokov Novel, Starring James Mason, Shelley Winters, and Peter Sellers

Rather tame by today’s standards, but in 1962, Kubrick’s clever version of Lolita was nonetheless perceived as too controversial, perhaps even misunderstood.

Lolita (1962 film poster).jpg

Theatrical release poster

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Because of pressure from various moral leagues, and financial reasons, Kubrick decided to shoot the film in London.  After that film, he ended up settling there for the rest of his career and life; he died in 1999.

At the time, many critics felt that Kubrick caved into the pressure of the censorship and betrayed Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 scandalous novel, but as a movie ahead of its times, Lolita has withstood well the test of time, and now stands as a superbly literary adaptation.

Lolita can be seen as a study in madness, a theme that would recur in Kubrick’s later works, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.

The great British actor James Mason stars as Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged professor and intellectual, who spends the summer at the home of Charlotte Haze, a young, sex-starved widow, played outstandingly by Shelley Winters.

However, it is Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita, played by the sexy adolescent Sue Lyon, who consumes Humbert with lust, which turns into obsessive jealousy eventually leads him to death and insanity.

The script is deliberately vague about Lolita’s exact age. In the book, Lolita was twelve and a half, but actress Sue Lyon was 14 by the time shooting began and 15 when it ended.  Although passed without cuts, Lolita was rated “X” by the British Board of Film Censors, when released in 1962, meaning no one under 16 was permitted to watch.

The only disappointing performance in the film is given by Peter Sellers, who appears as the eccentric Clare Quilty, a man who follows Humbert’s very move, in a part that would anticipate other eccentric roles and accents in the future.

Adapted from his original novel, Nabokov’s first draft of the script would have led to a seven hour film.  Kubrick changed the novel considerably, shifting the film’s darkly witty tone toward one that’s defined by black humor.

Humbert uses the term “nymphet” to describe Lolita, which appears twice in the movie but its meaning is undefined.  In a voice-over, Humbert confides in his diary, “What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script.”

Most of the novel’s sexually explicit innuendos and references were removed from the movie to avoid further problems with the strict censorship. The sexual attraction between Lolita and Humbert is implied, but never depicted graphically on the screen.

Ironically, by Oscar time, Lolita received only one Oscar Nomination, Best Adapted Screenplay, though little of Nabokov’s scenario was used in the picture.

Production values are polished, particularly Oswald Morris’ smooth and elegant black-and-white cinematography.

Narrative Structure (How the Plot Unfolds)

Set in the 1950s, the tale begins near the end of the story, with a confrontation between two men: one of them, Clare Quilty, drunk and incoherent, plays Chopin’s Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1 on the piano before being shot from behind a portrait painting of a young woman. The shooter is Humbert Humbert, a 40-something British professor of French literature.

The film then flashes back to events four years earlier. Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, New Hampshire, intending to spend the summer there before his professorship begins at Beardsley College, Ohio. He searches for a room to rent, and Charlotte Haze, a cloying, sexually frustrated widow, invites him to stay at her house.

At first the recently divorced Humbert is hesitant, that is until he meets her daughter, Dolores, affectionately called “Lolita,” who’s sun-bathing on the grass.  A soda-pop drinking, gum-snapping, overtly flirtatious teenager, Lolita captures Humbert’s attention right away.

To be close to Lolita, Humbert accepts Charlotte’s offer and becomes a lodger in the household. But Charlotte wants all of “Hum’s” time for herself and soon announces she will be sending Lolita to an all-girl sleepaway camp for the summer.

After the Hazes depart for camp, the maid gives Humbert a letter from Charlotte, in which she confesses her love for him and demanding that he vacate her place at once unless he feels the same way. The letter says that if Humbert is still in the house when she returns, Charlotte will know that her love is requited, signaling a marriage. Though he roars with laughter while reading the sadly heartfelt yet pretentiously overblown letter, Humbert consents to marrying Charlotte.

Things turn sour for the couple in the absence of the child: Humbert becomes more withdrawn, and brassy Charlotte get more whiny. Charlotte discovers Humbert’s diary entries detailing his passion for Lolita and characterizing her as “the Haze woman, the cow, the obnoxious mama, the brainless baba.” Driven by hysterical outburst, she runs outside, and is hit by a car, dying on impact.

Humbert drives to Camp Climax to pick up Lolita, who does not yet know her mother is dead. They stay the night in a hotel that is handling an overflow influx of police officers attending a convention. One of the guests, a pushy, abrasive stranger, insinuates himself upon Humbert and keeps steering the conversation to his “beautiful little daughter,” who is asleep upstairs. The stranger implies that he too is a policeman and repeats, too often, that he thinks Humbert is “normal.”

The next morning, Humbert and Lolita enter into a sexual relationship. The two commence an odyssey, traveling from hotel to motel. In public, they act as father and daughter. After several days, Humbert admits to Lolita that her mother is not ill in the hospital, as he had told her, but dead.  Grief-stricken, she stays with Humbert.

In the fall, Humbert reports to his position at Beardsley College, and enrolls Lolita in high school there. Before long, people begin to wonder about the relationship between father and his over-protected daughter. Humbert worries about her involvement with the school play and with male classmates. One night he returns home to find Dr. Zempf, a pushy, abrasive stranger, sitting in his darkened living room. Zempf, speaking with a thick German accent, claims to be from Lolita’s school and wants to discuss her knowledge of “the facts of life.” He convinces Humbert to allow Lolita to participate in the school play, for which she had been selected to play the leading role.

While attending a performance, Humbert learns that Lolita has been lying about her Saturday afternoons when she claimed to be at piano practice. They get into a row and Humbert decides to leave Beardsley College and take Lolita on the road again. Lolita objects at first but then suddenly changes her mind.

Once on the road, Humbert realizes they are followed by a mysterious car that never drops away but never quite catches up.

When Lolita becomes sick, he takes her to the hospital. However, when he returns to pick her up, she is gone. The nurse tells him that she had left with another man claiming to be her uncle. Humbert, devastated, is left clueless as to her disappearance or whereabouts.

Some years later, Humbert receives a letter from Mrs. Richard T. Schiller, the new name of Lolita, who is now married to a younger man, Dick, noting that she is pregnant and desperately needs money.

Humbert travels to their home and finds that she is now a roundly expectant woman in glasses leading a humdrum life. Upon investigation, Lolita confides that she was kidnapped by Clare Quilty, the man that was following them,  a famous playwright and with whom her mother had a fling.  Quilty is also the one who disguised himself as Dr. Zempf, the pushy stranger who kept crossing their path.

Lolita herself carried on an affair with him and left with him when he promised her glamour. However, he then demanded she join his depraved lifestyle, including acting in his “art” films, which she vehemently refused.

Humbert begs Lolita to leave her husband and come away with him, but she declines. Humbert gives Lolita $13,000, explaining it as her money from the sale of her mother’s house, and leaves to shoot Quilty in his mansion, where the story actually began.

The epilogue explains that Humbert had died of coronary thrombosis, while awaiting trial for his murder of Quilty.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Adapted): Vladimir Nabokov

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Horton Foote for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was also nominated for Best Picture.


Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Produced by James B. Harris
Screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, with uncredited contribution from Kubrick and Harris, based on the 1955 novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Music by Incidental: Nelson Riddle
Theme: Bob Harris

Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Anthony Harvey

Production companies: Seven Arts, AA Productions, Anya Pictures, Transworld Pictures

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: June 13, 1962 (US)

Running time: 152 minutes
Budget $2 million
Box office $9.25 million

James Mason as Humbert “Hum” Humbert
Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze-Humbert
Sue Lyon as Dolores “Lolita” Haze
Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty
Gary Cockrell as Richard “Dick” Schiller
Jerry Stovin as John Farlow, a Ramsdale lawyer
Diana Decker as Jean Farlow
Lois Maxwell as Nurse Mary Lore
Cec Linder as Dr. Keegee
Bill Greene as George Swine, hotel night manager in Bryceton
Shirley Douglas as Mrs. Starch, piano teacher in Ramsdale
Marianne Stone as Vivian Darkbloom, Quilty’s companion
Marion Mathie as Miss Lebone
James Dyrenforth as Frederick Beale, Sr.
Maxine Holden as Miss Fromkiss, the hospital receptionist
John Harrison as Tom
Colin Maitland as Charlie Sedgewick
C. Denier Warren as Potts