“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” With great difficulty! The infamous tagline to Stanley Kubrick‘s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is both a tantalising tease of the film itself, as well as an exasperated admission of compromise. Nabokov’s book – first published in 1955 – is one of the best texts of the 20th century, yet the feature – sandwiched in between Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove - is one of Kubrick’s minor entries. Why the disconnect?

As has been argued on this blog time and again, an excellent book does not necessarily make for an excellent screenplay. Central to Nabokov’s novel is the narration of Humbert Humbert, the viciously funny sexual predator who falls head over heels in love with 12-year-old Dolores Haze (or, as he calls her: Dolly, Lo, and Lolita). Needless to say, it’s a black comedy, and Nabokov walks a fine line by having us experience the world through Humbert’s sad, sharp-witted eyes. In Kubrick’s take, the narration is only occasionally indulged, and Humbert is portrayed affably and with almost bumbling innocence by James Mason. As for Lolita herself (Sue Lyon), she’s been aged up slightly to please the censors. Their sexual encounters are merely alluded to, and the underlying trauma caused by the relationship (wickedly ignored by Humbert in the book) is barely referenced here.

Then again, a more faithful adaptation isn’t necessarily the answer, as that’s exactly what Adrian Lyne attempted in his 1997 version. If forced to choose between a slavish reproduction, and Kubrick’s own quirky vision, we go with the latter. Besides, minor Kubrick is still major cinema, and Lolita remains a mighty intriguing watch. The gist of Nabokov’s dark sense of humour has been retained, if under somewhat different circumstances. Lyon gives a fantastic performance, as does Shelley Winters as Lolita’s totally unsuspecting mother Charlotte.

The real star here is Peter Sellers, in the role of Clare Quilty; the fiendish cad who steals Lo away from Humbert. The part has been expanded significantly, and portrayed with gusto by disguise-loving Sellers. His charming turn as the primary antagonist threatens to suck all of our sympathy for Humbert; though, I suppose, we shouldn’t feel for either demented gent. At least that moral subversion is intact.