Book to Movie Challenge - Lolita

This year I'm participating in Doing Dewey's Book to Movie Challenge and Lolita is the first book and movie I chose. Even though I'd heard a lot about this story over the years I'd never actually read Nabokov's Lolita before, nor seen either Kubrick's 1962 or Lyne's 1997 film adaptations.

Here are my reviews of each -

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov 

This book was hard to read for a variety of reasons. Humbert's obsession with Lolita was disturbing to say the least and I detested his use of blackmail to keep her by his side (he essentially kidnaps her and imprisons her for his sexual pleasure). Lolita may be precocious and flirtatious, but she is still an innocent child in many respects and this made his relationship with her utterly disgusting. 

Humbert talks a lot about loving the 'down' of a young girl - her soft body hair not yet affected by the hormones of puberty. He is in love with the girl-child, the 'nymphet' and Lolita is the embodiment of his desire for innocent flesh. Their love affair is nothing more than a way for him to indulge his fantasies. I felt sorry for Lolita who clearly falls victim to his deviance. 

That being said, Lolita has her own issues and uses Humbert's insanity and naivety against him. She is no wallflower, at least not by the end of the novel. She might enter the relationship out of curiosity and playfulness, but it clearly becomes a trap for her quite quickly.  

I found myself disliking Humbert and his narration the further I got in the story. The novel is broken up into two parts and I had a tough time getting through the second part. By this time I'd lost interest in Humbert's crazy, meandering, laborious narrative. The book has been called a masterpiece of dark comedy, but I struggled to find the humour (even dark humour) in this story. Humbert is clearly deluded, a self-absorbed lunatic, and completely messed up. I didn't see him as funny or heart-breaking at all.  

The book's description says it is full of 'ingenious word play', but to me Nabokov's use of language was at times irritating and far too complicated. Interspersing the narrative with French phrases and the over-the-top use of a large vocabulary was not, in my opinion, a genius way of writing. It interrupted the flow and took me out of the story too often for my liking. The 'genius' of this might actually be that Nabokov wrote the novel this way to show just how pompous Humbert is. I came to hate Humbert intensely, so if indeed that was Nabokov's intention his controversial novel 'Lolita' is certainly a success!   

Lolita - directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1962 

For me watching Kubrick's Lolita was a very difference experience than reading the book. Kubrick obviously saw the dark comedy of Nabokov's novel because his film adaptation is full of humour! Humbert's awkwardness is pretty hilarious and I found myself laughing a lot throughout the movie. Due to its year of production, Lolita herself is much older in this film (16) and this made the whole love affair a little less disturbing. In this film Lolita's flirtatious nature is at the forefront of their entire relationship - she is far more seductive and accountable for how things turn out.

The film wasn't menacing enough in my opinion. James Mason's bumbling portrayal meant I found myself feeling a little sympathetic for Humbert as he came up against Lolita's manipulative ways. The character of Quilty is given a much bigger role in the film than the book and while I enjoyed watching the remarkable Peter Sellers, I was confused by this and found it absurd. I wasn't amused by his game-playing. On the other hand, the character of Charlotte, who is barely given any page time in the novel, is much more developed in Kubrick's film. Shelley Winters played Charlotte's desperation perfectly and because of this I really got to understand the character a lot more.  

Kubrick's film was too different to Nabokov's novel (even though Nabokov worked on the script!), so much so that I didn't feel I was even watching an adaptation. The essence of the story was there, but as Lolita was older and Humbert was less creepy, I didn't feel as disgusted by their affair as I had done in the book. I admire Kubrick for taking on such a controversial story (especially in the 60s!) and it's a fine movie on its own, but to me it wasn't a good adaptation.

Lolita - directed by Adrian Lyne, 1997 

I really enjoyed Adrian Lyne's adaptation. It was more faithful to the novel and I felt Lyne at least attempted to convey the menacing nature of the story. He didn't succeed completely however. While Jeremy Irons' portrayal of Humbert was intense and haunting, he does come across as a hopeless romantic, desperate for love, and this made him a little sympathetic. Nabokov's book does touch on why Humbert is attracted to young girls (the memory of his first love still haunts him), but it is the sweet, hopeful opening of Lyne's film that really made me feel for Humbert and start to (slightly) understand where he was coming from. For me, Nabokov's overly pompous narrative didn't allow me to fully feel for Humbert in this same way.

Lolita is the right age in this film (12) and is expertly played by Dominique Swain. I found myself feeling just as disgusted by Humbert's predatory actions here as I'd been while reading the book. I know this all comes down to Lolita's age. She is so innocent here, with braces and pigtails. It makes their sexual relationship all the more repulsive. Lyne's Lolita is still flirtatious and sexually curious in her way, but she isn't as overtly seductive as Kubrick's Lolita. 

The characters of Charlotte and Quilty are both put back into their barely-there place, as in the book. Melanie Griffith doesn't really get a chance to show Charlotte's true desperation, but I felt this was fitting to Nabokov's original story so it didn't bother me. Likewise, Quilty is a man of the shadows just like he is in the book, which I found to be very well done by Frank Langella. 

Lyne's adaptation is more melancholic than the book. It is full of longing, desperation and hopelessness. Dare I say it, I felt sorry for Humbert at the end. Even though he has taken advantage of an innocent young girl and robbed her of her childhood, I could see his aching heart and warped mentality at play here. I was very happy to see the humour (dark or otherwise) missing from this adaptation as I feel this story isn't funny in any way.

In the book I felt Humbert was lying a lot, exaggerating, rambling and just completely insane. Neither movie managed to capture this or portray him in this way. Humbert is much more sympathetic and hopeless in both films, so in my eyes neither film is a perfect example of what a reader would find in the novel.


  1. I myself have only seen the latest adaption but the plot itself is really daring. What a sick and yet brilliant mind..

    I wonder how this book/plot would work in a nowadays context.. I assume it would be terrible and yet, I'm fascinated by the idea. IN the movie adaption it seemed Lolita herself played with the man, clearly, she was the kind of "she was asking for it" type of excuse rapist tend to throw around. Okay, I'm getting carried away with my thoughts.. This made me over-think so this means these reviews are good!

  2. Very well written and insightful review. I have only seen the original movie and remember what a stir it caused when released. I agree that while Peter Sellers was fascinating to watch I was totally lost by his portrayal of Quilty and the Professor. James Mason was bumbling as Humbert and for me the standout performance was Shelley Winters. My next task will be to watch the 1997 adaption.

  3. I agree with KG - great review! I would have guessed that the movies would be significantly more disturbing, since I often find things that are difficult to read about even harder to watch. Instead it sounds as though the movie was a pretty different experience from the book in that regard because of the differences in the way Humbert is portrayed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

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