“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” was the question posed by the posters advertising Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s famously controversial novel, released on this day in 1962.
Four years earlier, Kubrick, director of the big-budget Roman epic Spartacus (1960), and his partner, producer James B. Harris, bought the film rights to Nabokov’s masterfully crafted novel. Its plot revolved around the middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his unseemly obsession with young girls—whom he called “nymphets”—and with one young girl in particular, Dolores Haze, or Lolita. Nabokov received sole credit for the screenplay, which had in fact been significantly revised by Kubrick and Harris after the novelist initially submitted a 400-page draft. He later cut it down at their request, but the filmmakers still made extensive changes.
One of Kubrick’s biggest challenges was finding an actress to play the title character. Child stars Tuesday Weld and Hayley Mills were reportedly among those actresses considered for the role. After a nationwide casting search, the filmmakers eventually settled on 14-year-old Sue Lyon, who had appeared on television but would be making her big-screen debut. Though the character of Lolita was only 12 years old in Nabokov’s book, her age was increased to 14 or 15 in the screenplay in order to lessen the implication of pedophilia. James Mason starred as Humbert; Noel Coward, David Niven and Rex Harrison had all been possibilities but had declined due to fears about playing the unsympathetic character. In supporting roles, Shelley Winters played Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, and the famed comic actor Peter Sellers was Quilty, a mysterious character whose role in the plot Kubrick significantly expanded from the novel.
The film’s posters played up the controversial nature of the film’s content and the book’s reputation, using the provocative tagline above a picture of Lyon-as-Lolita, wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and a seductive expression, with a lollipop in her mouth. Lolita received mixed reviews—The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was one critic who raved about the film—but its acting was widely praised. The film earned one Academy Award nomination, for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Kubrick himself lamented that due to opposition from the film industry’s censorship group, known as the Production Code, and the Roman Catholic League of Decency, and their threats to ban the movie, he couldn’t give proper weight to Humbert’s erotic obsession with Lolita. When interviewed by Newsweek magazine in 1972, Kubrick said that he “probably wouldn’t have made the film” if he had known how severe the censorship standards would be. Another big-screen Lolita was released in 1997, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Jeremy Irons and the then-unknown 15-year-old Dominique Swain. Though it bombed at the box office, the film was seen by many as a more accurate depiction of Nabokov’s novel than Kubrick’s had been.