Differences between the film and the book
See also: Lolita
There are many differences between Kubrick’s film adaptation and Nabokov’s novel, including some events that were entirely omitted. Most of the sexually explicit innuendos, references and episodes in the book were taken out of the film because of the strict censorship of the 1960s; the sexual relationship between Lolita and Humbert is implied and never depicted graphically on the screen. In addition, some events in the film differ from the novel, and there are also changes in Lolita’s character. Some of the differences are listed below:
Lolita’s age, name, feelings and fate
Lolita’s age was raised from 12 to early teens in the film to meet MPAA standards. Kubrick had been warned that censors felt strongly about using a more physically developed actress, who would be seen to be at least 14. As such, Sue Lyon was chosen for the title role, partly due to her more mature appearance.
The name “Lolita” is used only by Humbert as a private pet nickname in the novel, whereas in the film several of the characters refer to her by that name. In the book, she is referred to simply as “Lo” or “Lola” or “Dolly” by the other characters. Various critics, such as Susan Sweeney, have observed that since she never calls herself “Lolita”, Humbert’s pet name denies her subjectivity. Generally, the novel gives little information about her feelings.
The film is not especially focused on Lolita’s feelings. In the medium of film, her character is inevitably fleshed out somewhat from the cipher that she remains in the novel. Nonetheless, Kubrick actually omits the few vignettes in the novel in which Humbert’s solipsistic bubble is burst and one catches glimpses of Lolita’s personal misery. Susan Bordo writes, “Kubrick chose not to include any of the vignettes from the novel which bring Lolita’s misery to the forefront, nudging Humbert’s obsession temporarily off center-stage. ...Nabokov’s wife, Vera, insisted—rightly—on ‘the pathos of Lolita’s utter loneliness.’... In Kubrick’s film, one good sobfest and dead mommy is forgotten. Humbert, to calm her down, has promised her a brand-new hi-fi and all the latest records. The same scene in the novel ends with Lolita sobbing, despite Humbert having plied her with gifts all day.” Bordo goes on to say “Emphasizing Lolita’s sadness and loss would not have jived, of course, with the film’s dedication to inflecting the ‘dark’ with the comic; it would have altered the overwhelmingly ironic, anti-sentimental character of the movie.” When the novel briefly gives us evidence of Lolita’s sadness and misery, Humbert glosses over it but the film omits nearly all of these episodes.
Critic Greg Jenkins believes that Humbert is imbued with a fundamental likability in this film that he does not necessarily have in the novel. He has a debonair quality in the film, while in the novel he can be perceived as much more repulsive. Humbert’s two mental breakdowns leading to sanatorium stays before meeting Lolita are entirely omitted in the film, as are his earlier unsuccessful relationships with women his own age (whom he refers to in the novel as “terrestrial women”) through which he tried to stabilize himself. His lifelong complexes around young girls are largely concealed in the film, and Lolita appears older than her novelistic counterpart, both leading Jenkins to comment “A story originally told from the edge of a moral abyss is fast moving toward safer ground.” In short, the novel early flags Humbert as both mentally unsound and obsessively infatuated with young girls in a way the film never does.
Jenkins notes that Humbert even seems a bit more dignified and restrained than other residents of Ramsdale, particularly Lolita’s aggressive mother, in a way that invites the audience to sympathize with Humbert. Humbert is portrayed as someone urbane and sophisticated trapped in a provincial small town populated by slightly lecherous people, a refugee from Old World Europe in an especially crass part of the New World. For example, Lolita’s piano teacher comes across in the film as aggressive and predatory compared to which Humbert seems fairly restrained. The film character of John Farlow talks suggestively of “swapping partners” at a dance in a way that repels Humbert. Jenkins believes that in the film it is Quilty, not Humbert, who acts as the embodiment of evil. The expansion of Quilty’s character and the way Quilty torments Humbert also invites the audience to sympathize with Humbert.
Because Humbert narrates the novel, his increased mental deterioration due to anxiety in the entire second half of the story is more obvious from the increasingly desperate tone of his narrative. While the film shows Humbert’s increasingly severe attempts to control Lolita, the novel shows more of Humbert’s loss of self-control and stability.
Jenkins also notes that some of Humbert’s more brutal actions are omitted or changed from the film. For example, in the novel he threatens to send Lolita to a reformatory, while in the film he promises to never send her there. He also notes that Humbert’s narrative style in the novel, although elegant, is wordy, rambling, and roundabout, whereas in the film it is “subdued and measured”.
Humbert’s infatuation with “nymphets” in the novel
The film entirely omits the critical episode in Humbert’s life in which at age 14 he was interrupted making love to young Annabel Leigh who shortly thereafter died, and consequently omits all indications that Humbert had a preoccupation with prepubescent girls prior to meeting Dolores Haze. In the novel, Humbert gives his youthful amorous relationship with Annabel Leigh, thwarted by both adult intervention and her death, as the key to his obsession with nymphets. The film’s only mention of “nymphets” is an entry in Humbert’s diary specifically revolving around Lolita.
Humbert explains that the smell and taste of youth filled his desires throughout adulthood: “that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted [him] ever since”. He thus claims that “Lolita began with Annabel” and that Annabel’s spell was broken by “incarnating her in another”.
The idea that anything connected with young girls motivated Humbert to accept the job as professor of French Literature at Beardsley College and move to Ramsdale at all is entirely omitted from the film. In the novel he first finds accommodations with the McCoo family. He accepts the professorship because the McCoos have a twelve-year-old daughter, a potential “enigmatic nymphet whom [he] would coach in French and fondle in Humbertish.” However, the McCoo house happens to burn down in the few days prior to his arrival, and this is when Mrs. Haze offers to accommodate Humbert.
Humbert’s attitudes to Charlotte
Susan Bordo has noticed that in order to show the callous and cruel side of Humbert’s personality early in the film, Nabokov and Kubrick have shown additional ways in which Humbert behaves monstrously towards her mother, Charlotte Haze. He mocks her declaration of love towards him, and takes a pleasant bath after her accidental death. This effectively replaces the voice-overs in which he discusses his plans to seduce and molest Lolita as a means of establishing Humbert as manipulative, scheming, and selfish. However, Greg Jenkins has noted that Humbert’s response to Charlotte’s love note in the film is still much kinder than that in the novel, and that the film goes to significant lengths to make Charlotte unlikable.
Expansion of Clare Quilty
Quilty’s role is greatly magnified in the film and brought into the foreground of the narrative. In the novel Humbert catches only brief uncomprehending glimpses of his nemesis before their final confrontation at Quilty’s home, and the reader finds out about Quilty late in the narrative along with Humbert. Quilty’s role in the story is made fully explicit from the beginning of the film, rather than being a concealed surprise twist near the end of the tale. In a 1962 interview with Terry Southern, Kubrick describes his decision to expand Quilty’s role, saying “just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative thread possible—because after Humbert seduces her in the motel, or rather after she seduces him, the big question has been answered—so it was good to have this narrative of mystery continuing after the seduction.” This magnifies the book’s theme of Quilty as a dark double of Humbert, mirroring all of Humbert’s worst qualities, a theme which preoccupied Kubrick.
The film opens with a scene near the end of the story, Humbert’s murder of Quilty. This means that the film shows Humbert as a murderer before showing us Humbert as a seducer of minors, and the film sets up the viewer to frame the following flashback as an explanation for the murder. The film then goes back to Humbert’s first meeting with Charlotte Haze and continues chronologically until the final murder scene is presented once again. The book, narrated by Humbert, presents events in chronological order from the very beginning, opening with Humbert’s life as a child. While Humbert hints throughout the novel that he has committed murder, its actual circumstances are not described until near the very end. NPR’s Bret Anthony Johnston notes that the novel is sort of an inverted murder mystery: you know someone has been killed, but you have to wait to find out who the victim is. Similarly, the online Doubleday publisher’s reading guide to Lolita notes “the mystery of Quilty’s identity turns this novel into a kind of detective story (in which the protagonist is both detective and criminal).” This effect is, of course, lost in the Kubrick film.
In the novel, Miss Pratt, the school principal at Beardsley, discusses with Humbert Dolores’s behavioral issues and among other things persuades Humbert to allow her to participate in the dramatics group, especially one upcoming play. In the film, this role is replaced by Quilty disguised as a school psychologist named “Dr. Zempf”. This disguise does not appear in the novel at all. In both versions, a claim is made that Lolita appears to be “sexually repressed”, as she mysteriously has no interest in boys. Both Dr. Zempf and Miss Pratt express the opinion that this aspect of her youth should be developed and stimulated by dating and participating in the school’s social activities. While Pratt mostly wants Humbert to let Dolores generally into the dramatic group, Quilty (as Zempf) is specifically focused on the high school play (written by Quilty and produced with some supervision from him) which Lolita had secretly rehearsed for (in both the film and novel). In the novel Miss Pratt naïvely believes this talk about Dolores’ “sexual repression”, while Quilty in his disguise knows the truth. Although Peter Sellers is playing only one character in this film, Quilty’s disguise as Dr. Zempf allows him to employ a mock German accent that is quintessentially in the style of Sellers’s acting.
With regard to this scene, playwright Edward Albee‘s 1981 stage adaptation of the novel follows Kubrick’s film rather than the novel.
The movie retains the novel’s theme of Quilty (anonymously) goading Humbert’s conscience on many occasions, though the details of how this theme is played out are quite different in the film. He has been described as “an emanation of Humbert’s guilty conscience”, and Humbert describes Quilty in the novel as his “shadow”.
The first and last word of the novel is “Lolita”. As film critic Greg Jenkins has noted, in contrast to the novel, the first and last word of the screenplay is “Quilty”.
Contemplating murder of Charlotte Haze
· In the novel, Humbert and Charlotte go swimming in Hourglass Lake, where Charlotte announces she will ship Lo off to a good boarding school; that part takes place in bed in the film. Humbert’s contemplation of possibly killing Charlotte similarly takes place at Hourglass Lake in the book, but at home in the film. This difference affects Humbert’s contemplated method of killing Charlotte. In the book he is tempted to drown her in the lake, whereas in the film he considers the possibility of shooting her with a pistol while in the house, in both scenarios concluding that he could never bring himself to do it. In his biography of Kubrick, Vincent LoBrutto notes that Kubrick tried to recreate Hourglass Lake in a studio, but became uncomfortable shooting such a pivotally important exterior scene in the studio, so he refashioned the scene to take place at home. Susan Bordo notes that after Charlotte’s actual death in the film, two neighbors see Humbert’s gun and falsely conclude Humbert is contemplating suicide, while in fact he had been contemplating killing Charlotte with it.
· The same attempted killing of Charlotte appears in the “Deleted Scenes” section of the DVD of the 1997 film (now put back at Hourglass Lake). In the novel Humbert really considers killing Charlotte and later Lolita accuses Humbert of having deliberately killed her. Only the first scene is in the 1962 film and only the latter scene appears in the 1997 film.
Lolita’s friends at school
· Lolita’s friend, Mona Dahl, is a friend in Ramsdale (the first half of the story) in the film and disappears quite early in the story. In the film, Mona is simply the host of a party which Lolita abandons early in the story. Mona is a friend of Lolita’s in Beardsley (the second half of the story) in the novel. In the novel Mona is active in the school play, Lolita tells Humbert stories about Mona’s love life, and Humbert notes Mona had “long since ceased” to be (if ever she was) a “nymphet”. Mona has already had an affair with a Marine and appears to be flirting with Humbert. She keeps Lolita’s secrets and helps Lolita lie to Humbert when Humbert discovers that Lolita has been missing her piano lessons. In the film, Mona in the second half seems to have been replaced by a “Michele” who is also in the play and having an affair with a Marine and backs up Lolita’s fibs to Humbert. Film critic Greg Jenkins claims that Mona has simply been entirely eliminated from the film.
· Humbert is suspicious that Lolita is developing an interest in boys at various times throughout the story. He suspects no one in particular in the novel. In the film, he is twice suspicious of a pair of boys, Rex and Roy, who hang out with Lolita and her friend Michele. In the novel, Mona has a friend named Roy.
· In the novel, the first mutual attraction between Humbert and Lolita begins because Humbert resembles a celebrity she likes. In the film, it occurs at a drive-in horror film when she grabs his hand. The scene is from Christopher Lee’s The Curse of Frankenstein when the monster removes his mask. Christine Lee Gengaro proposes that this suggests that Humbert is a monster in a mask, and the same theory is developed at greater length by Jason Lee. As in the novel, Lolita shows affection for Humbert before she departs for summer camp.
· In the novel, both the hotel at which Humbert and Dolores first have relations and the stage-play by Quilty for which Dolores prepares to perform in at her high school is called The Enchanted Hunter. However, in the novel school headmistress Pratt erroneously refers to the play as The Hunted Enchanter. In Kubrick’s film, the hotel bears the same name as in the novel, but now the play really is called The Hunted Enchanter. Both names are established only through signage – the banner for the police convention at the hotel and the marquee for the play – the names are never mentioned in dialogue.
· The relationships between Humbert and other women before and after Lolita is omitted from the film. Greg Jenkins sees this as part of Kubrick’s general tendency to simplify his narratives, also noting that the novel therefore gives us a more “seasoned” view of Humbert’s taste in women.
· Only the film has a police convention at the hotel where Humbert allows Lolita to seduce him. Kubrick scholar Michel Ciment sees this as typical of Kubrick’s general tendency to assail authority figures.
· Lolita completes the school play (written by Clare Quilty) in the film, but drops out prior to finishing it in the novel. In the film, we see that Quilty’s play has suggestive symbolism, and Humbert’s confrontation with Lolita over her missing her piano lessons occurs after her triumphal debut in the play’s premiere.