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Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

Analysis: Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita”

October 15, 2011

The novel, Lolita, on which the screenplay is based, has been called one of the best books ever written, an opinion we do not wish to affirm or refute. Our analysis is centered on Kubrick’s 1962 screenplay although it includes aspects of the original story by Vladimir Nabokov. We have analyzed a number of other Kubrick films and it is his work and motivation that primarily interests us. 

Although the film is typically deemed comedic erotica, a tale of misguided sexual obsession, we do not see it as evidencing much humor or irony, nor does Kubrick display more than vague allusions to an erotic element. Nabokov’s book was considered “tragicomedy,” but both the book and screenplay tell a story best understood as a tragedy. Kubrick’s attempt to add humor via Peter Sellers’ character, Clare Quilty, is akin to someone dressing up as the Easter Rabbit to attend a funeral. The Quilty character is ridiculous, absurd, and unfunny—Peter Sellers’ worst performance. 

Likewise, the scene where James Mason’s character, Humbert, laughs uproariously at Charlotte Haze’s love-letter-ultimatum is exaggerated and adds nothing of substance to temper or enrich the audience’s grasp of the deeply tragic nature of the true theme of the story—an examination of three individuals: Humbert, Charlotte, and Dolores/Dolly/Lolita, each suffering an all too common existential angst, who hopelessly attempt to fill the frightening vacuum of alienation in their lives by resorting to solutions doomed from the outset. All three are emotionally damaged people seeking substitution for earlier losses of affection. 

Humbert never recovered from the shocking death of his childhood sweetheart, a loss compounded by a divorce in later years. His “arrested development,” which probably undermined the marriage, causes him to fixate on Lolita as the abnormal answer to his need for love and affection. Regardless of her “sexual precociousness,” age difference alone makes any real relationship impossible. His fantasy, of course, falls apart. 

Charlotte had loved the husband who died and left her alone with Dolores/Lolita. Her devotion to her dead husband, together with her strict moral code and desire to set a proper example for Dolores, has prevented her from considering taking a lover, and until Humbert arrives to rent a room, no prospect for remarriage has been presented. Mistaking pent-up sexual desire for love, Charlotte gives Humbert a childish love letter that also serves as a marriage proposal cum ultimatum. Humbert has shown no sign that he feels love—or even affection—for her. The marriage is obviously doomed from the outset. 

Dolores is twelve years old. Her father died when she was five—old enough to have formed a normal emotional bond. Yet she has had no father figure in her life for seven years and no apparent guidance during sexual maturation. Not surprisingly, she does not accept her mother as a role model or source of advice. When Humbert becomes her stepfather it adds desperation to her alienation and confusion about affection and sexual behavior. There are also signs of earlier sexual abuse by Mr. Quilty. 

The film is better perceived as a case study and sad commentary on human nature than as entertainment. We believe Kubrick’s mission was to subtly educate, influence, and challenge his audience to avoid making poor choices in forming intimate relationships. This positive agenda appears to be expressed in Kubrick’s final scenes where he shows Lolita with a loving husband and plans for a future that promises happiness, whereas the book ends with her dying while giving birth to a stillborn child on Christmas Day in Grey Star, Alaska.

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