Lolita (1962): The hoodwinked narrator
21 January 2013
In order to fully do justice to Lolita as a film, you have to keep in mind a few things. There is sex promised early on, and when that is midway abandoned, some readers lose interest. The nature of that sex is reprehensible, but the narrator is a silver-tongued deviant in the throes of a dreamy adoration, which altogether has popularized a reading of the book as dark comedy.
It really seems to be the only way we can safely accept Lolita, outside those tediously pedagogical dissertations taught in college classrooms which you may have had inflicted upon you. My copy of the book makes sure anyone reaching for it in a bookstore shelf knows upfront it’s meant to be a comedy, critics are quoted front and back saying so. The book is hilarious of course, and no film adaptation can afford to miss that humor, but there is more.
(The keys to Nabokov’s work can be said to be in Anna Karenina.)
The peculiar beauty of the book is in the way it is presented.
A helpful hint of Nabokov’s main stratagem, is that the narrator has burnt his ‘diaries’ and sets out to reinvent from scratch the story in the book — as he tells it again he embellishes, obsesses, possibly reinvents himself and situations, and the more he does, an allusive narrative haze begins to swallow the author, as it has previously done the reader.
Most powerful for me is this notion — recurring in a dozen different stratagems scattered through the book — that the narrator should have ‘known’ the story all along or has written it before, but because of his uncommon fixations, it eludes him, and the loss of that story manifests around him in an absurd manner.
Kubrick has not outright missed any of these aspects; the film is a comedy, the sex is implicit as in the book, there is paranoid tension with something ‘amiss’ in the story, to that effect the film begins with someone driving through a haze. But he has sacrificed subtler shades in almost everything.
The narrator is presented as a hapless square — James Mason was probably the worst possible choice. Gone is his desire to capriciously invent and digress. The mother has been reduced to a shrill religious freak. There is nary a hint at Lolita’s mental disintegration save for a temper tantrum. Worst of all is the treatment of the narrator’s nemesis, the ubiquitous Quilty. (Guilty?)
In the book Quilty is presented as something of a literary genius, a worthy intellectual opponent who continuously hoodwinks the narrator. But here’s the kick — we never know who Quilty is until the end, and when that happens, he conspicuously mirrors the narrator, pleading, unpredictable, faking his stupor but sometimes lucid.
In the film, he is the first person we meet. He is, as we go on to find, a goofy TV scribe in disguise a number of times. This is meant to emphasize that the narrator should be aware he is being toyed with and the story slipping him, but somehow isn’t. But, the obvious disguises and blabbing Sellers completely ruin the ambiguous effect.
The latenight phonecall in the motel is a much better device, to my recollection not in the book and quite possibly one of the few items in Nabokov’s film script that Kubrick retained (most of it is Kubrick’s work with an associate). It is an excellent device, because it wakes up the narrator in the middle of the night and he cannot make head or tails of what is going on.
But see, in order for it to work, we have to not be able to spot out Sellers’ prankish voice.