And now we are getting into the good stuff!
Again, hard for me to rewatch any of these due to time constraints, but I’ve seen everything but Kubrick-fest 00 and 01 at least 4 times, so I’ll keep posting my opinions if you guys don’t mind.
My thoughts on Lolita are complex. See, the novel is perhaps into my top 10 novels of all time list, up there with Moby Dick and War and Peace. It’s just so subtly subversive and the best example of an unreliable narrator I have ever seen, since it does never resolve the unreliableness (btw, however ever thought of the novel as erotic or something like that needs serious counseling, but I digress).
So I can’t really see the movie on its own, since I can’t really ignore the source. For the rest of Kubrick’s oeuvre I can evaluate the movie on it’s own since I either don’t know/haven’t read the source (most of them) or the movie is clearly superior to, and elevates, the source (Shining, 2001). Of everything else by Kubrick perhaps only the Clockwork Orange comes closer to Lolita as having a difficult to ignore source material, but even there the movie stands on its own for me in a way this doesn’t.
And the problem is that as an adaptation the movie does everything perfectly but for one thing. Any change to the book’s plot is for the better, imho. Also, Peter Sellers. But the the irony and social critique of the novel, the dark sense of humor, the oppressive presence of Quilty… Everything is in there…
…except the whole point of the book. Which granted, might have been impossible to do in film, but still, quite a thing to miss.
The whole novel is Humbert’s memoir, written from prison while awaiting trial. And this is, we realize, a deeply intelligent individual, good with words. It is a confession of shorts. Yes, the book seem exculpatory (to an extent) of a really deplorable character, but the point is that it is indeed an attempt by that same character to frame himself in a good light (even his name is a pseudonym, as acknowledged in the preface). Perhaps even to help himself in the upcoming trial. The whole point being that you can’t really take at face value anything in the book, but must always wonder why the stuff you read is there and why the stuff that is not there has been omitted. It’s a book you have to read against, trying to grasp what the writer of the memoir (an abuser and pedophile) was trying to hide in order to get some insight in what was really going on, since everything you see is not only through his eyes, but also manipulated by him for our reading. And in that way it manages to be a very challenging book that can be read time after time and always offer something more to discover in between the lines (and thus why it’s in my personal hall of fame).
How do you do that in film? Hell if I know, but the movie sadly doesn’t either. It has a prologue so you know where things end, but as a framing device it is certainly much less successful than the novel’s, and I think it doesn’t really add anything here.
I still like the movie a lot (how can’t one love a film with Peter Sellers acting like that?) and I think the censorship actually helped here (the novel is far from explicit, and everything even slightly suggestive is restricted to the first third or so, but the movie even dials back on this) since without the framing device everything in the movie is necessarily more “textually” true, so the extra subtlety is welcomed. It is definitely more “Kubrickian” than Spartacus and much closer to his peak. More multilayered and modern than Paths of Glory, although perhaps less clear in his intentions (which is neither good or bad).
Also, I believe it marks the beginning of Kubrick’s infatuation with improvisation on set, thanks to Peter Sellers presence there and his otherworldly improv skills. This, I think, is the hallmark of Kubrick’s best work (which I know it’s not the usual stick about carefully composed shots, but I stand by it, since in most cases the careful composed shot come after the improvisation has discovered what will be shot), taken to an extreme (perhaps too much of an extreme) in Strangelove, but responsible for the most memorable scenes in pretty much any of his movies from now on. So perhaps I can argue with @Navaronegun about Kubrick’s most important film for his career, since I think this is it, in terms of his evolution as a director. He has better movies (imho) later on, but it’s here where he finally is in command of all the skills he will later deploy. Without Peter Sellers there’s no Kubrick.