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Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, as part of the Paris-based Olympia Press Traveller’s Companion books, a series of louche and sometimes avant-garde fiction. Lolita was both: A rapturous first-person account of a middle-aged European’s passion for a prepubescent “nymphet”, the novel was resplendent with Nabokov’s usual wordplay, puzzles and recondite allusions. Quite apart from its erotic content, Lolita would seem an unlikely best seller in Eisenhower’s America, but when Putnam published an edition in 1958, it sold faster than any American novel since Gone with the Wind. A month later, Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights for $150,000 (£87,500), despite the considerable challenge of making a movie that would satisfy the censors. Meeting with Nabokov the following summer, in 1959, Kubrick tried to entice the great Russian-American novelist to write the screenplay himself. Nabokov gave the matter some thought, but finally declined. “A particular stumbling block,” his wife, Véra, wrote Kubrick’s partner, James Harris, was “the [filmmakers’] idea of having the two main protagonists” – Lolita Haze and her 40-something lover, Humbert Humbert – “married with an adult relative’s blessing”.
A few months later, back in Europe, Nabokov “experienced a small nocturnal illumination” as to how he might fruitfully proceed with an adaptation of Lolita – whereupon, as if by magic, a telegram from Kubrick materialised: “Convinced you were correct dislike marriage Stop Book a masterpiece and should be followed even if Legion and Code disapprove Stop Still believe you are only one for screenplay Stop If financial details can be agreed would you be available.” Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar negotiated a deal whereby Nabokov would receive $40,000 (£23,300) for writing the screenplay and an additional $35,000 (£20,400) if he received sole credit, and in March 1960 the novelist came to California and rented a villa in Brentwood Heights. As he later recalled in his foreword to the published screenplay, “Kubrick and I, at his Universal City studio, debated in an amiable battle of suggestion and countersuggestion how to adapt the novel. He accepted all my vital points, I accepted some of his less significant ones.” Meanwhile, with the help of Lazar and his wife, the Nabokovs were introduced to the Hollywood cocktail circuit. “I’m in pictures,” John Wayne explained when Nabokov cordially inquired about his line of work.
Soon the writer’s days were consumed with a task that, to his surprise, he found rather pleasurable. Something of a cinephile since his émigré days in Berlin and Paris, Nabokov had a keen understanding of the medium, and while he stuck to the basic characters and story line of his book, each scene was dramatised with the camera eye in mind. On page two of the novel, for example, a fraught parenthetical explanation – “(picnic, lightning)” – is given for the death of Humbert’s mother; in the screenplay, Nabokov elaborates the tragedy as follows:
…she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.
A Mountain Meadow – A thunderhead advancing above sharp cliffs
Several people scramble for shelter, and the first big drops of rain strike the zinc of a lunchbox. As the poor lady in white runs toward the pavilion of a lookout, a blast of livid light fells her. Her graceful spectre floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.
As one may gather from this passage, the lucidity and wit of Nabokov’s writing – the “rain strik[ing] the zinc of a lunchbox”, that “blast of livid light” – make this perhaps the most readable of screenplays, which was perhaps what Kubrick and Harris meant when they declared it the best ever written in Hollywood. The genius of the novel, however, resides above all in the first-person narration of Humbert Humbert – the hilarious disparity between what he imparts so lyrically to the reader and what little he can actually say to the gum-snapping nymphet – whereas a screenplay, no matter how gorgeously written, is confined mostly to the latter: dialogue. It’s hard to film a prose style.
Every two weeks or so, Nabokov and Kubrick would meet to discuss the author’s progress, and Nabokov was bemused by the director’s increasing reticence: “By midsummer,” he recalled in his foreword, “I did not feel quite sure whether Kubrick was serenely accepting whatever I did or silently rejecting everything.” It’s possible the man was daunted by the sheer abundance of Nabokov’s imagination; in any event, when presented with a 400-page first draft, Kubrick was emboldened to point out that such a film would likely run almost seven hours: too long, even by art-house standards. Obligingly Nabokov cut his script to a more manageable length (“Prologue, 10 [minutes]; Act One, 40; Act Two, 30; Act Three, 50”), and Kubrick said it was fine. During their last meeting, on September 25, 1960, Kubrick showed Nabokov some photographs of the actress Sue Lyon – “a demure nymphet of fourteen or so”, Nabokov observed, a little deploringly, though Kubrick assured him that she “could be easily made to look younger and grubbier” for the part of Lolita.
Almost two years passed, during which Nabokov heard suspiciously little from his collaborator in Hollywood. Finally, though, he was invited to the movie’s New York premiere at the Loew’s State Theatre in Times Square (“horrible seats”, Nabokov noted in his diary), where a crowd of fans pressed around his limo “hoping to glimpse James Mason but finding only the placid profile of a stand-in for Hitchcock”, as the portly novelist remembered. By then he was all the more placid for knowing the worst: “A few days before, at a private screening, I had discovered that Kubrick was a great director, that his Lolita was a first-rate film with magnificent actors and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used.” As it happened, Kubrick and Harris had decided to cut the entire backstory (including that zany vignette in the Alps) and begin with Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale; moreover, Kubrick had encouraged his actors to improvise – especially Peter Sellers, with whose genius he became “besotted”, according to James Mason.
Nabokov affected to be at peace with it, somewhat mollified by the $35,000 (£20,400) he did, in fact, receive for sole screenwriting credit; besides, he looked forward to publishing his own version someday – “not in pettish refutation of a munificent film but purely as a vivacious variant of an old novel”. It’s hard to say whether he was gratified or amused, later, when he was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar – Lolita’s only nomination – but lost out to Horton Foote for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Below are six pages from Nabokov’s Lolita screenplay, with notes in his handwriting. The insertions and deletions don’t appear in the published text.