Why Lolita’s Author Initially Refused To Write The Screenplay For Stanley Kubrick

The eventual film version of “Lolita” would star James Mason as Humbert Humbert, and Shelley Winters as Lolita’s mother Charlotte. Lolita herself was played by Sue Lyon, who turned 15 during production. In order to placate various decency and censorship bodies, Lolita’s age was left vague in the script, and any scenes of sexuality were left mercifully in the realm of cheeky jokes and “wink wink” implications. Despite the dark subject matter, the film version of “Lolita” plays like a slapstick satire more than an opulent essay on America’s lost soul. 

Nabokov himself would co-write the screenplay with Kubrick, a curious detail, given that the film strays from the book in multiple ways. The screenplay for Kubrick’s film was eventually published in 1997, about the time director Adrian Lyne was making his own, more faithful film adaptation. In a forward, Nabokov said — in his brilliant prose — that he initially and staunchly refused to write a screenplay for “Lolita.” He had spent five years writing the novel and felt that the work was complete. In Nabokov’s words: 

“They had acquired the film rights of ‘Lolity’ [sic] in 1958, and were now asking me to come over to Hollywood and write the script. The honorarium they offered was considerable, but the idea of tampering with my own novel caused me only revulsion.”

Nabokov, a lepidopterist, was only concerned at the time with his hobby. Given that butterflies weren’t entirely plentiful, he decided to entertain the Hollywood studios’ ideas. Nabokov’s works have only been adapted to film seven times. “Lolita” was to be his first movie.

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