Analysis: Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita”

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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6 Responses to “Analysis: Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita””

  1. FassbinderFan Says:

    The key to the film is that it is about all sex and love. Both are irrational, illusional and borne of unsatisfiable desire. It’s not about paedophillia.

  2. PluribusOne™ Says:

    We see no indication that Kubrick intended the film to bear a message about ALL sex and love, or to advance the idea that sex and love are inherently irrational and involve desires that cannot be satisfied.

    How many widows become sexually-repressed delusional dingbats? How many twelve-year-old girls are sexually active with men three or four times their age? How many middle-aged men fantasize about or engage in sexual activity with pre-teen children? The characters are worthy of study because they are not—to be kind—typical reasonably well-adjusted human beings. They represent deeply troubled individuals tragically seeking love and sexual attention in “all the wrong places.”

    The film DOES in fact portray pedophilia, the definition of which is “sexual desire of an adult for a child,” the practice of which is a crime in civilized nations. Humbert is emotionally unwell, and Kubrick makes that more than clear. The Quilty character is worse: a substance-abusing pedophile and pornographer. The film gives no clue as to the cause of Quilty’s mental illness.

  3. Stark Raven Says:

    Alan, if you had to identify the one most important “moral” to this sad story, what would you say? As a psychotherapist and family man, I have my opinion. What’s yours?

  4. PluribusOne™ Says:

    For me, the most important moral of this story is that our society (USA and elsewhere) needs to recognize the importance of a healthy father-child relationship in the home, whether the child is a son or daughter. Now, I need to elaborate on that.

    A father’s positive influence on a young son helps guide the son in developing appropriate and mutually satisfactory relationships with females throughout his life. A father’s healthy relationship with a young daughter establishes a foundation for her relationships with males—in school, in the workplace, in seeking a mate, etc.

    Of course, the father’s treatment of the mother, and his interaction with other women (and men), is a large part of that influencing. I do not consider my view old-fashioned, as some might accuse. I see it as recognizing certain principles foundational to a strong society, one that deserves to endure as a civilization. Uncivilized behavior has the reverse effect. I see this as being objectively factual, not just a matter of my opinion.

    Laws cannot enforce morality. It must come from within each individual, and the implanting of healthy values is primarily the responsibility—and perhaps the primary responsibility—of fathers. Unfortunately, the government (USA) and even its courts have lost sight of the importance of maintaining the family unit or backing the role of the father as head-of-household. Instead, there is more support for divisiveness than unity. That my view is controversial indicates how far our society has already degenerated.

    Divorces are often granted when there is no legal or moral basis or practical necessity. Misguided—often psychologically troubled—spouses and officers of the courts daily engage in what any reasonable person would have to call fraud. At a minimum, the divorce process should require in-depth psychological examination of plaintiffs (and also defendants) who more often need the attention of mental health professionals than they need advice from parasitic legal counsel.

    I don’t think it was coincidental that Kubrick was married and had a daughter. He was certainly aware that the fabric of our society is steadily breaking down. I have not seen any writing that describes in any detail his relationship with his daughter or with his wife. However, I suspect that the breakdown of the family unit in our society troubled him deeply enough to make this movie.

  5. Craig Stephenson. Says:

    Hello Alan, thanks for an excellent review. The book is indeed a real tragedy about three damaged individuals. What i would really love to see from you is a review of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”. Particularly with reference to the occult symbolism within the film, and what seems to me to be Nicole Kidman’s character’s propensity to not merely change moods, but to actually change personality. The film seemed to meet with a tirade of unfavourable criticism upon it’s release. I can’t help but feel from what i have read that a lot of film critics missed some of what Kubrick was trying to communicate through the film (perhaps “missed” deliberately?) and that some of the criticism was perhaps orchestrated. I’m no fan of Kidman (Mickey Rourke’s “ice cube” label seems about right), but i feel she did a great job portraying exactly what i think Kubrick was trying to get across to his audience. Would love to hear your thoughts on the film.

  6. PluribusOne™ Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I actually did do an analysis of “Eyes Wide Shut,” in March, 2010. Let me know what you think of it.

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