Vladimir Nabokov’s witty, grotesque novel is, in its film version, like a bee from which the stinger has been removed. It still buzzes with a sort of promising irreverence, but it lacks the power to shock and, eventually, makes very little point either as comedy or satire. The novel has been stripped of its pubescent heroine and most of its lively syntax, graphic honesty and sharp observations on people and places in a land abundant with cliches.
The result is an occasionally amusing but shapeless film about a middleaged professor who comes to no good end through his involvement with a well-developed teenager. The fact that the first third of the picture is so good, bristling with Nabokovisms – a gun, for example, referred to as a tragic treasure – underscores the final disappointment.
There is much about the film that is excellent. James Mason has never been better than he is as erudite Humbert Humbert, driven by a furious passion for a rather slovenly, perverse ‘nymphet’ (a term, incidentally, wwhich is used only once in the entire film). He is especially good in the early sequences as he pursues Lolita to the point where he even marries her mother, whom Shelley Winters plays to bumptious perfection.
Matching these two performances is that of Peter Sellers who, as a preposterously smug American playwright (Mason’s rival for Lolita’s affections), gets a chance to run through several hilarious changes of character.
Sue Lyon makes an auspicious film debut as the deceitful child-woman who’d just as soon go to a movie as romp in the hay. It’s a difficult assignment and if she never quite registers as either wanton or pathetic it may be due as much to the compromises of the script as to her inexperience.
1962: Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay