1962 / Stanley Kubrick > Say what you want about the Hays Code, but Lolita is a clear example of where it worked wonders: Kubrick was forced to adapt Nabokov’s classic for the screen with a level of creative subtlety that allowed its sexual proclivity to be hidden in plain sight. As the word “Lolita” itself has become part of our everyday vocabulary, it’s now nearly impossible to go into the film with any expectation of shock. Thus the film not doling around on the erotic and, instead, focusing on the madman-at-hand actually benefits the storytelling. Admittedly, it lacks the in-depth analysis of Humbert Humbert, played so tautly by James Mason, but what it leaves to our imagination is much more preferable. We’re allowed to fill in the gaps of what kind of background forces upon an older man the preference of younger, so-called “nymphettes” instead of women of similar age.
Unlike the novel, which is written from the viewpoint of a highly unreliable, subjective narrator, the film takes a couple of steps back but still keeps us within arms’ reach of the situation. Across from Mason, 16-year-old Sue Lyon’s performance as the titular character is astounding in its sophistication. It’s hard not to wonder if she’s an older actress playing the part of the 14-year-old, but such is the effectiveness of her “range” that has the feel of anywhere from 13 to 25. All the while, there’s something very contained in her sensibilities that makes us wonder how much of what we perceive in the film is morally apt. Nabokov was considerably more black and white about Humbert’s nature of obsession, but Kubrick’s not nearly as judgmental. And the film is better for it—even with Dr. Strangelove’s forceful and unnecessary cameo.