Stanley Kubrick had never directed a comedy when he adapted Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita for the screen, but its farcical mechanics gave expression to a budding worldview. Nabokov’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert, presents himself as the consummate litterateur—a dandy whose attraction to underage girls is a matter of nonconformist élan. But, for all his preening, the character was born of a baboon: Nabokov was inspired by an ape in captivity that sketched the bars of its own cage.
As a photographer for Look magazine, Kubrick once snapped pictures of spectators at a zoo, as seen from the monkeys’ vantage. He may not have seen the distinction between the two groups. Kubrick was skeptical of society’s power to curb human beings’ instinct for violence, whether through nuclear deterrence (Dr. Strangelove, 1964) or social engineering (A Clockwork Orange, 1971). In The Shining (1980), supernatural forces reduce Jack to a killer, which implies that savagery is his essence. On the other hand, Kubrick saw that societies shorn of violent impulses—for example, that of the affectless astronauts from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—exist in a state of monotony that is ripe for disruption. It takes an extraterrestrial intervention to snap them out of it. Lolita (1962) was a bridge to Kubrick’s mechanistic themes. Humbert (James Mason) obsesses over the “nymphet” Lolita (Sue Lyon), but can only see his jailbait through the slats of his mental cell. To ensnare her, he takes advantage of the equally blind passion that her widowed mother Charlotte (Shelley Winters) has for him and installs himself as the girl’s stepfather. After Charlotte dies suddenly, he and Lolita embark on an endless road trip like felons on the lam.
When Kubrick introduces Lolita, she is sunning herself in soft focus and a bikini, but she more than meets Humbert’s gaze. (He strategically avoids maintaining eye contact with her.) Between the time when Nabokov wrote the book and when Kubrick directed the film, postwar prosperity had granted American teenagers agency. Their new purchasing power enabled franker, more permissive expressions of sex in the culture. Sidestepping modern feminism, Lyon’s Lolita not only eggs on the man who becomes her de facto captor but is never shown to take his restraints too seriously. She uses another lecher-lover, the polymorphic TV writer Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), to torment and manipulate the Byronic Humbert. His old-world chauvinism is no match for their new-world carnality. Tellingly, Sellers impersonates Kubrick’s Bronx accent for Quilty’s “real” voice.
The boundary between human and artificial intelligence was one of Kubrick’s preoccupations as a filmmaker: HAL9000 arguably transcends his programming better than Jack Torrance or Alex DeLarge do theirs. Or, for that matter, Humbert does his. Kubrick is never more insightful about Humbert’s limitations than when the lodger receives an overwrought love letter from his chatelaine Charlotte. Her language aspires to Humbert’s literary airs, but, rather than have Winters declaim the missive in voiceover, Kubrick has Mason read it aloud and cackle at its pretensions. Swoony music boils over while Humbert, in his bathrobe, laughs himself supine.
Humbert shows no empathy for Charlotte, no awareness of how ridiculous and pernicious his obsession with an adolescent looks from the outside. To see that, he would have to be able to imagine the other side of the monkey bars. The genius of Lolita—both the novel and the movie—is that it is not simply a parody of romantic affectations, but a satire of human emotion. Nabokov challenges the reader by endowing a man who seems, on the surface, the height of sophistication and awareness with the basest animal instincts. To Kubrick, Humbert is both more and less than a hypocrite. This Lothario’s reflexive devotion to Lolita does more than blind him to her quiddity; it blots out his own free will. Humbert is a clockwork pedophile.
Consciously or not, Kubrick would repurpose Nabokov’s primate metaphor in the Dawn of Man sequence of 2001. Whereas the author’s ape was struggling to communicate its inner life, the director’s proto-humans discover the use of bones as weapons—which, through an iconic cut from prehistory to the Atomic Age, Kubrick posits as the genesis of all human development. As Kubrick, the determinist, saw it, that appetite for violence is the cornerstone of humanity’s inner life. Humbert was a warm-up for the director’s technocratic turn. Like the sterile civilization that Kubrick imagined living in 2001, Humbert is only a cosmetic improvement over barbarism.