Vladimir Nabokov’s Script for Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita: See Pages from His Original Draft


The tag line for Stan­ley Kubrick’s sixth fea­ture was “How did they ever make a movie of Loli­ta?” And it’s a good ques­tion. Vladimir Nabokov’s infa­mous nov­el, first pub­lished in 1955, is a deliri­ous account of a mid­dle-aged sophisticate’s obses­sion with a 12 year-old “nymphet.” The book was both praised and pil­lo­ried when it came out. Gra­ham Greene called it one of the best books of the year while an Eng­lish news­pa­per called it “sheer unre­strained pornog­ra­phy.” With press like that, Loli­ta quick­ly became a best-sell­er.

So when Kubrick, along with his pro­duc­ing part­ner James B. Har­ris, bought the rights to the book in 1958, they first had to prove that it could be filmed in a way that could get past the cen­sors. The Hays code was still in effect in Hol­ly­wood, which sup­pressed any hint of sex between two adults. A love sto­ry between a pre­pu­bes­cent girl and a mid­dle-aged per­vert was going to be a tall order. “If I real­ized how severe the [cen­sor­ship] lim­i­ta­tions were going to be,” Kubrick stat­ed lat­er, “I wouldn’t have made the film.”

Even­tu­al­ly, Kubrick had to bow to real­i­ty; they changed Lolita’s age from 12 to 14, cast­ing the teenaged Sue Lyon for the part. As Richard Corliss not­ed in his study on Loli­ta, “The book is about child abuse; the movie is about the wiles a teenage girl might have learned in those two years: an aware­ness of her pow­er over men.”

The oth­er chal­lenge of adapt­ing Loli­ta was the book itself. There’s an old tru­ism in Hol­ly­wood that mediocre books make great movies and great books make for lousy films. After all, a nov­el like Mario Puzo’s The God­fa­ther is all about sto­ry, char­ac­ters and sus­pense – the same stuff as a good script. Authors like James Joyce, William Faulkn­er and Nabokov, on the oth­er hand, fore­ground ele­ments that are par­tic­u­lar to lit­er­a­ture — inte­ri­or mono­logues, unre­li­able nar­ra­tors, and a musi­cal­i­ty of lan­guage – ele­ments that are damned tricky to repro­duce on the sil­ver screen. If you don’t believe me, com­pare The Great Gats­by with its numer­ous dread­ful movie adap­ta­tions.

Doubt­less aware of such pit­falls, Kubrick approached Nabokov, the author him­self, to write the script. After their first meet­ing, Nabokov turned the offer down. “The idea of tam­per­ing with my own nov­el caused me only revul­sion,” Nabokov lat­er wrote in the fore­word to the pub­lished ver­sion of his Loli­ta script. Kubrick, how­ev­er, is not a per­son to be dis­suad­ed eas­i­ly. He sent Nabokov a telegram renew­ing the offer a few months lat­er, just as the author was begin­ning to regret pass­ing on the offer and its gen­er­ous pay­check.

So Nabokov trav­eled back to Los Ange­les to meet with Kubrick, begin­ning what he would char­ac­ter­ize as “an ami­able bat­tle of sug­ges­tion and coun­ter­sug­ges­tion on how to cin­e­m­ize the nov­el.” By the end of the sum­mer of 1960, Nabokov deliv­ered his first draft – a 400-page behe­moth. The script would require some seri­ous edit­ing. After that, Nabokov’s meet­ings with the direc­tor became more and more spo­radic.

True to form, Kubrick was secre­tive about the film. The author had lit­tle idea what shape the final movie was going to take until he saw it a cou­ple of days before the pre­miere in 1962. “I had dis­cov­ered that Kubrick was a great direc­tor, that his Loli­ta was a first-rate film with mag­nif­i­cent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used.” Kubrick took the script and stripped out all the back­sto­ry and most of the nar­ra­tion. He expand­ed the char­ac­ter of Quilty to give Peter Sell­ers more to do. While Nabokov was gen­er­al­ly com­pli­men­ta­ry about the film, he still had some com­plaints. “Most of the sequences were not real­ly bet­ter than those I had so care­ful­ly com­posed for Kubrick, and I keen­ly regret­ted the waste of my time while admir­ing Kubrick’s for­ti­tude in endur­ing for six months the evo­lu­tion and inflic­tion of a use­less prod­uct.”

Nonethe­less, Nabokov got a sin­gle screen­writer cred­it for the movie and he end­ed up get­ting an Oscar nom­i­na­tion for Best Adapt­ed Screen­play. You can see some of Nabokov’s script of Loli­ta, com­plete with mar­gin notes, below. (The mar­gin notes appar­ent­ly don’t appear in the pub­lished ver­sion.) You can click on each image to view them in a larg­er for­mat. They come to us via Vice.






Note: You can down­load essen­tial works by Vladimir Nabokov as free audio­books (includ­ing Jere­my Irons read­ing Loli­ta) if you sign up for a 30-Day Free Tri­al with Audible.com. Find more infor­ma­tion on that pro­gram here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Fear and Desire: Stan­ley Kubrick’s First and Least-Seen Fea­ture Film (1953)

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Daugh­ter Shares Pho­tos of Her­self Grow­ing Up on Her Father’s Film Sets

Stan­ley Kubrick’s List of Top 10 Films (The First and Only List He Ever Cre­at­ed)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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