Above are six pages from Vladimir Nabokov’s unpublished Lolita screenplay, with notes in his handwriting. The insertions and deletions don’t appear in the published text.
Every two weeks or so, Nabokov and Kubrick would meet to discuss the author’s progress, and Nabokov was bemused by the director’s increasing reticence: “By midsummer,” he recalled in his foreword, “I did not feel quite sure whether Kubrick was serenely accepting whatever I did or silently rejecting everything.” It’s possible the man was daunted by the sheer abundance of Nabokov’s imagination; in any event, when presented with a 400-page first draft, Kubrick was emboldened to point out that such a film would likely run almost seven hours: too long, even by art-house standards. Obligingly Nabokov cut his script to a more manageable length (“Prologue, 10 [minutes]; Act One, 40; Act Two, 30; Act Three, 50”), and Kubrick said it was fine. During their last meeting, on September 25, 1960, Kubrick showed Nabokov some photographs of the actress Sue Lyon—“a demure nymphet of fourteen or so,” Nabokov observed, a little deploringly, though Kubrick assured him that she “could be easily made to look younger and grubbier” for the part of Lolita.
Almost two years passed, during which Nabokov heard suspiciously little from his collaborator in Hollywood. Finally, though, he was invited to the movie’s New York premiere at the Loew’s State Theatre in Times Square (“horrible seats,” Nabokov noted in his diary), where a crowd of fans pressed around his limo “hoping to glimpse James Mason but finding only the placid profile of a stand-in for Hitchcock,” as the portly novelist remembered. By then he was all the more placid for knowing the worst: “A few days before, at a private screening, 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.” As it happened, Kubrick and Harris had decided to cut the entire backstory (including that zany vignette in the Alps) and begin with Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale; moreover, Kubrick had encouraged his actors to improvise—especially Peter Sellers, with whose genius he became “besotted,” according to James Mason.
Nabokov affected to be at peace with it, somewhat mollified by the $35,000 he did, in fact, receive for sole screenwriting credit; besides, he looked forward to publishing his own version someday—“not in pettish refutation of a munificent film but purely as a vivacious variant of an old novel.” It’s hard to say whether he was gratified or amused, later, when he was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar—Lolita’s only nomination—but lost out to Horton Foote for To Kill a Mockingbird. —Vladimir Nabokov’s Unpublished Lolita Screenplay Notes by Blake Bailey
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