I recently had the chance to see the letter that Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Stanley Kubrick upon the successful completion of their screenplay for the film of Lolita. It was a part of the Jewish Contemporary Museum’s retrospective on Kubrick, which included a treasure trove of ephemera related to all of his major movies.
Uncharacteristically for Nabokov, in this letter he is very complimentary toward the edits that Kubrick made to his (enormous) manuscript of the screenplay. It’s a bit of a surprise, as this is, after all, the writer who famously said of editors:
By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
So how did Kubrick and Nabokov work it out?
Well, they almost didn’t: for quite a while it looked that Nabokov’s “thunderous ‘stet'” would prevent any possibility of a Lolita film. As chronicled by Brian Boyd in his magisterial, two-part biography of Nabokov, the author originally felt that a screenplay of Lolita would be impossible, in no small part because (in order to appease the moral censors of the period) Kubrick wanted to end the movie with Humbert and Lo married, the union blessed by one of the latter’s relatives.
That didn’t happen, and in fact Kubrick was to give Nabokov the upper hand (or at least the impression of the upper hand), seemingly the only way to work with the great, and hugely egotistical, author. Some degree of flattery was required:
But, for however much ego-fluffing was involved, Kubrick did end up getting Nabokov to do a great deal of editing, and the final product improved for it:
But even after all of Nabokov’s hard work, Kubrick did have a trick up his sleeve:
This was in part by necessity, as Kubrick had to satisfy the censors, and the script that Nabokov had handed off to him would not have fit the bill. But, it’s also undoubtedly true that the great director also wanted to make sure that Lolita would be his film, not Nabokov’s.
Ultimately, however, it seems that things turned out for the best. Here’s Nabokov’s letter congratulating Kubrick on how well the screenplay turned out, and even encouraging him to make any further edits he wished:
Although the film version of Lolita did turn out far more chaste than the book (Kubrick famously commented that if he’d known how restrictive the censors were going to be, he never would have tried to make the film), it was generally agreed that the movie captured the feeling of the book quite well, and the screenplay was ultimately released as a book itself. Those interested in a full comparison of the book to the movie should read Boyd’s excellent commentary on the two in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years.
The movie proved a financial success, earning over $9 million against $2 million expenses, based largely on word-of-mouth and a promotional campaign that leveraged the curiosity inherent to making a movie of a controversial book about sexual desire for a pre-pubescent girl:
One last little tidbit: interestingly, Kubrick and Nabokov also seemed to agree on the ideal casting for the title character: