August 18, 1958 was Lolita‘s US publication date. Less than a month later, Kubrick purchased the movie rights for $150,000 plus 15% of the producer’s profits. That represented a huge sum for Nabokov, given the fact that at the time his compensation at Cornell University was $11,000 per year (it had recently been raised from $9,000). In addition, Nabokov was paid $40,000 for writing the screenplay for Lolita with an additional $35,000 to be paid if it were a solo screenplay in addition to travel and living expenses (All of this, of course, made Nabokov a rich man to which he famously responded by retiring from teaching and moving to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life). In fact, Kubrick used very little of Nabokov’s screenplay (which was ultimately published in 1974), although Nabokov labored over it for most of 1960, supplying Kubrick with extensive revisions.
Nabokov’s commented that “only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used” and the relationship between the film and his novel was “a lovely misty view seen through mosquito netting” and “a scenic drive as perceived by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance.”
From Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd:
“…with Sue Lyon looking seventeen and Humbert’s passion for nymphets entirely omitted, the film lost all the horror and tension of the novel. Under the eye-catching photos of Sue Lyon and the lollipop had appeared the question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” Critics answered: “They didn’t.”…Years later Kubrick himself confessed: “Had I realized how severe the [censorship] limitations were going to be, I probably wouldn’t have made the film.” He also named the film his only manifest failure, and explained it by the fact that the book was simply too good to adapt for the screen.”
Over at The Kubrick Site there are two fascinating essays, which have me rethinking my ambivalence towards the film.