The poster designed for the 1962 theatrical release of Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of “Lolita” is one of the most brilliant and famous in movie history. It features a close-up of Sue Lyon, the actress who played Lolita, gazing at us not quite directly. She wears red, heart-shaped sunglasses, one brown eye peeking over the top, and sucks on a red, heart-shaped lollipop. There’s a provocative air to this image of Lyon as Lolita in the movie poster, and a near-pornographic dimension as well — one that is found neither in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel nor in Kubrick’s film — and the provocation doesn’t end there. The poster’s real brilliance is its two-part tag line: Above the image of Lyon, in big letters, it asks: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” At the bottom right, in smaller type, is a phrase that could be read as the continuation of the question, or a censor’s warning: “For persons over 18 years of age.”
While conventional movie ads try to tempt us to see the film by directly or indirectly hinting at its subject and character, the ones for Kubrick’s movie were presented as an ironic challenge, and alluded to the fact that when it was made the industry’s internal censorship guidelines — the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code — still prevailed in Hollywood.
Despite the novel’s great commercial success – it became a best-seller that every cultured person had to read, or at least claim to have read — it seemed inconceivable when it was came out, in 1955, that it would ever be made into a movie due to its scandalous nature. In fact, most of the film’s production budget was obtained in Britain, where Kubrick had moved in 1961, and like all the rest of Kubrick’s films from that time on, was shot in Britain, even though the action is set in America and an important part of the plot involves a journey through its ugly landscapes.
The film was distributed in the United States by MGM, which was once known for putting its imprimatur on prestige films suitable for the whole family, though the company’s fortunes had been on the decline since the late 1940s. It had its American premiere on June 13, 1962. It had an estimated budget of $2 million, and it brought in $9 million in America, so it could be called a box-office success, although it was panned by most of the important movie critics of that era. It earned just one Oscar nomination — for Nabokov, for best adapted screenplay. Nabokov was credited as the sole screenwriter, but the notable differences between the book and the movie indicate that Kubrick was surely the dominant one behind the transformation of “Lolita” into a film. [. . . ]