Though Vladimir Nabokov was the sole credited screenwriter for “Lolita” and received an Oscar nomination for his work, the first draft of his script was over 400 pages. Since each page of a script usually equals about a minute of screen time, this means his original version would have been almost seven hours long, more like a TV miniseries than a movie.
Stanley Kubrick and producer James B. Harris reportedly rewrote much of the “Lolita” script themselves, and in doing so, they reshaped the narrative, only using about 20% of what Nabokov had written. “Of course, you obviously sacrifice a great ending by opening with Quilty’s murder,” Kubrick conceded, “but I felt it served a worthwhile purpose.”
By beginning in media res and then flashing back four years, the effect was to throw mystery on Humbert’s motive and turn “Lolita” into something of a why-done-it (as opposed to the conventional murder-mystery model of a whodunit). This, at least, was one change to the story that received Nabokov’s blessing, though he wasn’t involved much in the production process beyond the early writing stages and would be surprised by some of the other alterations Kubrick made to “Lolita.”
The Showtime adaptation of “Lolita” is comparatively more faithful, though it was slightly less well-received and had difficulty securing U.S. theatrical distribution, just as Kubrick had difficulty finding U.S. funding. In this version, Frank Langella plays Quilty, and he only shows up late in the movie. Kubrick, by contrast, was so enamored of Sellers and his character as a mirror image of Humbert’s dark side that he almost turned “Lolita” into The Clare Quilty Show at times. As others have noted, the first and last word of Nabokov’s novel is “Lolita,” whereas the first and last word of Kubrick’s film is “Quilty.”