Blake Bailey in Vice:

ScreenHunter_702 Jun. 20 19.38Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, as part of the Paris-based Olympia Press Traveler’s Companion books, a series of louche and sometimes avant-garde fiction. Lolita was both: A rapturous first-person account of a middle-aged European’s passion for a prepubescent “nymphet,” the novel was resplendent with Nabokov’s usual wordplay, puzzles, and recondite allusions. Quite apart from its erotic content, Lolita would seem an unlikely best seller in Eisenhower’s America, but when Putnam published an edition in 1958, it sold faster than any American novel since Gone with the Wind. A month later, Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights for $150,000, despite the considerable challenge of making a movie that would satisfy the censors. Meeting with Nabokov the following summer, in 1959, Kubrick tried to entice the great Russian-American novelist to write the screenplay himself. Nabokov gave the matter some thought, but finally declined. “A particular stumbling block,” his wife, Véra, wrote Kubrick’s partner, James Harris, was “the [filmmakers’] idea of having the two main protagonists”—Lolita Haze and her 40-something lover, Humbert Humbert—“married with an adult relative’s blessing.”

A few months later, back in Europe, Nabokov “experienced a small nocturnal illumination” as to how he might fruitfully proceed with an adaptation of Lolita—whereupon, as if by magic, a telegram from Kubrick materialized: “Convinced you were correct dislike marriage Stop Book a masterpiece and should be followed even if Legion and Code disapprove Stop Still believe you are only one for screenplay Stop If financial details can be agreed would you be available.” Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar negotiated a deal whereby Nabokov would receive $40,000 for writing the screenplay and an additional $35,000 if he received sole credit, and in March 1960 the novelist came to California and rented a villa in Brentwood Heights. As he later recalled in his foreword to the published screenplay, “Kubrick and I, at his Universal City studio, debated in an amiable battle of suggestion and countersuggestion how to cinemize the novel. He accepted all my vital points, I accepted some of his less significant ones.” Meanwhile, with the help of Lazar and his wife, the Nabokovs were introduced to the Hollywood cocktail circuit. “I’m in pictures,” John Wayne explained when Nabokov cordially inquired about his line of work.

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