When music first appeared as an accompaniment to the movie, it was aimed to serve mainly practical purposes: first, there was so much noise from the projectors (not yet isolated in special booths) and the people’s voices that it was rather a challenging task to concentrate on the picture; second, the art of cinematography was still obscure to people and therefore, was treated with caution – that explains why they needed a melody to relax in a hostile silent darkness of the movie hall1. However, it was not long until film music acquired a new status of a meaningful, dramatically and psychologically motivated medium deeply ingrained in the film narrative2.
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The research attempted in this paper goes a little further than just analyzing the way picture and music coordinate in a movie – it will also touch upon the connection between songs mentioned in the book and their interpretation in the screen adaptation. The object of study would be Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Stanley Kubrick’s version of the novel.
It is not by chance that Lolita has been chosen for a case study because the role of music both in the book and in the movie could hardly be overestimated. Besides, Kubrick performed a great task of deciphering the polysemantic code of writing and then, encoding the same message using the means that the movie disposes of – the picture, the speech, and the music. Thus, the primary objective of this work would be to discern the three-fold connection of the text, the music, and the image in Lolita.
It is worth noticing that music affects not only our attitude to the content of the movie but also our estimation of the characters, preconditioning on the subconscious level either attraction or repulsion that the audience feels3. In case of Lolita, it was both the author and the director’s task to provoke simultaneous contradicting reactions to Humbert Humbert, whom we are supposed to pity for his miserable love, detest for his carnal lust, and admire for the brilliant intellect.
The current analysis is based on the juxtaposition of the musical means used in the novel and their reflection in the movie.
Both Nabokov and Kubrick attached a significant value to the choice of tunes, songs, and scenes that they accompany. The latter first showed his famous musical style in Lolita, which he considered to be a non-verbal, music-oriented picture4. Therefore, Kubrick resorts to many kinds of diegetic (preceding or following the appearance of the source) and non-diegetic music whose aim is to show the characters’ attitudes towards each other.
Lolita has her own tune in the movie. We hear it before meeting her for the first time: the diegetic melody comes through the French window opening to the garden. The music symbolically unites Lolita’s space with Humbert’s at the moment he steps inside. The story begins here. The recurrent motif enchants Humbert so much that Charlotte’s personal music (cha-cha-cha) fails to seduce him and is heard only once.
The first song – O my Carmen, my little Carmen – appears in the scene where Humbert sings to account for his strange rhythmic movements when he secretly caresses the girl. Lolita did not go to church, so the scene happens during the service time, which means that the song was meant to echo the choir (Carmen – amen), thereby ironically emphasizing meanness and vulgarity of the scene.
Claire Quilty – another major character of the story – is also granted his own musical pattern, which is based on a series of disharmonious menacing sounds. This motif, same as the appearance of the character in the novel, is so abrupt and dissonant that could easily escape observation despite the fact that we encounter it thrice in the course of the narrative.
A more intricate and multifaceted connection can be traced between René Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata” hanging above Humbert’s bed in the novel and the sounds of the piano and the violin in the movie. The character obviously dislikes this picture attributing it to Charlotte’s bad taste. However, this rejection is deeper than it seems. Humbert often associates his desire for the girl with the violin music, which universally stands for suffering and longing.
Thus, we can establish the connection between him and the man in the picture, who embraces and kisses a pianist girl5. If we look closer at the picture, we will see that the girl does not return his passion – her arms hang loose. As we remember, Lolita escaped from Humbert to Quilty during the period when she took piano lessons and, while the former is associated with violin, the latter is accompanied by the piano melody.
This is the technique Kubrick uses to compensate for the absence of the picture description in the movie: he forestalls the final appearance of Quilty (which never happens on the screen, though) with the piano music before Humbert shoots him. This symbolic opposition of the two instruments allows the audience to understand which character is seen as the true infatuation of Lolita’s life – same as the girl in the picture she stays insensitive to the violinist’s feelings.
Although the pre-murder episode is rather vivid and intense, Kubrick gives preference to a classical melody by Chopin, which again stands for romance and sarcastically hints at Humbert’s failure as the girl’s lover. Immediately after this sadistic mockery Humbert shoots his rival (the act, mentioned in the epilogue) and thereby annihilates the curse of the piano music.
In the book, not only music but also women’s voices stand each for its unique melody. Humbert hears their pitch, rhythm, tempo, notes his reaction to them, and vice versa. That accounts for his ability to understand that Charlotte, who is incapable of noticing how fake and silly her surroundings are, as well as what her husband really feels towards her, could immediately spot a lie by his intonation when he tries to invent some excuses that would help keep Lolita beside him.
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Thus, Humbert cannot lie elaborately – the music of his voice betrays his true intentions. This is what the girl notices when she reacts cynically to his love expression, as well as to his attempts to convince her that there is nothing out of the common in their liaison.
This was not an easy task for Kubrick to achieve the same effect of ambiguity and hypocrisy using the means that cinematography offered at that time. The problem is that it is hard for the observer to pay attention to all voice modulations of actors, no matter how skillful they might be. That is why Kubrick decided to compensate for the lost effect by choosing an amphibolous melody as a theme song for his main and the most complex character. This is a piano love song by Bob Harris, which perfectly indicates contradicting aspects of Humbert’s nature. Kubrick’s intention was to show the gap between what his character really is and what he seems to be6.
Humbert appears before the audience with an air of a romantic hero but, as it was already mentioned above, such piano music is adverse to his essence and behavior as he is too obsessed, corrupted, and sophisticated for innocent and beautiful love songs. Since the movie was released in 1962, it was too scandalous to show any details revealing Humbert’s sexual perversions. That is why the only thing the director could do is to hint at Humbert’s real hypocritical nature with the help of music that ironically contradicts his actions. For instance, the same theme is heard when Lolita kisses him goodbye before going to the camp. The scene seems to be pathetic and romantic but for the sound of Humbert’s laughter that covers the music when he starts reading Charlotte’s confession letter.
The melody comes to enhance every climatic scene of the movie: when Humbert comes to the hospital but does not find the girl there, and at the very end of the film, when Lolita once and for all refuses to come back to her so-called step-father.
In fact, any medium that resorts to non-verbal means for conveying a message to the viewer is rather ambivalent and can be interpreted in many non-similar ways. Thus, in Kubrick’s choice of love theme, we can spot both irony and tragedy. On the one hand, it goes against everything we know about the character from the novel and his lustful attitude to nymphets but, on the other hand, such a spellbending, calm, rhythmically smooth, and ingenious melody that lacks any ups and downs in its pitch may apprehend the absence of perspective for this love affair, which promises to become tragic for both parties.
The final scene, in which Lolita demonstrates her total indifference, is touching indeed: Humbert’s tears and the music do not seem to be fake this time. The audience sympathizes with the character despite the abominable crime he committed because it is the first time he understands that he himself ruined his love. It is likely that Kubrick’s intention here was to add to the multi-faceted effect of the music in this movie.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the director’s meticulous approach to the choice of music and the author’s artful implementation of phonetic and lexical devices together produce a masterpiece, in which the music plays not just a complementary role but stands as a separate dimension.
Armstrong, Tom. “Response: Music, image and the sublime.” Textual Practice 22, no. 1 (2008): 71-83.
Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at movies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Braae, Nick. “We’ll Meet Again: Musical Design in the Films of Stanley Kubrick.” Popular Music and Society 38, no. 4 (2015): 536-538.
Connolly, Julian W. “Vladimir Nabokov.” The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists (2012): 209.
Hanser, Waldie E., and Ruth E. Mark. “Music influences ratings of the affect of visual stimuli.” Psihologijske teme 22, no. 2 (2013): 305-324.
McQuiston, Kate. We’ll meet again: musical design in the films of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Armstrong, Tom. “Response: Music, image and the sublime.” Textual Practice 22, no. 1 (2008): 71-83.
- Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at movies. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
- Hanser, Waldie E., and Ruth E. Mark. “Music influences ratings of the affect of visual stimuli.” Psihologijske teme 22, no. 2 (2013): 305-324.
- Connolly, Julian W. “Vladimir Nabokov.” The Cambridge Companion to American Novelists (2012): 209.
- McQuiston, Kate. We’ll meet again: musical design in the films of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Braae, Nick. “We’ll Meet Again: Musical Design in the Films of Stanley Kubrick.” Popular Music and Society 38, no. 4 (2015): 536-538.