Dr Zhivago adapted for the screen

Dr Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak completed his novel in 1956 but it was not until it was smuggled out of Russia and published in the west in 1958 that it became famous. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Liter­ature the same year, which the Soviet author­ities pres­sur­ised him to refuse. He died in 1960 of natural causes.

It is a book that, both in its style and themes, throws its char­ac­ters into stark relief against the panorama of history. The prot­ag­onist is a poet and a doctor, essen­tially an idealist and romantic, who is caught up in the huge upheaval of the Russian Revolu­tion. He is in love with two women, a conflict that mirrors his attempt to recon­cile his indi­vidual sense of morality with the ruth­less struggle for power he witnesses around him.

Written in the third person, it paints a detailed and atmo­spheric portrait of Russian society that is, at the same time, restrained (this is no Gone With The Wind) and slightly detached in a very modern fashion. The narrative often darts ahead, filling in back­ground events as it goes, and it is imbued with a sense of fatalism. Its epic quality derives from a sense that the char­ac­ters are caught up in tidal forces that are beyond their control.

The motives of the char­ac­ters are not always fully explained and some of the crucial scenes happen during gaps in the narrative. Pasternak often approaches these crises in his char­ac­ters’ lives obliquely; as Robert Bolt describes it, with an “aesthetic reti­cence”. This does not make the adaptor’s job any easier.

Dr Zhivago has been adapted numerous times, including a musical. It was twice made into a tele­vi­sion mini-series in the last decade but prob­ably still the most famous version is the star-studded 1965 adapt­a­tion which was a real cultural phenomenon, sparking off dress fash­ions and getting its evoc­ative theme tune by Maurice Jarre into the hit parade.

For compar­ison, here are three different versions of a scene adapted from the book. Also provided for refer­ence are extracts from the original text and from Robert Bolt’s screen­play.




Doctor Zhivago 1965

Directed by David Lean, produced by Carlo Ponti and adapted for the screen by Robert Bolt. Lean’s version of the story, mostly filmed in Spain, creates a mythic version of Russia that is large scale, strik­ingly composed and visu­ally ravishing; a cut above most of the Holly­wood epics of the period whilst still belonging firmly to the genre.

Robert Bolt had already collab­or­ated closely with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (largely based on Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom). He did the same with Zhivago which, given Lean’s exacting stand­ards, was not always easy.

As Bolt says in the preface to the published screen­play: “We fought our way line by line and even some­times shot by shot from one end of the screen­play to the other, many times over.”

Never­the­less, Bolt acknow­ledges the collab­or­a­tion was invalu­able: “For a writer to produce a screen­play and then hand it to a director whose inten­tion is quite different is a waste of time and effort for the writer – and for the director an exasperation”.

The Adapt­a­tion

Bolt’s script neces­sarily condenses the novel to fit into its 197 minutes; book-ending the main story with a subplot that involves Zhivago’s half-brother (Alec Guin­ness) telling his daughter about her father. This device allows Guin­ness to act as a narrator, filling in back­ground details throughout the film.

Bolt begins Zhivago’s story with the funeral of his father and ends it with his own death. Many of the minor char­ac­ters are cut or combined and some key scenes are artfully condensed into a few seconds of screen-time (for example the break up between Lara and Yuri in Yuri­atin – see ‘Scene Struc­ture’) or dram­at­ised without dialogue like the famous ‘candle scene’ between Pasha and Lara.

In the scene shown here, Bolt dispenses with the minor char­acter of the Public Prosec­utor (who features in both other versions) and has the bullet wound Komarovsky as intended. Nothing is partic­u­larly lost by the omis­sion and an extra edge is added to the exchange between the men. Combining char­ac­ters in this way is a typical tech­nique used by adaptors of novels, which often feature many minor char­ac­ters and subplots.

Bolt also intro­duces Pasha, Lara’s fiancée, into the scene, under­lining and strength­ening one of the key themes in the film: the differ­ence between the social classes and between youthful idealism and the cynicism of the elite. Intended or not, this must have struck a chord with sixties audiences.



Dr Zhivago 2002

Directed by Giacomo Campi­otti, adapted by Andrew Davies and produced by ITV for British tele­vi­sion, this was only an hour longer than the Lean version. With a budget of seven million, it was not lacking in produc­tion values but the crit­ical recep­tion was mixed in Britain and it did not make the impact that was prob­ably intended. Many of the winter scenes were filmed in Slov­akia but iron­ic­ally there was not enough snow and, just as Lean did in Spain, some of the scenes were faked with arti­fi­cial substitutes.

The series was the first to chal­lenge the legendary status of the feature film, for which it deserves sympathy, but it was not helped by weak casting in some of the central roles and by a script that often felt ponderous, despite Davies’ repu­ta­tion as an outstanding adaptor of classics.

The Adapt­a­tion

In inter­view, Andrew Davies reports having initial prob­lems with the director in estab­lishing a shared vision of the adapt­a­tion but this was appar­ently resolved satisfactorily.

Davies does include the suicide of Zhivago’s father in his plot but changes the story in other ways. In his version, Zhivago is given a son who attends his funeral at the end, echoing the earlier scene, and is finally left an aban­doned orphan.

We also see Lara being arrested and sent to a camp rather than the enig­matic ending in the book (also used in Lean’s film): “ … she died or vanished some­where, forgotten as a name­less number on a list which was after­wards mislaid.”

The scene shown here relies upon much of its dramatic impact on the moment Lara takes her shot but she is portrayed as some­body in a trance and her motives never clearly emerge. Komarovsky, played with Machiavel­lian charm by Sam Neill, also lacks dimen­sion. He is so obvi­ously a roué and arch manip­u­lator that Yuri’s dislike of him seems gauche.

Alto­gether this is a painstaking but rather prosaic version that doesn’t manage to tran­scend its styl­istic origins as tele­vi­sion ‘costume drama.’ It’s hard not to agree with the New York Times critic who said: “By trying so hard for authen­ti­city, this Doctor Zhivago drains the story of much of its lyri­cism … Mr Lean’s grander, glos­sier version was a closer match to the romantic spirit of the novel’s hero …”

Dr Zhivago 2006

Directed by Alex­ander Proshkin and adapted by Yury Arabov, this eleven part tele­vi­sion adapt­a­tion was made for a Russian cable channel and followed in the wake of a highly successful version of The Master and Margarita, trans­mitted on Russian national tv. It featured two young Russian film stars, Oleg Menshikov as Yuri and Chulpan Kham­atova as Lara, as well as the veteran Russian actor Oleg Yankovsky in the part of Kamorovsky.

With a budget of four million dollars, the cine­ma­to­grapher was Gennady Karyuk, who had previ­ously worked with Tarkovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. Because little of the archi­tec­ture of pre-revolution Moscow exists today, many of the period scenes were filmed on an old Mosfilm set that has been used in many Russian epics.

The Russian version was to some extent reactive to the previous versions, in partic­ular David Lean’s, the feeling being that they presented a false and simplistic vision of Russia full of ludicrous inac­curacies (to give one example: the balalaika that featured in the 1965 film was a peasant instru­ment, unlikely to be played by a middle class Russian). Yevgeny Pasternak, the author’s son, denounced Lean’s film as a cari­ca­ture – but he also hated this version too.

The Adapt­a­tion

This adapt­a­tion also begins with the suicide of Zhivago’s father. It has a younger cast in the leading roles than the film, like the BBC version, but they are thank­fully stronger. More time is given to Zhivago’s war-time exper­i­ences and the most notable inclu­sion is the sub-plot concerning Pasha’s family. It provides a more detailed picture of the lot of working-class Russians and this adds depth and realism to the story.

Since this is the longest version, you would expect it to retain the greatest fidelity to the original and that is certainly true. It has some of the trap­pings of a costume drama but there is, unsur­pris­ingly, an unforced authen­ti­city about it.

In contrast to the others, the shooting scene in this version is under­stated, almost laconic, with its ‘false alarm’ happening just before. Yuri knows Lara, and even remon­strates with her, and the confront­a­tion between Komarovsky and Yuri is much more veiled. The Public Prosec­utor is retained and the imme­diate conclu­sion of the onlookers is that Lara’s motives are polit­ical. This was very believ­able for a time when anarch­ists often attempted to assas­sinate public figures.

Possibly, in some ways, Lean still comes closer to the poetic spirit of the novel (as even some Russians agree) but this is an intel­li­gent and perceptive account of the book’s social and moral themes.

For refer­ence:

Extract from “Dr Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak (PDF)

Extract from “Dr Zhivago” screen­play by Robert Bolt (PDF)


David Clough ©2011

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