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Dr Zhivago, a bongo-playing director and Keira Knightley nude...
By ANDREW DAVIES
13 January 2007
Doctor Zhivago is one of the greatest love stories of our time: greater than most because it is so much more than a love story.
It encompasses huge world events - the First World War and the Russian revolution - that tear apart the lives of its characters, and yet its focus is always personal.
I had always been a fan of the great David Lean movie, with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, so I was more than a little apprehensive when Simon Lewis, the then head of drama at Granada Television, asked me to think about a TV adaptation of the book.
My first thought was that I was on a hiding to nothing. All the women of my generation had swooned over Omar Sharif and all the men had drooled over Julie Christie, one of the all-time-great screen beauties and the unwitting object of a great many of my private fantasies.
Lean's film had also had a wonderful sweeping vision, made possible by a stupendous budget and long years in the making.
And then there was that haunting little balalaika tune that everyone insisted on annoyingly humming at me whenever I mentioned the name of Zhivago: - Dah, dah, da-DUMM! Dah-dah-dah, dah, dah DUMM.
God, wasn't Julie Christie wonderful? In that fur hat? When she's going off in the sleigh and he's rushing from room to room trying to get one last glimpse of her? And you're doing what? A remake? Why?
The answer is that there is always more than one way to read a novel; they are living things that change over generations - different parts of them mean different things to different people.
And rereading Boris Pasternak's novel for the first time since 1960, I realised I had no clear memory of the book - I had remembered it through Lean's film.
And that film, with its brilliant script by Robert Bolt, cutting-edge in its day, was a partial and selective reading of the book.
I was thrilled to find rich material in the book that Bolt and Lean had not used. I would be able to make something of my own out of it.
Of course I watched the film again and was not too daunted by it. Beautiful as she was, Julie Christie's performance seemed stilted and posh dolly-girl after more than 40 years, and Omar Sharif, for all his wonderful deep-set eyes, was a curiously passive hero, or so it seemed to me.
The story in brief (just in case bits of it have slipped your mind): Yury Zhivago is orphaned when his bankrupt father kills himself. He is brought up with his cousin Tonya, who adores him, and he studies to be a doctor, writing poetry in every spare moment.
Meanwhile, Lara is having a much more problematic adolescence. Her mother, a dressmaker, has a rich and powerful lover, Komarovsky, who becomes obsessed with Lara and seduces her, with the mother's connivance, while she is still a schoolgirl.
Yury and Lara get only fleeting glimpses of each other in the early part of the story. He is called to assist when her mother attempts suicide and he is present at a party when Lara tries to kill Komarovsky.
Yury and Tonya marry and she has a child. Lara marries her childhood friend Pasha and goes to live far away to escape from Komarovsky.
Her marriage is desperately unhappy - Pasha can't bear knowing she doesn't really love him and he leaves her for the Russian army. His plan is to get himself killed at the front.
Lara enlists as a nurse, hoping to find Pasha but instead meets Yury working in a field hospital. Their love blossoms but Yury is too honourable to do anything about it, and they part.
Years later, they meet again, with the country torn apart by civil war, and at last their love is consummated. What happens next? Well, I won't spoil it for those of you who don't know the story - but the ending is romantic, tragic and almost unbearably moving.
Part of the reason is that the characters are so rich and three-dimensional - we feel for Tonya, the betrayed wife, just as much as we feel for Yury and Lara - and Yury genuinely loves both women.
Meanwhile, Komarovsky, the villain of the piece, is just as tormented by his love for Lara as she is by his obsession with her. It's awfully Russian - everybody suffers, and in spades.
So was it a joy to adapt? Yes and no. It certainly wasn't easy. Most of the great novelists are great dramatists as well - Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy write great scenes with wonderful dialogue and sometimes all you have to do is copy it out.
But Pasternak was a poet and he alludes to events rather than dramatising them. For instance, in the book, Komarovsky's seduction of the schoolgirl Lara is seen through his increasing interest in her and her mixture of excitement, fear and mistrust.
Her mother persuades her to accept Komarovsky's invitation to an evening out. This must be it, I thought, and turned the page eagerly to see what happens, only to be met with a description of Lara's mixed emotions of pride and remorse after the event.
Pasternak had left out the actual seduction, so I was going to have to invent the scene myself.
This happened again and again, especially in the first half of the book. He gives you the emotions but the reader of the book (the scriptwriter in my case) has to imagine the action and the dialogue.
Once I realised this, it proved very liberating and I came up with a screenplay that was as different from Robert Bolt's as you could imagine, though both remain faithful to the spirit of the book.
Then I met the director, Giacomo Campiotti, who had been chosen for his wonderful visual sense and his tender and poetic way with love scenes.
Unfortunately, he spoke very little English when he started work, so our conversations were mutually mystifying as my Italian is very rudimentary.
But I did gather that he wanted to tear the script up and start again, and I didn't like the sound of that at all. It was a difficult but ultimately very rewarding collaboration.
Giacomo came up with some wonderful ideas, notably when Yury sees Lara for the first time, and a brilliant, visionary idea for the ending, which moves most people to tears when they first see it.
Once we'd sorted the out script, it was a joy working with Giacomo. He's very Italian - very expressive, very emotional. 'Of course it is possible to be in love with two women,' he told me. 'I have experienced this many times!'
Half the female staff at the TV company were in love with him but he himself fell in love with a beautiful African girl he met in Leicester Square at one o,clock in the morning. (He used to go there to play his bongos to relax after work - don't ask me why.)
It was an interesting experience watching Giacomo assemble his cast. As he had worked only in Italy before, on feature films at that, he had no idea who was in fashion and who wasn't in British television.
We had lined up a short list of potential Zhivagos, but he turned them all down. 'No! No! No! He ees like a block of wood', he said about one very well-known and well-fancied actor, choosing instead the little-known but charismatic Hans Matheson for the male lead.
And then he shocked everyone by casting a 16-year-old newcomer to play Lara. 'Trust me', he said. 'She ees going to be a big big star.'
Keira Knightley's debut film, Bend It Like Beckham, hadn't been released yet and most people had never heard of her. It was a very brave decision but, as we all know now, Giacomo was proved right.
The third eccentric decision he made was to cast Kris Marshall as Pasha, the part Tom Courtenay played in the Lean film, and once again the performance justified Giacomo's confidence.
But everybody agreed with his choice for Komarovsky - Sam Neill's performance was equal in power to Rod Steiger's in the old film, and exceeded it in complexity.
The film was shot in the Czech Republic: the Moscow scenes in the Old Town of Prague and the rest in the countryside.
It was a May shoot and very warm, so the Moscow winter scenes were pretty stifling, with everybody wrapped up in big astrakhan coats and hats.
It was a happy shoot with lots of laughter, much of it coming from the multinational cast and crew. The actors were English, German and Italian for the most part, the camera crew were Italian, and the rest of the crew and the extras were Czech, so all the instructions had to be shouted out at least four times in four languages before the camera rolled.
And what was Keira Knightley like to work with? Delightful, is the answer - though our first meeting at an informal drinks party for the actors in a Prague hotel gave me some cause for concern. 'Andrew Davies,' she said. 'My mother gave up acting because of you!'
'Oh, yes?', I said warily.
'Yes, she acted in a stage play of yours and had to take all her clothes off while reciting Wordsworth's Daffodils. She hated it and decided to give up acting and be awriter instead.'
True, Keira's mother, Sharman McDonald, had gone on to become an award-winning playwright. And now I'd gone and written a few clothes-off scenes for her 16-year-old daughter in Dr Zhivago.
'I hope you won't be doing the same - not yet, anyway,' I stuttered.
'No,' replied Keira brightly. 'Writing's a bit too much like hard work - and I don't really mind taking my clothes off.'
There was a collective sigh of relief.
Throughout the shoot Keira was lively, funny, friendly and totally unaffected, so unlike the archetypal movie star lurking in the Winnebago.
At the time she was also trying to keep up with her A-level work and asking us all for ideas and criticism.
It was lovely to get to know her at such an early stage in her career and I think everybody on the film feels the same as I do about her now - proud of her, as one would be of a kid from our school or street who became a superstar. I hear she is as nice as she ever was.
Watching the daily rushes was fun, too. My most amusing memory is of watching a scene shot from outside a carriage in which Komarovsky is orally pleasuring Lara.
All you can see is Lara's ecstatic face in the gently rocking carriage, but the effect was very erotic.
The director called 'Cut!', but the carriage kept rocking. After a while, Keira said: 'Cut, Sam! Cut!', We all heard Sam Neill's muffled voice: 'Oh, I do beg your pardon, can't hear a thing down here.'
My favourite scene in the film? Out of many, I would have to pick the ending, which features a little boy with a wonderfully expressive face, who appears in the opening as little Yury, and reappears in the last scene as Lara's little boy - Yury's child.
If he doesn't bring tears to your eyes, then I'll refund you the price of the DVD.
Ah, just remembered - you're getting it free, aren't you? You lucky people.
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