Miniseries format enables longer, sexier version of Russian romantic epic
BY JUSTINE ELIAS
The idea of a small-screen "Doctor Zhivago" seems like a contradiction in terms - though that's what's coming our way tonight and next Sunday at 9.p.m., when PBS' Masterpiece Theatre airs its lavish, four-hour adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel on Ch. 13.
"Spectacular soap opera," jeered one early reviewer of David Lean's 1965 film version. But audiences, Oscar voters and most critics embraced the romantic epic, which is set against the background of the Russian Revolution.
So why try, 38 years on, to compete with such an indelible movie? And why do it on TV? The new "Zhivago" was directed by Giacomo Campiotti and written by Andrew Davies, whose other literary adaptations include the "Pride and Prejudice" and "Daniel Deronda" miniseries.
"We knew we would never compete on spectacle," says Davies, comparing the two "Zhivagos." "But the advantage of television is that you have time to tell the story, to go more deeply into relationships. I read the novel and looked for things I felt were good in the book, but had not been brought out in the film."
One criticism of Lean's film was that the supposedly passionate Zhivago (Omar Sharif), who is torn between Tonia (Geraldine Chaplin), his loyal wife, and Lara (Julie Christie), the inspiration for his writing, recedes into the cinematic tumult.
"A passive hero is often a problem with adapting novels, especially novels with a poetic feel," says Davies. The physician-poet, played in the new version by Hans Matheson, remains a quiet central figure - yet he is a more active one.
"I took every opportunity to show Zhivago being decisive," says Davies. "Pasternak didn't write much about Zhivago's work as a doctor, but we include scenes of it. We also see what happens once he escapes from the Red partisans."
Davies' script also eliminates Zhivago's politically powerful half-brother (played by Alec Guinness in the Lean film) and combines various characters to show how the revolution changed people's fortunes.
Pasternak fans may also be surprised when Lara and Zhivago's child appears in the final scene. Says Davies, "That was the director's idea, not mine. But this child actor was marvelously expressive."
Perhaps the biggest change is the exploration of the love triangle involving the 17-year-old Lara (before she meets Zhivago), the rich businessman Komarovsky and Lara's mother. In the book, the mother knows about and even seems to encourage her lover's tempestuous affair with her daughter to maintain his financial support of her household. In the Lean film, the mother is unaware of the rivalry.
Furthermore, the age difference between Julie Christie, then 24, and 40-year-old Rod Steiger, who played Komarovsky, was not all that striking.
Contrast that to the PBS production: Keira Knightley ("Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl") is 18; Sam Neill, who plays Komarovsky, is 56. "There is a great yawning generational gap between me and Keira," says Neill with a laugh.
Davies is delighted that the Lara-Komarovsky scenes have a carnality that surpasses even the Lara-Zhivago scenes. "Pasternak writes of Komarovsky's vulnerability, that he started the affair thinking he was amusing himself, yet he finds himself enslaved by this young girl," Davies says. "He holds all the cards in one sense, yet she never gives herself to him emotionally."
Though the new version may become as notable for its sexual frankness as Lean's film was for its visual sumptuousness, neither can fully convey Pasternak's language and philosophy, says Lazar Fleishman, author of "Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics."
Latvian-born Fleishman grew up reading Pasternak's poetry, but "Dr. Zhivago," the novel, was suppressed in the Soviet Union and not published there until 1989.
(Fleishman read it secretly in 1962: "I realized how dangerous it was to me, and to Pasternak," he says.)
Fleishman has never seen Lean's movie in full. "I'm skeptical of any attempt to render Pasternak's work in a visual medium," he says. "I've seen clips of the 1965 film, and I realized it was too remote from the novel, from the nature of Pasternak's thoughts. But I welcome this new attempt."