Dr Z

I imagine many people have a mental list of books they would like to read but never get around to doing so. Top of my list was Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. Somehow, each time I entered a book store or started browsing on Amazon, my mind would go blank and I would quickly be distracted by any book except those on my must-read list.

Now that my access to good books is more limited, geographically and financially, I was fortunate to come across a dog-eared copy of Zhivago in the kitchen of my children’s school. I borrowed it over Christmas and spent a week wallowing in beautiful prose. I have seen the film so many times that when I read the name Yuriatin, it was as if I had lived there myself in some distant past.

I was also struck by the more fast paced, modern style, compared with the earlier Russian greats who could draw out a duck shoot for a dozen pages with dense description and minimal action. Still, compared with contemporary fiction, Pasternak’s characters seem remote with their passionate, eloquent discourses on symbolist poetry or political theology. Are we capable of talking so intelligently these days? Can we hold forth without sounding like a professionally coached politician or sales advertisement? Is getting passionate about American Idol or David Beckham comparable with our forefathers’ concerns?

Answers: yes, possibly and no.

I was also intrigued by the crafting of the novel and the film. Both are masterpieces in their own right, but the changes made in the film allow us to see more clearly how the elements are employed to create great art. The plot is simplified in a number of ways: secondary characters are dropped and passages not directly involving Zhivago are either cut or else key visual elements are recuperated and slotted into the main plot (e.g. the officer shot in the barrel). The meeting of Zhivago’s daughter and his brother (Alec Guinness) opens and closes the movie (only occuring at the end in the novel), providing a neat frame as well as reassuring the audience that Zhivago and Lara do meet, even though they have to wait almost two hours before the promised great romance actually blossoms.

The screenwriter, Robert Bolt, was told by director David Lean to focus on the love story and downplay the politics. Lean’s instructions to Omar Sharif were to “do nothing”, in an attempt to capture the image of a poet observing life around him. Julie Christie probably got the same instruction because she plays Lara almost without words, conveying powerful emotions of determination and sorrow through her gritted jaw and clear blue eyes, usually carefully lighted or framed by a scarf or other device. This “lean” version of the novel works because what is sacrificed is replaced by some of the most haunting scenes in cinema.

Dr Zhivago was voted most romantic movie of all time in a Blockbuster poll in 2002. The most romantic scene of all time was voted to be in the ice palace when Zhivago begins writing his Lara poems. The scene is a wonderful example of the artifice of cinema because it was filmed in central Spain in temperatures of over 100°F, the surrounding fields covered with cloth and marble dust and the magical house interior created by throwing buckets of white molten wax then fixing it with cold water.

If Bolt and Lean cut out a lot, they also built up certain elements to create a greater cohesion than in the novel. For example, the repeated image of a candle by the window that melts the ice to allow us or Zhivago to peer through, or the close up on the bottle of iodine that Lara uses to clean Pasha’s cut face and the bottle’s later use in Lara’s mother’s suicide attempt.

The most striking change was the shooting incident. In the novel, Lara shoots Kornakov, an assistant public prosecutor who had persecuted a group of striking railway workers that included her fiancee’s father. I read the passage several times to make sure who had been shot. A woman screams, Koka, Kokochka! referring to Kornakov, not Lara’s wicked seductor, Komarovsky. It’s often hard in Russian literature to follow who’s who when authors seem to delight in inventing endless variations on a name. Dr Zhivago, for example is at turns Yurii, Yura, Yurochka, Yurii Andreievich or plain Zhivago. Pavel is also known as Pasha, Pashenka, Pashenga, Antipov and finally Strelnikov.

But there was no confusion. The movie cut off all the extraneous threads and kept it simple: Lara, the wronged woman, shot Komarovsky as an act of vengeance.

I could go on to write about how the real Lara was twice sentenced to labour camps as a means of indirectly punishing Pasternak or how radical publisher Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript out of the USSR for its first publication in Italian … but I fear I’ve already lost many readers. If you’ve read this far, here’s your reward.

Love in a cold climate gone in sixty seconds

The following photo montage was inspired by Woody Allen’s joke:

I took a course in speed reading, learning to read straight down the page. At the end of the course I could read War and Peace in twenty minutes.

It’s about Russia.

So here’s my tribute to Dr Zhivago.

Tech note: Big up to Willem for the Swish scripting.

11 thoughts on “Dr Z”

  1. Ah, a wonderful post, a great way to start my day.

    It is always a delight (and also a tiny let-down, in a way) when, having read the book, you find bits and pieces added in the cinematic version or some of the book’s ‘loose ends’ brought together.

  2. What a super post – analytical but redolent of your love both for the book and for the film. And a superb montage, too. Thank you.

    Doctor Zhivago is one of very few works that exists in two forms, each of which may be considered in its own right to be of the highest order. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is perhaps another. But more often than not, it is the mediocre books that make better films, perhaps because directors dare play with them more and perhaps because our expectations are lower in the first place.

  3. Interesting analysis. My Dad took me to it when I was fairly young and as A result, the movie bored me to tears. I have never been back to watch it again. Oh well… nice tribute… I wanna learn how to do that!

  4. Clear prose, well done – there was a moment when I had to wonder whether I was reading a professional review of some kind. Thanks.
    I saw the movie when I was pretty young. I remember being most impressed by the poet they threw off the train. And an image of Guinness standing by a dam I could never reconcile with the story as remembered.
    Here’s some Russian trains

  5. ‘Carefully lighted’ just seems a bit odd. Are you sure that shouldn’t be ‘Carefully lit’?

    Then again, it’s probably me.

  6. Probably. ;-)

    Both are acceptable as past participles of “light”, but there are nuances in their use depending on the context. I guess I used “lighted” because I was thinking of lighting (not litting).

    Now looking at “carefully lit”, I immediately picture Julie Christie sitting too close to the candle!

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