By John Wilson
When my wife, Wendy, and I went on our first date, in Chico, California, we saw David Lean's 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago. By then—the fall of 1966—the film wasn't brand new, but we didn't mind. In fact, soon thereafter we drove all the way to San Francisco to see it again in a splendid theater in whatever counted then as the state-of-the-art format (CinemaScope or some variant, perhaps).
Lest it be suspected that I came to the new PBS Zhivago—a two-parter, roughly two hours each, with part 1 airing last night and part 2 next Sunday—with prejudice, I plead not guilty. Indeed, some time ago, when a friend heard that Keira Knightley was playing Lara and found it risible that she should dare to take the part that Julie Christie made famous, I said I'd never seen Keira Knightley in anything and was willing to see the new version without preconceptions. I asked only that it be well made on its own terms and that it be faithful to the spirit of the novel, however much was changed in the process of adaptation. And to be fair—so that I wasn't recalling the 1965 film through the romantic mists of memory and making invidious comparisons on that basis—I also watched David Lean's version for the first time in many years.
So how does the new version hold up on its own? And how well does it do the job of re-creating Pasternak's novel in another medium? And how does it fare when seen alongside the 1965 blockbuster?
If you tuned in to part 1 last night, you may well have given up before it was finished. It seems at first to have been made with the notion that its intended audience is incapable of subtlety, incapable of appreciating the slightest degree of complexity (historical, psychological, or otherwise), and in desperate need of reassurance that while the novel this film was based on was the work of a Russian poet and has a poet as its hero ("poet" is a very scary word, you know, very intimidating), it's really an extremely Sexy story. In fact, it's all about sex! (Is this PBS's idea of what it takes to lure younger audiences? Masterpiece Theatre for Dummies, with lots of genteel nudity and passionate grappling?)
If you persist, you'll find it gets better as it goes. All three of the principals—Knightley as Lara, Hans Matheson as Yury Zhivago, and Sam Neill as the diabolical Komarovsky—are quite good, and Alexandra Maria Lara (yes, that surname is confusing) is also very fine as Zhivago's betrayed wife, Tonya. The score is excellent, the visual storytelling is often arresting (including the use of black-and-white documentary footage at intervals), and simply taken on its own terms I'm sure the total package is superior to the average made-for-TV movie.
As an adaptation of Pasternak's novel—"in spite of and because of its contradictions, … a great book," as Czeslaw Milosz observed—it's another story. Here the PBS version is an abject failure. I won't enumerate the many baffling decisions made by the scriptwriter, Andrew Davies, whose BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was widely praised. (I haven't seen it.) I'll stick to the most fundamental failure: the complete omission of the (unorthodox) Christianity that informs the novel from its very beginning ("On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' " the novel opens, "and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing") to its end (the novel actually concludes with a selection of "The Poems of Yurii Zhivago," many of which are explicitly Christian; for a long time after the 1965 film, these poems—published separately in a Slim Volume, suitable for gift-giving—were among the few items that could reliably be found in the feeble Poetry sections of pre-superstore bookshops).
In a 1944 letter about the novel (which was already then in progress), Pasternak wrote, "The atmosphere of the work is my Christianity, slightly different in its breadth from Quaker or Tolstoyan belief, deriving from other aspects of the Gospel in addition to the moral." Milosz points out that Pasternak was "probably the first to read Teilhard de Chardin in Russia." The conception of the character of Yury Zhivago and the vision that drives the novel are incomprehensible when divorced from this Christian background—hence the radically narrowed scope of the screenplay. (Milosz's essay, "On Pasternak Soberly," first published in 1963 and collected in his book, Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, is a wonderful introduction to Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago.) From the PBS version, one might easily suppose that Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was the religious equivalent of Britain at the beginning of the 21st century.