“Dr. Zhivago”: book and movie

I first read the first translation into English of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (published in 1958) when I was 13 or 14. I saw David Lean’s 1965 film version when it came out (with my family, when I was 15) then again at a Fairmont drive-in when I was 16 (or possibly 17) and once or twice more before last weekend. I was reading the 2010 retranslation by Richard Peuear and Larissa Volokkonsky (about a fifth of the way through) when I watched the movie on our local PBS station’s broadcast, then finished reading the book.


(first edition, yes, Italian)

Even with the newer, more complete translation, I think the movie was better than the book. The movie has a lot of characters, the book even more, and none who were dropped by screenwriter Robert Bolt (A Man for whose adaptation of his own play won another Oscar the next year) seemed at all essential. The final appearance (to Zhivao, as to the reader) of Stralinkov, who in an earlier life had been Lara’s husband, might have been included, but I see no point in showing Yuri back in Moscow, with a third woman (Marina) devoted to him. She does not appear until the text is 95% over.


The frame of his half-brother (played by Alec Guiness) talking to a young woman he supposes to be the offspring of Yuri and Lara is an addition to the screenplay, though his searching out and helping her is mentioned near the end of the book.

The suffering en route twice to the Ural Mountain town of Yuriatin [modeled on Perm} are more graphically shown in the movie, and the Varykino estate where Uri and Tonya and their son, and then Lara and his daughter have idyllic refugees with Yuri are also much more vivid onscreen than on the page. I think that Ralph Richardson as Tonya’s father and Rod Steiver as Komaovsky, Lara’s seducer and, later, protector, are mugh more vivid onscreen, too.

I remember that there was condescension to Geraldine Chaplin’s Tonya at the time of the film’s release, but she is everything the book’s character is: pretty, conventional, and deeply in love with Yuri, though she knows he does not lover her nearly as much (though the book’s Dr. Zhivago avers his duties to his wife more). In the title role, Omar Sharif did not look like Pasternak’s description (blond-bearded: early on, his hair is brown, later, it is jet black). In both versions Zhivago is a gifted diagnostician who is buffeted by tumultous history, not a hero. I guess that the quality of his poetry has to be taken on faith in the movie, whereas the novel ends very awkwardly with an anthology of his poems. It is difficult to judge poetry in translation, seemingly especially Russian to English (e.g., Pushkin’s).

The movie has one great musical theme that is repeated and repeated and repeated (with not much variation of instrumentation), even more so than the one Maurice Jarre provided for “Lawrence of Arabia. The book, of course, does not have a musical soundtrack, nor is Pasternak’s prose as striking as the cinematography of Freddie Young. And it is easier to keep the characters straight when one sees them rather than having to remember the various forms of reference/address (family name, given name, nickname, never linked together).

The core, the cinematography, the art direction, the costume design, and the adapted screenplay all won Oscars. Adjusted for inflation it was (as of 2016) the eighth highest-grossing in North America film. It was #39 on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of greatest films. Reviewing it for its 30th anniversary, Roger Ebert wrote that it was “an example of superb old-style craftsmanship at the service of a soppy romantic vision”, and wrote that “the story, especially as it has been simplified by Lean and his screenwriter, Robert Bolt, seems political in the same sense ”Gone with the Wind” is political, as spectacle and backdrop, without ideology.” I think the book is also rather detached from historical judgment of the revolution. Both portray the Russian Civil War as a succession of horrors, whih is more than I’d say for either book or movie Gone with the Wind.


Rhett (Clark Gable) and Scarlet (Vivien Leigh) in GWTW (1939)

Pasternak’s book is less than half as long as Margaret Mitchell’s, the Zhivago movie not quite as long as GWTW (the highest box-office movie adjusting for inflation). The two are similar in more than being romances set against civil wars: Lara is more domestic than Scarlett O’Hara and loves more men. Tonya is a sweet nebbish married to the weak but much-desired (not least by Scarlett!) Ashley Wilkes. And Zhivago is a less-dashing but similary mustachioed, if less cynical, variant on Rhett Butler. In both movies, the romance swamps any historical analysis. GWTW romanticized slavery, Zhivago did not reomanticize the ancient régime, the revolution, or the civil war (IMO). (The “Tara theme” Max Steiner supplied for GWTW is almost as overused as “Lara’s theme” is in “Zhivago.”)

When first I saw “Zhivago” I was bestotted by Julie Christie, and still cannot be objective, though Geraldine Chaplin and Vivien Leigh are more “my type.” Lara is far less selfish than Scarlett, whereas Lara is a survivor who is more sympathetic than Scarlett. (Tonya is selfless, reminiscent of Melanie in GWTW.fhd965DZV_Rod_Steiger_006@003244.jpg

Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) liquoring up Lara (Julie Christie)

Both movies have iconic scenes and iconic performances (I think Rod Steiger should have been considered for best supporting actor award — [Tom Courtenay was and Olivia de Haviland was for GWTW; I don’t think Omar Sharif was slighted, though he won a Golden Globe award for best actor in a drama; Julie Christie won the best actress awards (Oscar and Golden Globe) for another movie, “Darling” that yearl and Steiger was nominated for the best actor Oscar for “The Pawnbroker”).

In sum, I think the movie version of “Dr. Zhivago” was better, a pretty great movie, based on a historically important, interesting if sprawling novel that was not really a great book. The book’s dialog (admittedly, in translation) seems klunky to me, in many instances not anything I can imagine anyone saying. The movie’s dialog sounds human to me (admittedly, it was written in English). Though a lot of the book’s incidents were included, and I’d say it was a pretty faithful adoption with some simplifications that jettisoned what should have been cut from the novel). I think that turning Tonya’s father from an agronomist into a physician was a good decision. The only cut I question is eliminating the final appearance of Pasha/Strelinkov at Varykino after Lara left (i.e., with only Yuri there). The addition of Yuri thinking he glimpses Lara in Moscow drew some scorn in 1965, but seems to me an echo of mistaking a group for Tonya and her father and son when he is walking back to Yuriatin after deserting the band of retreating partisans who had dragooned him into service as their medical officer, as well as to Yuri’s first glimpse of Lara when they were both children in Moscow.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray



One thought on ““Dr. Zhivago”: book and movie”

  1. I happened on the MGM publicity booklet. Among other things it reported that the Moscow set (in suburban Madrid) was roofed with 32,800 square feet of asbestos sheets. Plus six tons of nails were used. The bioblurb on producer Carlo Ponti did not mention he ws married to Sofia Loren, but claimed that he had produced with MGM three of the most ambitious motion pictures: in addition to “Dr. Zhivago,” these were “Operation Crossbow” and “Lady L,” both of which starred his wife.

    Liked by 1 person

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