Doctor Zhivago: From White to Silver

Doctor Zhivago: From White to Silver

David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago

In some ways it is unfortunate that I saw the film first. Having finished the reread of the novel, I now see the book as suffering, at least in translation, from the mouthpiece syndrome at times, and in need of some editing. As in, at several points in the novel, characters engage in extended dialogue that seem out of place, given the circumstances. That extended dialogue strikes me as more about Pasternak and his views than something organic, growing out from the lives of the characters themselves. While I love the novel, I think it would have been much stronger with some solid editing to remove such passages. I also think Pasternak included too many characters to follow, to care about, to have sympathy for, and probably could have done away with most of the epilogue altogether.

David Lean’s powerful image of Yuri on the trolley, seeing his Lara after so many years, and having a heart attack before he can catch her, is not in the novel. Zhivago does have the heart attack, stumbles from the trolley, but he does not see Lara, anywhere. He was not trying to find her at that moment. I think I like David Lean’s invention more, though the critics mostly didn’t. They saw it as manipulative and soppy. I see it as in keeping with Yuri’s near helplessness in the face of so much of life passing before him. Irony taken to the universal.

In some ways, the movie improves upon the book by streamlining and focusing (while still lasting 200 minutes), but it also loses most of Paternak’s novel of ideas, his mysticism and his discussions about Russian history and soul. It is also probably too romantic, too beautiful a film for the world depicted in the novel. Lean, I think, focuses more on romantically suffering hearts than death and destruction through revolutions and wars. Pasternak was trying to tell the epic story of Russia, not really attempting a romance. Ironically, Lean leaves out the very moving scene of Lara coming back for Yuri’s wake, keening for him, lost in the moment and in the past they shared. Pasternak adds more emotional force to that scene by suggesting Lara’s fate the next day, or the day after.

I think Pasternak’s balance between the epic historical sweep and the romantic sufferings of his main characters is stronger, and stays with you longer. The film is beautifully tragic, but more on the surface, more an ideal vision than blood and guts real.

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It may well be that no Western director could do the novel justice, especially not in 1965, with the Cold War still hot. Someday a great Russian director will no doubt come closer to its essence. Though, in a strange twist of fate, it was the CIA, we now know, that pushed to have Pasternak’s novel published in Russian to help him gain the Nobel Prize — which he later rejected. Ivan Tolstoy, who broke the story last year, says that Pasternak knew nothing about the connection. One wonders what the great poet would say about that meeting of West and East.

In still another tragic, ironic twist, after Pasternak’s death his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara, was arrested by the KGB again and forced into a labor camp in Siberia. Her daughter also served time in those camps. Under international pressure, Olga was released after four years of misery. Prior to that, Ivinskaya had been arrested, tortured and sent to the Gulag in 1949. Pasternak was reunited with his mistress in 1953.

It is all too often the case that authorities condemn artists for their depictions of real life, while confirming those depictions. Pasternak was harassed and almost deported for Doctor Zhivago, while some of his loved ones suffered worse fates. With the benefit of hindsight, it strikes this reader that Pasternak went easy on the Soviet system that tried to drive him to his death.


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