In my opinion, films are rarely better than books. I can think of a handful, and they’re usually due to lacklustre writing or limited character development. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago has neither, yet in many ways it definitely fell flat of David Lean’s iconic film adaptation, released in 1965.
The novel follows doctor Yuri Zhivago in the years before and after the Russian Revolution; beginning with his mother’s death at the turn of the century and spanning Moscow, the Ural Mountains and vast swathes of the Russian countryside, it’s certainly an epic of impressive scope. Populated with a huge cast of characters – all of whom are referred to by different names at various points in the narrative, as is usual in the confusing Russian canon – it also draws upon the controversial view that the Russian Revolution wasn’t quite all that it was hyped up to be, an understandably divisive statement to make at the height of the Soviet Union’s Communist regime.
The story is excellent. There’s no denying that. The sweeping romance, which takes in politics, humanist concerns and the ugliness of war, is instantly compelling. The descriptions are (mostly) lovely and vibrant. Some sections are so well-written and captivating that it’s easy to speed through them. And the history at the heart of it all is fascinating. But – and this is a wrench to say – the film undoubtedly does it better.
In the film, the real strengths of the book are eludicated and expanded upon; the weaknesses are generally eliminated. The unnecessary characters – of which there are far, far too much – are eradicated. Plot-swamping superfluous detail and oratory dialogues, which strike the ear as unnatural and irritating, are thankfully cut out. The relationship between Lara and Pasha, which is grating and unrealistic, is divested of its annoyances. Everything is streamlined, and cleverly framed with the addition of a convincing backstory. Best of all, the ridiculous coincidences that continually crop up are summarily deleted. I mean, how likely is it that acquaintances would keep bumping into each other in Russia – also known as the largest country in the world?
But without the book it is not possible to have the film. And for that, I suppose we must congratulate it.
PS: if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, please do read the book first and let me know what you think! I feel like I would have enjoyed it much more had I not seen all the possibilities of the story…
Photo credit: Doctor Zhivago, 1965