The Stack Up: ‘Doctor Zhivago’

How does the film stack up to the novel?

Watching this film with a bowl of buttered popcorn would be as out of place as bringing balloons to a funeral.

The 1957 novel “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak and its 1965 film adaption by David Lean are among the most controversial and often overlooked works of fiction in the history of literature and cinema. 

A story that relays events and situations during the Russian Revolution of 1905, the rise of Socialism and World War II into a family saga, this novel put its Pasternak’s life and Lean’s career in danger. 

The story follows an individual’s view of how Socialism slowly corrupts and destroys his world as well as the lives of those around him. The novel was refused publication in the USSR and had to be smuggled to Milan for publishing. It shortly thereafter won a Nobel Prize, which enraged the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Like its book counterpart, the film was met with terrible criticism on first viewing and was not released in Russia until 1994. Both have now been accepted as influential works in history.

The book

This novel is widely considered a tool of propaganda. It is anti-Socialist, anti-Communist and anti-war and is not subtle in the slightest. That is part of what makes this novel so raw and honest as Pasternak holds nothing back.

It is also written astoundingly well, as its first chapter introduces nearly ten different characters and lists their positions, goals and feelings of the lives they live so thoroughly without feeling convoluted. However, therein lies one of its problems; it has so many characters that the author needed to introduce some of them once again to remind the audience who they were.

The book concerns a young doctor, Yuri Zhivago and his life during the Russian Revolution. It also focuses heavily on his views and disdain for the changing times. In one moment while being buzzed at a party, he delivers a lengthy monologue of how socialism had changed his world, and not for the best.

The book has many spiritual themes. Another character is Lara, a young woman who is seduced by her mother’s older suitor and begins losing her self-esteem. In one scene, she finds peace in watching a Church ceremony, and despite being agnostic, realizes that someone out there refuses to judge her as she does herself.

In a time in which the Soviet Revolution was celebrated, this book is a cautionary tale of the dangers and destruction caused by such movements. Here the political themes are put first and the character drama is put second.

The film

Following the success after making films such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” David Lean took offense to the harsh criticisms he received and went on a 15-year hiatus before making another film.

This film follows its book closely and succeeds in capturing Pasternak’s atmosphere of a world spiraling into chaos.

Whereas the book is focused on Socialist and Communist movements and how it can influence sin, the film counterpart is completely focused on sin and its effects. In so doing, it is far darker and hard-hitting to the casual viewer.

Watching this film with a bowl of buttered popcorn would be as out of place as bringing balloons to a funeral. This is a difficult, heavily thematic film, the kind which would probably not be made today.

While the book’s main character was Yuri, the film’s main character is Lara. It follows her struggles with temptation stemming from a desire to be loved and wanted. In the end, however, she realizes how much she is being used as a form of escapism.

She experiences being used by her mother’s wealthy fiancée, abandoned by her husband and romanced by Yuri who abandons his family for her. In the end, she does learn to live a stronger person, though forever broken when Yuri abandons her, unable to swallow his pride.

Though the movements led to the downfall of Yuri and Lara, it was their passion and personal self-interest that destroyed the life they could have had. Here, the character drama is put first and the political themes are put second.

The victor

For me, I prefer the novel as it is an engaging story of man’s innocence tested and ultimately fractured in a vain and failing world.

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