Context (Moscow Times)
May 5-11, 2006
A Long Journey Home to Russia
After a long wait, the first Russian-made screen adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel "Doctor Zhivago" is set to air on NTV.
By Tom Birchenough
Russian television viewers can't complain that there have been too few adaptations of literary classics in recent years. Indeed, some might even complain that there have been too many. From Vladimir Bortko's versions of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" (a hit late last year for Rossia) to Gleb Panfilov's recent adaptation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The First Circle," the classics are clearly blooming -- and bringing in strong ratings as they become calling cards for the channels that back them.
Yet even against this illustrious backdrop, the next one in line -- Alexander Proshkin's 11-part version of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago," due to air on NTV starting Wednesday -- is a first for Russian television. Its appearance is heightened by the fact that Pasternak's novel, published almost half a century ago in 1957, has been through two notable adaptations in the West: first, the classic 1965 film by British director David Lean; and then, four years ago, a British television miniseries starring Keira Knightly as the book's heroine Lara (played in the Russian adaptation by Chulpan Khamatova, who says she consciously chose not to watch the earlier version).
Proshkin, whose best-known work Proshkin, whose best-known work in recent years was a 2000 adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's story "The Captain's Daughter," recalled at an April news conference how he had first read Pasternak's novel overnight in 1962. "It was a forbidden book," he said. "And ever since, I have felt a need, a responsibility to it. Why did we give it to the West, when it's ours? But under Soviet rule, it would have been impossible to work on it, of course. David Lean's film is known from Patagonia to Greenland. Our producers at Central Partnership got the ball rolling ... and we managed to accomplish the important feat that we had aimed for."
Russian viewers have certainly proved enthusiastic for a home-grown adaptation of the book -- not least because pirated versions of the NTV miniseries have been on sale since the start of the year. The channel has stated that its decision to delay broadcasting "Doctor Zhivago" until May was motivated, in part, by the desire to avoid competing with other major adaptations that came out in January and February.
But given that "Dr. Zhivago" was finished back in December, critics have interpreted the delay to mean that the project lost impetus thanks to the pirate release. NTV representatives have countered that circulating pirated copies will actually boost the film's marketing impact -- a viewpoint that might be regarded as distinctly optimistic.
Proshkin, at the news conference, described Russia as a "country of undefeatable piracy." Meanwhile, another one-time NTV director, Yury Moroz, has recalled how previous NTV investigations into the early release of material to pirates revealed at least 18 possible leak points in the filmmaking process -- and not from the channel itself, given that editing and final preparation were completed at Mosfilm. Nevertheless, "Dr. Zhivago" is being pitched to viewers as the "premiere of the year."
The adaptation comes from Yury Arabov, best known as a long-term scripting collaborator of Russian art-house director Alexander Sokurov. Arabov also worked with director Pavel Lungin on last year's "The Case of the Dead Souls," reworking Nikolai Gogol's novel to include more contemporary elements.
At the news conference, Arabov admitted that Pasternak's novel was "impossible to adapt." "The result is more [based] on motifs of Pasternak, with certain changes in the relationships," he said. "Lara, in particular, becomes a European figure. She becomes attractive as an outsider who appeals to Russian men."
Besides Zhivago (Oleg Menshikov), that category includes her seducer, the lecherous Komarovsky, impressively played by Oleg Yankovsky. The veteran actor said he was disappointed by the recent British television version, while in Lean's film, Rod Steiger's interpretation of his character was "superficial."
"Arabov created the opportunity for deeper insight into the complicated character of Komarovsky," Yankovsky said. In particular, the actor noted how Zhivago, in Arabov's script, consciously gives Lara back to Komarovsky -- "the action not of a weak individual, but of a strong one" -- and how the heroine does not appear at Zhivago's funeral, which closes the novel.
Also missing from the adaptation is the book's closing poetry (although there are some poetic allusions earlier in the miniseries). Proshkin highlighted the problems of incorporating verse into film. He's not alone -- David Lean also commented on the same dilemna.
The lack of poetry leads to a somewhat similar lack of definition of Zhivago's character. Menshikov's performance hasn't exactly been hailed by critics, who have seen it as cold -- to such an extent that the actor, supposedly offended by early press comments, declined to help promote the miniseries. (Again, similar comments were directed at Lean's star, Omar Sharif.)
Both Proshkin and Arabov stressed the continuing relevance of the book, comparing the Civil War events that it depicts with moments from the past decade and a half of Russian history. "We have the same circumstances at the beginning of the 21st century that we had at the beginning of the 20th. ... We haven't yet got to the disgrace of civil war, but a latent civil war feeling is there," Proshkin said. "We tried to make that recognizable. Many of my past films have been historical, but each time we have tried to include a contemporary element."
Capturing the atmosphere of the period proved no less challenging. "The image of Moscow as such is now lost, with its Finnish windows, and everything else, to be seen today," Proshkin said. The authentic feel of some scenes comes from the use of Mosfilm sets originally built for Karen Shakhnazarov's "A Rider Named Death" -- sets that seem to have become something of a permanent fixture in Russian cinema, given that they reappeared last year in Filipp Yankovsky's "The State Counselor."
Even the decision to adapt the book into a television miniseries, rather than a feature film, was fraught. On the one hand, Proshkin said, the need to restrict story development into two hours "so that teenagers can get through their popcorn" was unattractive. On the other hand, he conceded that five-hour features, like those shot by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci in his time, are a thing of the past. "Most of all, I'm afraid of the interaction with advertising breaks," Proshkin said. "After you've been persuaded [in a commercial] to see the benefits of some kind of stocking, you return to the original screen story in a completely different mood."
Budgeted at around $4 million, the miniseries boasts some outstanding technical accomplishments in addition to its star-laden cast. Cinematography comes from Gennady Karyuk, a long-term creative partner of art-house director Kira Muratova. Music from Eduard Artemyev -- who has a no less illustrious pedigree, with work on major films by Andrei Tarkovsky and later Nikita Mikhalkov -- is centered around a violin score that avoids the somewhat kitschy, though certainly memorable, "Lara's Theme" by Maurice Jarre from the David Lean version. "Part Tchaikovsky, part balalaika ... and creating a general image of Russia for the world" was Artemyev's tactful-enough description of it.
Screenwriter Arabov was characteristically modest about his achievements. "I really don't know how good the script is in comparison with the previous two versions, whether it hits the mark or not," he said. "If viewers start to return to the classics, it can only be the beginning of a process of a cultural revival. Maybe 30 or 40 years will be needed to bring back a sense of nation and society. ... I hope it leads someone to read the book and to understand just how much better it is than the script."
As for Proshkin, who is going strong at age 65, his next project looks no less intriguing. It is an adaptation, again scripted by Arabov, of a Friedrich Gorenstein novel about the real-life Civil War figure Baron Ungern von Sternberg, also known as the "Bloody Baron." An Austrian-born general who fought against the Reds, Ungern von Sternberg briefly became the military dictator of Mongolia and flirted with Buddhist beliefs before being killed by the Bolsheviks.
"It's a reflection on both the rise of Russian fascism and present-day terrorism," Proshkin said. "How terrorists are seen by some as heroes. ... What's most frightening of all is that they appear as new Messiahs, ready to drink the blood of the world." Strong stuff, indeed.
The first episode of "Doctor Zhivago" airs Wed. at 8:50 p.m. on NTV.