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In 'Zhivago's' shadow

David Lean's 1965 movie is a classic. A new version for 'Masterpiece Theatre' is a not a remake, filmmakers say, but a new (spicier) take.

November 02, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The creative team behind PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of "Doctor Zhivago" wasn't worried so much about living up to Boris Pasternak's epic novel; the challenge for the two-part, four-hour adaptation that premieres tonight was overcoming memories of David Lean's Oscar-winning 1965 film classic.

So they went back to the Russian author's romantic novel in their attempt to create a "Zhivago" that was closer in spirit and tone to the source material.

"This is not a remake," Italian director Giacomo Campiotti insists. "Pasternak is a great writer, and 'Doctor Zhivago' is his masterpiece. It's like Shakespeare. We can do 10 'Romeo and Juliets.' I think it's possible to make five or 10 'Zhivagos.' "

Lean's version, adapted by Robert Bolt, is unabashedly romantic and beloved by moviegoers around the world. Omar Sharif became an international superstar with his performance as the sensitive Russian poet-doctor Yuri Zhivago, who finds himself torn between his wife (Geraldine Chaplin) and the love of his life, the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie). Set against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian revolution, Lean's "Zhivago" also featured the hauntingly lush score of Maurice Jarre, especially his now-standard "Lara's Theme."

Andrew Davies, Britain's premier literary adapter -- his credits include recent TV versions of "Pride and Prejudice," "Middlemarch" and "Tipping the Velvet" as well as the film adaptation of "Bridget Jones's Diary" -- acknowledges that he was a bit nervous about attempting to revisit the novel. "I do admire the movie a lot," he says, "but at the same time, it was going to be a challenge. I thought I would be angry with myself if I chickened out of doing it. Going back to the book again, I saw it was possible to do it in a completely different way."

Sure enough, the PBS version, which premiered last November on English television, is not your mother's "Doctor Zhivago."

Sure, handsome Hans Matheson is sensitive and dreamy-eyed in the Sharif vein, but Keira Knightley's interpretation of Lara makes her a far more sexual being who teaches her husband, Pasha, the ways of the world.

Gone is the part of Zhivago's half-brother, played by Alec Guinness in the Lean version, who served as a device conceived by Bolt to bookend the film. And don't expect the strains of "Lara's Theme" wavering across the soundtrack in this two-part adaptation.

One of the biggest differences between the versions can be found in the interpretation of Victor Komarovsky, the rich, politically savvy seducer of women who becomes the stalker and illicit amour of Lara. Komarovsky also caused the suicide death of the father of Zhivago, a fact Bolt left out of his screenplay.

In Lean's movie, the portly Rod Steiger played Komarovsky as a brutal, crude, bombastic man. But in the "Masterpiece Theatre" adaptation, he's portrayed by Sam Neill ("Jurassic Park," "The Piano") as a handsome cad, as charming as he is ruthless and who shocks himself when he becomes enthralled with the teenage Lara.

"I thought he'd be the perfect Komarovsky," Campiotti says. "I loved the book, and in the book he's a bad guy, but he's a lot more attractive than the great actor Rod Steiger was. He was quite ugly and all the time had the same face."

Davies agrees. "Rod Steiger was famously disinclined to show any sign of weakness. In the book it is very clear that Lara has just as much effect on him as he has on her and in some ways finds himself quite in her power. When she gives him up and goes off and gets married, he is genuinely upset and broken up. It doesn't make him into a good character exactly, but we can understand him a lot better and identify with him a bit. I think it explains better that years and years later, when he sees his chance he comes back and gets her again because you can feel he has spent all of these years thinking about her every day. So it's a more rounded performance."

Over breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, the youthful 56-year-old Neill explains that he decided not to revisit the 1965 film before he began production on "Zhivago" nearly two years ago.

"It's been nearly 40 years since I had seen the [original] version," Neill says in his soft New Zealand accent. "I deliberately didn't want to be in some way affected by what Steiger did. He was a wonderful actor, but I am not Steiger and I wouldn't do a Steiger performance."

Neill realizes audiences must think it "impertinent" for anyone to attempt a new "Zhivago."

"Someone asked if it is like remaking 'Casablanca.' But it's not, because 'Casablanca' wasn't a novel. And it's nearly been 40 years. It's a long time between drinks. And 'Nicholas Nickleby' they do every two years."

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