MOSCOW — Screen adaptations of classic literary works frequently air in their home country first. Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel “Dr. Zhivago,” banned under Soviet rule until 1988, is a notable exception.
Finally Russia is trying its hand at the classic saga that brought poet Pasternak a Nobel Prize — albeit one he was forced to refuse by Soviet authorities.
Alexander Proshkin’s 11-part TV adaptation bowed May 10 on national channel NTV, produced by Central Partnership.
It has a tough act to follow in helmer David Lean’s 1965 Oscar-winning version or, indeed, British commercial web ITV’s 2002 miniseries starring Keira Knightley.
“I read it overnight back in 1962 when it was a forbidden book. Ever since I have felt a need, a responsibility (to produce it),” says helmer Proshkin, best known for his 1998 adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Berlin-screened “The Captain’s Daughter.”
“Under Soviet rule, it would have been impossible to work on it, of course,” he adds. “David Lean’s film is known from Patagonia to Greenland. Our producers at Central Partnership (CP) got the ball rolling … and we managed to accomplish the important feat that we had aimed for.”
Its $4 million budget, generous by local levels, is on a par with recent classic lit TV adaptations including Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita” or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” which attracted strong critical acclaim and major primetime auds.
CP is aiming for a more “Russian” “Zhivago,” respecting local sensitivities.
Vet thesp Oleg Yankovsky, as seducer Komarovsky, believes that the script by Yury Arabov, a long-term collaborator of arthouse helmer Alexander Sokurov, “gives a chance for a deeper view of the complicated character” than Lean’s pic.
Chulpan Khamatova, playing heroine Lara, avoided watching Knightley’s Lara.
Music from Eduard Artemev, who worked on major films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov, is centered around a violin score that avoids the somewhat kitsch, though memorable “Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from the Lean version.
“Part Tchaikovsky, part balalaika … creating a general image of Russia for the world,” was how Artemev described it.
Tech accomplishments in the series are outstanding, with cinematography by Gennady Karyuk, a longterm creative partner of Odessa arthouse helmer Kira Muratova.
Local critics describe thesp Oleg Menshikov’s turn as Dr. Zhivago as cold (similar comments were directed at Lean’s hero, Omar Sharif). Partly that’s down to what Proshkin described as the impossibility of bringing poetry directly into a screen adaptation, cutting down on Zhivago’s character.
Arabov admitted that Pasternak’s novel was “impossible to adapt.”
“The result is more on motifs of Pasternak, with certain changes in the relationships. Lara, in particular, becomes a European figure; she becomes attractive as an outsider, who appeals to Russian men,” he says.
In particular, in Arabov’s script, Zhivago consciously gives Lara back to Komarovsky. “The action not of a weak individual, but of a strong individual,” says Yankovsky.
Both helmer and scripter stress the work’s contemporary relevance.
“We have the same circumstances at the beginning of the 21st century as we had at the beginning of the 20th century,” says Proshkin. “We haven’t yet got to the disgrace of civil war, but a latent civil war feeling is there. We tried to make that recognizable.”
“Zhivago” was finished in December but held until now as the finale of NTV’s season and to avoid rubbing against over lit adaptations. This means that pirate DVD versions of the series have been selling since beginning of the year.
For now CP can’t sell “Dr. Zhivago” to international buyers as the novel’s original Italian publishers own the copyright. However, CP’s topper Ruben Dishdishyan has been screening versions at markets, with considerable interest.