Original Title: Доктор Живаго
Russia has taken back what is theirs with a serialized version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago at the hand of Aleksandr Proshkin. It lasts 11 episodes, clocking in at a little bit over eight hours of running time, making it the most faithful adaptation of Pasternak’s novel, which had been popularized by the Academy Award winning 1965 Hollywood film adaptation and the 2002 BBC miniseries.
I had never watched Russian television, and I actually haven’t watched (let alone read) any Doctor Zhivago material, so I had very little idea of what I was going to encounter with this one. However, I really couldn’t resist watching this version, co-starring my favorite Russian actress, Chulpan Khamatova, in the role of Lara… who apparently is a key part in the romance of the story and is way more important in the BBC adaptation where the character is played by none other than Keira Knightley.
From what I’ve read about the novel, this 2006 adaptation seems to follow the book as closely as it is humanly possible, only applying minor changes (cities, giving things that happened to other characters, etc.) and following Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Menshikov) in his misadventures through the pains of his motherland (three revolutions and two wars) and his messed up love life up until his passing. The series ends before Lara even finds out about Zhivago after her departure — in short: Doctor Zhivago is a really, REALLY depressing series. I loved it.
For those who’ve got no idea, the story is set in the early 1900s and follows a group of people living through the Ruso-Japanese War (1904-05), the Eastern Front (for World War I, 1914-18), the February Revolution (1917), the October Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War (1917-22) as they meet and encounter each other again and again due to cruel fate. People formed families, died or killed for their country, left loved ones, and suffered… a lot.
The first four episodes of Doctor Zhivago set up the characters so viewers get to know them, barely touching upon the war with Japan, but setting a solid foundation for the story to take root… especially in Lara’s case. For a moment there, I could barely notice Zhivago as a character as the focus (or my bias) seems to be on Lara and her relationship with the damn lucky Victor Komarovsky (Oleg Yankovskiy) and the idealistic Pavel Antipov (Sergey Gorobchenko). The pacing in those episodes seems to be almost painfully slow, or I needed to get used to it. After those nearly four hours, the connection with the characters was established, and I was in for the painful ride.
The acting is quite formidable, especially from Yankovskiy, whose Komarovsky had… a lot of charisma, perfect for the character and a fitting explanation as to why he was able to survive that long despite the changes going through the country. I’m still uncertain as to why people refer to Doctor Zhivago as a “great love story,” as Zhivago was anything but a romantic hero. He’s a poet doctor haunted by his own demons, always in search of his great love (or adventure)… when he’s with his wife Tonya (Varvara Andreeva), his greatest love is Lara and when he’s with Lara, his devotion seemed to be with Tonya, even though we get very little time with Tonya and the rest of the family.
Having said that, I did love Chulpan Khamatova in this one. Even more so than I thought I was going to. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with other interpretations of Lara after watching this, I might as well not watch the Hollywood version now. The settings, mood and exteriors in this adaptation seem perfect for the story — who would be better to put Russian sentiments on screen than Russians? Doctor Zhivago is at times crude and shows all sides of social revolution and war romanticism. No one is a hero, everyone has their dreams and ideals to a fault, which is exasperating, heartbreaking and real.
Proshkin and writer Yuri Arabov never underestimate their audience, and, sadly, I was so confused at times, but I blame my own lack of familiarity with Russian history, its settings and Proshkin’s material. Sometimes it took me a few minutes to connect one character to the other. However, overall, Doctor Zhivago is a very well put together series that deserves more attention, especially if Russian embassies around the globe were interested in popularizing Russian cultural material.