Russians to see 'authentic' version of Doctor Zhivago

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The Independent Online

Russia is reclaiming the love story that Hollywood purloined from its literary canon more than 40 years ago and has produced its first home-grown film version of Boris Pasternak's epic tale of love and revolution, Doctor Zhivago.

Anxious to correct what it perceives to be numerous cultural and stylistic inaccuracies in the late Sir David Lean's 1965 MGM film, an 11-part television feature has been made in Moscow with some of Russia's best actors and will be shown from May.

The idea is to "de-Westernise" the most famous work of one of only three Russian writers to have won a Nobel Prize for literature and give a Russian audience an authentic take on a book banned by the Communist authorities until the late 1980s. The "original" US film defined for many in the West what Russia was all about: snow, romantic sleigh rides, rolling landscapes, feel-good folk music ­ and revolution. But the Russians argue that Lean got some, if not all of it, badly wrong.

Though the Russians are gracious about the famous English-directed, US-financed film that won five Oscars, they are adamant that it was a peculiarly Western version of a quintessentially Russian work of literature.

In the Hollywood film, Omar Sharif plays the protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet from a wealthy Siberian family who strives to find love against the brutal backdrop of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The cast included Julie Christie as Lara, one of his two romantic interests, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson. Its haunting soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, and particularly the recurring " Lara's Theme", stuck in the mind of a generation ­ at least in the West. The film was acclaimed as one of Lean's best.

But for Aleksander Proshkin, the director of the Russian Doctor Zhivago, many details in the film were wrong. In an interview with The Independent, lists a slew of inaccuracies and cultural misconceptions and argued that an "authentic" Russian version was sorely needed. "It is a wonderful US film that belongs to its time," he said of the Lean version. "But it is American. It does not portray the reality of Russia. It is Russia through Anglo-Saxon eyes. In fact, it's neither Russia nor Pasternak."

Proshkin pointed out, for example, that the repeated use of a balalaika, a peasant instrument, was incongruous bearing in mind that the Zhivagos were from the upper echelons of society. "[The balalaika] has no place in the lives of wealthy millionaires. In Doctor Zhivago it was just a device to make the film more accessible," he said. Nor, he argues, do Siberian farmhouses have elaborate onion-domed cupolas as they do in the Hollywood film.

But what is really missing, he argues, is an authentic portrayal of the Russian soul. "It's like when our actors play an American or an Englishman. There are certain things that just can't be captured."

Ironically, he notes that the character of Lara was not the classic Russian heroine that Hollywood made her out to be but of French and Belgian parents, a fact that made her "freer" and "different".

Proshkin is careful not to be rude about the Hollywood film and quick to say that it was made at a time when the Cold War was raging and Russia was all but closed to foreigners. Hence it was filmed in Spain and Finland rather than in Moscow and Siberia.

He also criticises the Hollywood approach of making everything "black and white" and of dividing the novel's characters into good and bad. He argues that Pasternak's characters are more richly textured.

The scale and budget of the Russian production, which stars Oleg Menshikov, one of Russia's most popular actors, is not comparable to Hollywood but Proshkin feels his is more faithful. "This is a key novel when it comes to understanding Russia," he says. "Along with Quiet Flows the Don and the Gulag Archipelago it is one of just three Russian novels that has won the Nobel Prize. It is not the best or most perfect of novels but all of Russia is in it."

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