In 'Zhivago's' shadow

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."

Especially since Lean and Bolt had left out certain plot points from Pasternak's novel. "There were a lot of bits of the book ... I could bring out like Komarovsky's involvement in the suicide of Zhivago's father," Davies says. "I thought it was so important. Since Komarovsky is involved in the father's suicide, it is obviously going to have a huge effect on Yuri. It was great to find those bits."

Sexual awakening

In the Lean film, Lara seemed to hate sex with Komarovsky. But not in the new version. As played by then-16-year-old Knightley ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "Love Actually"), Lara may despise herself because of her affair with him but also seems to enjoy her sexual awakening and his sexual sophistication.

"Clearly, he seduces her, but she's proud of that," Neill says. "She has very complex feelings for Komarovsky. It's clear as a result of their affair there is a certain amount of self-loathing in Lara when she recognizes the baser things [in herself]."

"I think he knows that there is always a little of herself that she holds back and he can't get at," Davies says. "That drives him really wild. The novel kind of hints at that, and I sort of felt that was so interesting and took it up -- a 16-year-old who is being wooed by a handsome, powerful middle-age man who can more or less make everybody jump and openly admits he finds her fascinating. She gets quite excited by her own sexual power [more] than by him specifically. She's as interested in learning about sex and he's a very good teacher."

The scenes between Neill and Knightley are much more explicit and intense than in the 1965 film. The Lean version came out before there were ratings; this version is TV-14. Neill admits that he was a little nervous about doing the love scenes with the teenager. "There are some scenes that would potentially have been rather awkward," Neill says, with a look of embarrassment creeping across his face. "We laughed all the time. There was a lot of giggling that went on."

"I think he was a little bit alarmed when he first met her," Davies recalls. "He said to me, 'I had moments of thinking, "Should I be doing this?" ' In those lovemaking scenes, he looked like a great big sleepy cat, sort of a lion. Very gentle at the time, but he could give you a swipe with his big paw."

Neill credits director Campiotti for giving this "Zhivago" its own look and feel. "He's a real filmmaker," he offers.

"The result of that is it doesn't look like Lean. It doesn't sound like Lean. And Andrew is wonderful at making classic text very accessible and very immediate without any dumbing down. That's good."

Komarovsky, Neill says, is "vile and despicable. Yet, you know, there is no such thing as an entirely bad person. Everyone has something to redeem them. While I am inhabiting him, it would be a mistake to be judgmental. There is something about him that I feel is kind of sad, too, lonely."

Despite his acumen with the ladies and his political connections, Neill's Komarovsky lives alone with his pet bulldog. And when he learns that Lara is leaving him to get married, he takes out his rage on the bulldog.

When he read the book, Davies saw Komarovsky's dog as a perfect metaphor for his personal life. "In the book he has this badly behaved dog," Davies says, "that he is very fond of but he can't quite control. I took this to be a metaphor for his unruly sexual instincts."

Neill finds Komarovsky a very contemporary character.

"I went to Russia a few years ago," he says. "It was a real fascinating place. Everything is in such a tremendous state of flux. Goodness me, Russia is filled with Komarovskys to this day -- people who are flourishing now in the new capitalist system. It was like the Wild West. All the Komarovskys were surrounded by people who'd have machine guns. People are making huge fortunes from doing dreadful things."

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'Masterpiece Theatre: Doctor Zhivago'

When: 9 tonight and Nov. 9

Where: KCET

Rating: PBS has rated the film TV-14-S,V (may not be suitable for children under age 14 because of some sexual situations and infrequent coarse language).

Production credits: Executive producer, Andy Harries. Director, Giacomo Campiotti. Writer, Andrew Davies, from the novel by Boris Pasternak.

Cast: Keira Knightley (Lara Guishar), Hans Matheson (Yuri Zhivago), Sam Neill (Victor Komarovsky).

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