I never thought it would happen. I almost thought it was impossible. But, I have found the situation when the film was better than the book, and not by a small margin : Dr Zhivagio the film is much better than the book. Dr Zhivago is a classic of the film-makers art, the book, on the otherhand, is an overlong and maudlin saga.
I remember well when I saw David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago” as it made an immediate impact on me. The photography was spectacular, there was an epic tale of revolution and chaos, upon which was played a moving love story. The whole thing was bound together by the magical music particularly “Lara’s Theme“, by Maurice Jarre, the leitmotif that glued everything together. Even today I only have to hear a few bars of this, or the opening of “Somewhere my Love“, to be instantly back remembering this film. Although I enjoyed and regarded the film highly it was initially a difficult film for me.
When I first saw the film I was a youth, a teenager, and a firebrand for the left. I found it difficult that a film as powerful as this was not a paean to the great communist revolution, but rather a shocking indictment of the treatment of the individual at the hands of the state. Being obstinate and foolish, as a lad, I omitted to read the book as I had the habit then of only tending to read what confirmed the prejudices I already cultured. I was therefore delighted when our bookclub decided to do Dr Zhivago, it gave me the chance to rectify a wrong and I would read Dr Zhivago, the book.
I knew the history of the book, I knew it had won the Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak, and I knew that it was an important text in revealing the problems of totalitarianism. I had mentally filled it alongside George Orwell’s “1984” and Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch“, both of which I had re-read recently and found excellent. It was therefore with expectant optimism that I started “Dr Zhivago”.
The first couple of days were fine, but as time passed my spirits sagged and my reading slowed to a barely perceptible crawl. I found the text dense and difficult, there was far too much detail which failed to add to setting scenes or developing characters or relationships. The frequent use of multiple, different names for characters was occasionally confusing. The story was rather jumbled in its chronography and relied heavily on coincidences for plot development, many of which were very contrived. None of this was helped by the poorly drawn characters who failed to engage with me. In particular, our hero, Yuri Zhivago, is rather dislikable; arrogant, self-opinionated, a philanderer and user of women. He is a poor example of the individual in a book promoting the Tolsoyian ideals of the individual.
I have to confess that I could not continue reading after a third of the way through and I cheated. I switched to Audible and had Philip Madoc read the remaining two thirds of the book to me as I walked the dog, fleshed the sheepskins, or cooked the meals (It’s 18 and a half hours long on audible). But this was the only way I could have completed my task. I found it difficult to see why the book won the Nobel Prize for Literature as I agree with Vladimir Nabokov who found it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic” and presume it won for its political impact rather then its literary merit. All in all a great disappointment but did reveal that my earlier prejudice that the book is always greater than the film was wrong.
P.S. Since then I have started to reconsider whether Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” is better than Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret“, this is a tight contest.