When my wife, Wendy, and I went on our first date, in Chico, California, we saw David Lean's 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago. By then—the fall of 1966—the film wasn't brand new, but we didn't mind. In fact, soon thereafter we drove all the way to San Francisco to see it again in a splendid theater in whatever counted then as the state-of-the-art format (CinemaScope or some variant, perhaps).

Lest it be suspected that I came to the new PBS Zhivago—a two-parter, roughly two hours each, with part 1 airing last night and part 2 next Sunday—with prejudice, I plead not guilty. Indeed, some time ago, when a friend heard that Keira Knightley was playing Lara and found it risible that she should dare to take the part that Julie Christie made famous, I said I'd never seen Keira Knightley in anything and was willing to see the new version without preconceptions. I asked only that it be well made on its own terms and that it be faithful to the spirit of the novel, however much was changed in the process of adaptation. And to be fair—so that I wasn't recalling the 1965 film through the romantic mists of memory and making invidious comparisons on that basis—I also watched David Lean's version for the first time in many years.

So how does the new version hold up on its own? And how well does it do the job of re-creating Pasternak's novel in another medium? And how does it fare when seen alongside the 1965 blockbuster?

If you tuned in to part 1 last night, you may well have given up before it was finished. It seems at first to have been made with the notion that its intended audience is incapable of subtlety, incapable of appreciating the slightest degree of complexity (historical, psychological, or otherwise), and in desperate need of reassurance that while the novel this film was based on was the work of a Russian poet and has a poet as its hero ("poet" is a very scary word, you know, very intimidating), it's really an extremely Sexy story. In fact, it's all about sex! (Is this PBS's idea of what it takes to lure younger audiences? Masterpiece Theatre for Dummies, with lots of genteel nudity and passionate grappling?)

If you persist, you'll find it gets better as it goes. All three of the principals—Knightley as Lara, Hans Matheson as Yury Zhivago, and Sam Neill as the diabolical Komarovsky—are quite good, and Alexandra Maria Lara (yes, that surname is confusing) is also very fine as Zhivago's betrayed wife, Tonya. The score is excellent, the visual storytelling is often arresting (including the use of black-and-white documentary footage at intervals), and simply taken on its own terms I'm sure the total package is superior to the average made-for-TV movie.

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As an adaptation of Pasternak's novel—"in spite of and because of its contradictions, … a great book," as Czeslaw Milosz observed—it's another story. Here the PBS version is an abject failure. I won't enumerate the many baffling decisions made by the scriptwriter, Andrew Davies, whose BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was widely praised. (I haven't seen it.) I'll stick to the most fundamental failure: the complete omission of the (unorthodox) Christianity that informs the novel from its very beginning ("On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' " the novel opens, "and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing") to its end (the novel actually concludes with a selection of "The Poems of Yurii Zhivago," many of which are explicitly Christian; for a long time after the 1965 film, these poems—published separately in a Slim Volume, suitable for gift-giving—were among the few items that could reliably be found in the feeble Poetry sections of pre-superstore bookshops).

In a 1944 letter about the novel (which was already then in progress), Pasternak wrote, "The atmosphere of the work is my Christianity, slightly different in its breadth from Quaker or Tolstoyan belief, deriving from other aspects of the Gospel in addition to the moral." Milosz points out that Pasternak was "probably the first to read Teilhard de Chardin in Russia." The conception of the character of Yury Zhivago and the vision that drives the novel are incomprehensible when divorced from this Christian background—hence the radically narrowed scope of the screenplay. (Milosz's essay, "On Pasternak Soberly," first published in 1963 and collected in his book, Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, is a wonderful introduction to Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago.) From the PBS version, one might easily suppose that Russia at the beginning of the 20th century was the religious equivalent of Britain at the beginning of the 21st century.

As to how the new version stacks up against David Lean's, each has its strengths and weaknesses. (It was striking to see, in retrospect, how Julie Christie's Lara was so much of the period, her hairstyle above all). There is something maddening about the Pasternak treatment of Zhivago and Lara's affair (yes, it's tragic, but somehow on a higher plane … ), and the PBS version is tougher-minded than the 1965 film about the cost of their adultery, especially for Tonya, and in general more honest in its treatment of sex (as well as often, at the outset especially, simply more vulgar, more reductionist).

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The 1965 film, with its concluding scene at the enormous hydro-electric plant, is slightly ambiguous about the Soviet experiment: yes, it was brutally costly, but look at that marvelous dam. (There's a whiff of détente in the air, a liberal Sixtyish acceptance that the Soviet state is here to stay.) Here the PBS version, post-Solzhenitsyn, is again a bit more tough-minded. Both Knightley and Matheson are far more credible as young people—as the story calls for them to be early on—than Christie and Omar Sharif. And so on.

On the religious front, the 1965 version is marginally better, transposing everything distinctively Christian into a kind of nature-mysticism (keyed whenever Zhivago looks at the moon or clouds or blowing leaves): at least suggesting the metaphysical dimension of the story. And both versions are more or less equally unsatisfactory when it comes to dealing with poetry. Both suggest that Zhivago was not simply inspired by Lara but wrote primarily about her (and never mind the poems that conclude the novel, the only poems by "Zhivago" we've got: why complicate the picture?). The scene of Zhivago composing during the frozen nights in the 1965 version is one of the classic instances of the Hollywood vision of the Writer. The PBS version has a running theme: the very notion that someone might be writing poetry is regarded quizzically by many of the people Zhivago encounters, as a kind of joke. Here again the PBS scriptwriter has anachronistically projected attitudes from his own time.

Well, the novel is still to be found in almost any public library, even though its cachet in the literary world has long faded. It is still worth reading, for all its clunky machinery. And if Keira Knightley sends some impressionable minds to discover modern Russian literature, more power to her.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

Related Elsewhere

The official PBS site has more information on the latest movie.

The DVD of the 1965 version is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.

Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

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