In the comment section of my last post, which was a review of two murder mysteries by John le Carre, Michael Gorman made an interesting observation: “I wonder if Le Carre is particularly special because his terrific books make wonderful films–not just the recent (in my view, best picture of the year) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but the splendid Spy Who Came in from the Cold with the radiant Claire Bloom as a ‘librarian.’”
This comment stuck in my brain because the weather here in the Bay area has been wet and cold this weekend…perfect weather for hunkering down in front of a fire with a nice long book and a hot cup of tea with lemon. The long book I picked out is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I chose Zhivago for several reasons: 1) it is one of those books I have been meaning to read for the past 45 years, 2) long Russian novels are best when the weather is cold, and 3) my recent foray into le Carre, rekindled my interest in the early days of the Cold War . Perhaps you’re too young to remember but Pasternak became an important soldier on the Cold War battlefield in 1958 when his masterpiece Zhivago, which was censored in Russia, was smuggled out of the country and clandestinely submitted to the Nobel Prize panel for their consideration. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature a year later to the great embarrassment of the Soviet government.
But the Cold War culture clash and the Nobel Prize are not the reasons why Dr. Zhivago is remembered today. It’s the epic David Lean cinematic adaptation of the book - the 8th highest money making film of all time – that is synonymous with the word Zhivago.
Let’s see… that movie came out in 1965. That was 47 years ago. You’d think by now I could sit down and read the book without thinking about the movie. No way. As soon as I opened the book, the characters were as distinct in my mind as they were a half century ago. The movie was that memorable and the cast was that incredible. Even the music, the haunting “Lara’s Theme,” came flooding back as well as the full screen blinding snowstorm that turns Zhivago’s mustache to ice.
Ordinarily, it would bug the heck out of me to not be able to sit down and read a book on the author’s own terms, but having the movie as my reading frame of reference doesn’t necessarily bother me in this case. Like all endless Russian epic novels, Zhivago is populated with many characters all of whom have long difficult names. Typically you have to draw up a chart of the major and minor characters and show their family relationships in order to bring structure to the reading experience. Not so with Zhivago. It’s easy to keep everyone straight simply by identifying them with the right actor and what a cast it was:
- Omar Sharif – Yurii Andreivevich Zhivago
- Julie Christie – Larisa Feodorovna Guishar
- Geraldine Chaplin – Antonina Alexandrovna Gromeko
- Rod Steiger – Victor Ippolitovich Komararovsky
- Alec Guinness – Evgraf Andreievich Zhivago
- Tom Courtney – Pavel Pavlovich Antipov
- Ralph Richardson – Nikolai Nikolaievich Vedeniapin
Typically, however, I tend to read the book before going to the movie so that I am not brainwashed by the characterizations. Of course, the reverse also holds true. If you read the book first will your enjoyment of the movie be limited because of the expectations you have from the book? I guess what you do depends whether you like books more than movies.
Michael Gorman is correct in suggesting that John le Carre has benefited greatly because his books make such splendid movies. This raises another question. Does an author write a novel with a movie in mind? I’m not sure but certain authors do tend to have great cinematic success, le Carre, foremost among them.
L. Frank Baum struck gold with the movie version of his book the Wizard of Oz, which was okay but not great. Margaret Mitchell’s sparawling but stereotypical novel, Gone with the Wind, came to life with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Mario Puzo would just be another hack writer of Mafia tales if it weren’t for Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino.
On the other hand scores of great writers have had to endure the ignominy of having their masterpieces reek of mediocrity on the big screen. Tolstoy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Updike have all had their literary hearts broken by Hollywood.
And then we get to God. Imagine how He feels. There has yet to be a movie made from the Bible that does not ultimately devolve into a pathetic form of cheesy melodrama or an even more pathetic form of cheesy comedy (can you say “George Burns”). Even worse than the movies featuring an Old Testament version of God thundering from the sky are the New Testament versions of Jesus performing miracles on the ground. God is just a completely impossible role and I wish Hollywood would someday realize that.
Which gets us to the question of the day: What are your most and least favorite book/movie combos?