Whenever there is a novel-based movie in the theatres, someone will say, “The book was better.” Almost always it is, but there are always exceptions. David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago is at least as good as Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel by the same name.
There is one scene I enjoy in the movie not in the book, so the credit goes to screenplay writer, Robert Bolt. Larisa Volokhonsky has just introduced her fiancé Pasha Antipov to her mother’s “advisor” Viktor Komarovsky, with whom she had been having an affair. Afterward, Komarovsky expresses his disapproval of the marriage because it’s basically a mismatch.
He says, “There are two kinds of men,” and Antipov is the first kind. “He is pure. He’s the kind of man the world pretends to look up to, and in fact despises. he’s the kind of man that breeds unhappiness particularly in women.” He follows this with the second kind of man, which he insists is “not pure, but alive.”
Two Kinds Of Men
Antipov and Komarovsky are two ends of a pole, the prig and the libertine. In literature this is called a foil. This serves as an example for those of us who are Creative Writers. We can learn how to further develop our characters with the use of foils. It is common to foil the protagonist against the antagonist, but that is really the low hanging fruit of authorship. This model is more exciting and provides more options for us.
While there are many opposites that can be foiled, the prig and the libertine may be the most common and the easiest to attempt. Antipov is a revolutionary committed to ending the rule of the czars and bringing about a worker’s state. He is the high-minded idealist. Komarovsky is a rich lawyer who likes to drink, gamble, and eat at fancy restaurants. He has political opinions, but they don’t move him as his appetite. Pasternak, as well as Lean, show us two kids of men as dissimilar as they can be.
Two Kinds Of Women
After Komarovsky tells Larisa about the two kinds of men, he says, “there are also two kinds of women, and you as well both well know are not the first kind.” He follows that with, “you are a slut.” She may not this depraved, but she is far from being the prig. She is indeed alive and willing to experience life. A woman of the first kind would be Tonya Gromyko. She is not as snobby as one thinks a prig to be, be she is rich and proper and fits the bill of the idealized woman.
The main character, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, marries Tonya, but has an affair with Larisa. This is after her husband, Antipov, has left her to fight in the revolution. While Tonya and Larisa might not be as severe as a prig and a libertine, they do foil each other as Antipov and Komarovsky do, just not as extreme.
What About Yuri?
So what kind of man is our main character, Doctor Zhivago himself? Neither, or more to the point, both. That is why I feel that we as Creative Writers can use foils in major character who surround our main character, and not have the two foils be the protagonist and the antagonist.
Zhivago has the best qualities of both men without their excesses. This helps put his affair in a literary context. As both kinds of men, Yuri despises both Antipov and Komarovsky, but he loves both Tonya and Larisa because just one type of woman would not do. Zhivago has ideas and is ideal, he knows life and how to live, he is simultaneously the doctor and the poet.
The challenge to us authors is to learn how to use foils, and maybe even form a foil triangle of sorts as both Pasternak and Lean did. These are the sorts of things that make our texts more full and our characters more developed.