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Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, as Doctor Yuri Zhivago, and English actress Julie Christie as Lara Antipova, in 'Doctor Zhivago', directed by David Lean, 1965.
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Nobody would argue that the movie Doctor Zhivago—which premiered 50 years ago, on Dec. 22, 1965—is short. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, it easily qualifies for “epic” status. On the other hand, that’s a fraction of the whopping 45 hours that screenwriter Robert Bolt originally estimated would be required to capture the full story as told in Boris Pasternak’s novel.

Director David Lean burned through a budget of $11 million adapting the bestselling novel, and the result was—TIME noted—both faithful to the original and not. Lean had been moved to tears by the book, but knew that adapting it for the screen would be a major challenge. And it wasn’t just a matter of length, that article continued:

The solution, Bolt and Lean decided, was to minimize the role of the Russian Revolution and maximize the character of Lara, played by Julie Christie.

As the film neared its release, Lean said that he was so close to the it that he had “no idea” whether he would enjoy seeing the finished product, but advance ticket sales hit a then-impressive $250,000. And the next week TIME’s critic made clear that those moviegoers had made a smart bet: Doctor Zhivago on screen was “literate, old-fashioned, soul-filling and thoroughly romantic.”

Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: From Russia With Love

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