The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been “essentially banned” for decades in Russia, perhaps because of its religious themes or the depiction of disparate Western allies uniting against a sinister power in the East, “says the author of Tolkien Through Russian Eyes.
Hobbits and Elves are familiar, if Soviet folk-rock is not. A man is clearly a wizard, although the special effects are, at their best, not very good. And the growl of an actor painted green sounds – sort of – like he’s saying “gollum.”
What is undeniable about two hours of video is the golden ring that can make people disappear: this messy, low-budget odyssey is both a time capsule of Soviet television and, until recently , a little-known version of JRR Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings.
For the first time in decades, audiences can now watch this adaptation of the first volume of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, which first and last aired on Russian TV in 1991, the year the Soviet Union broke up and the show disappeared from the archives of state television.
Russian broadcaster Channel Five, after recently finding and digitizing the footage in what it called a “long and laborious process,” posted the two-part recording online at the end of March. Its title is Khraniteli, resulting in The gardians.
“Everyone thought the recording of the performance was lost,” Channel Five said in a statement.
But after Tolkien’s fan clubs urged the broadcaster to browse the archives of its Soviet predecessor, Leningrad Television, Channel Five employees managed to find the footage last year.
“To many requests from fans of Tolkien’s work,” the channel said, it decided to upload “a film adaptation of a theatrical production”.
Online, the production has found an audience, despite, or perhaps because of, its unfortunate special effects, confusing editing, opera performance, and seemingly non-existent budget. On YouTube, parts 1 and 2 have been viewed almost 2 million times. After reporting the film’s rediscovery last week, The Guardian also rated it (“the kind of LSD panic you saw in after-school public information films in the 1980s”). The BBC, Vulture and Weekly entertainment followed suit.
“It’s so bad it’s good,” said Dimitra Fimi, senior lecturer in fantasy and children’s literature at the University of Glasgow. “It’s a weird concoction of stuff – some are very close to the narrative and some are downsized in some way or another.
Fimi said that, like other academics she had spoken to, she enjoyed the production even though it left her struggling with mysteries such as “why is Gollum wearing a lettuce on her head?”
So far, Tolkien fans in Russia and the West seem to be enjoying the production for what it is and what it isn’t. Everyone knows it’s not director Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings trilogy of the 2000s.
“There is no sense in comparing these films,” said Nikolai Matchenya, a 31-year-old fan from Pskov, Russia. “It’s like comparing a new car with new computer systems on the inside with old mechanical cars.”
The effects? “Too old-fashioned,” he says. The game? “Poor.” The costumes? It was “not bad”.
Few would discuss the effects, at least. When the sorcerer Gandalf sets off magical fireworks, the actor lifts his cloak and designs of fireworks appear. An insect-eyed bird puppet replaces a giant eagle, and the evil Sauron appears as an eye superimposed on a cup of pink ooze. Magic is often depicted with a watery effect and spooky music.
“I love it without irony,” said Maria Alberto, a fan studies researcher at the University of Utah. People who say, “Oh, this is really bad, this is really cranky,” she said, had gotten used to decades of “neat adaptations.”
She said the production reminded her of adaptations made by fans of other Tolkien works, in which an audience can watch the adaptation process unfold in chaotic detail.
“What I see with this movie is that they’re still figuring it out,” she said.
Tolkien’s books were hard to find for decades in the Soviet Union, without an official translation from The Hobbit until 1976 – “with some ideological adaptations”, according to Mark Hooker, the author of Tolkien through russian eyes. But the Rings The trilogy has been “essentially banned” for decades, he said, perhaps because of its religious themes or the portrayal of disparate Western allies uniting against a sinister power in the East.
In 1982, an authorized and abbreviated translation of “Fellowship” became a bestseller, Hooker said. Translators began to create unofficial versions of samizdat in the years that followed – translating and typing all of the text themselves.
“Khraniteli” aired at a time of “great systemic turmoil” as the Soviet Union was dismantled, and was part of “the flood of ideas that rushed to fill the void,” Hooker said. “For the average Russian, the world was turned upside down.”
Irina Nazarova, an artist who saw the original show in 1991, told the BBC that in retrospect, “The Absurd Costumes, a movie devoid of directing or editing, dismal makeup and acting – it all screams out. a country in collapse ”.
And while the Jackson Trilogy is well regarded, the community is excited to have a new adaptation to think about ahead of an upcoming Amazon series based on Tolkien’s work, Fimi said. “The more plurality we have of different versions and visions of Tolkien’s work, the better.”
Channel Five intends to make production even more accessible.
“In the near future,” he said, the video would receive English subtitles.
Alan Yuha circa 2021 The New York Times Company. Andrew Kramer contributed reporting.