If you call yourself a Tolkien fanboy or fangirl, you’ve almost certainly kept up with the various film and television adaptations of not just the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but of its predecessor, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Tolkien’s first children’s novel (or so the literary world first received it). The story it tells of the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins and the band of raffish compatriots who drag him out to claim some treasure from Smaug the dragon offers understandably irresistible material for adaptation: the richly detailed, often funny high-fantasy adventure has, over the decades, made for numerous productions on the stage, radio, and screen. They’ve ranged from low- to high-profile, from Gene Deitch’s loose-as-possible 12-minute “animated” adaptation that came out in 1966 to Peter Jackson’s tripartite, high-framerate, nine-hour series of major motion pictures, two currently released with one to go. But what to make of the Soviet Hobbit above?
Known in English as The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit and in Russian, in full, as Сказочное путешествие мистера Бильбо Бэггинса, Хоббита, через дикий край, чёрный лес, за туманные горы. Туда и обратно. По сказочной повести Джона Толкина “Хоббит,” the hourlong TV movie debuted on the Leningrad TV Channel’s children’s show Tale After Tale in 1985. This unlicensed adaptation frames itself with the words of a Tolkien stand-in called “the Professor,” using live actors to play the main characters like Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, and Gollum, portraying the more exotic ones with either puppets or, according to Tolkien Gateway, dancers from the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. The fact that this version of The Hobbit only recently became available with real English subtitles (as opposed to goofy parody ones) goes to show just how seriously the Tolkien fandom has taken it, but it does retain a kind of handcrafted charm. Plus, it gives the internet the chance to indulge in the obligatory Yakov Smirnoff gag: in Soviet Russia, ring finds you.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.