When Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, it heralded a cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that would, at long last, possess scale, production value, and sheer ambition enough to do justice to the original novels. This set it somewhat apart from the version of The Fellowship of the Ring that had aired just ten years before on Leningrad Television — and hasn’t been seen since, at least until its recent upload (in two parts) to Youtube. An unofficial adaptation, Khraniteli tells a story every single Tolkien reader around the world will recognize, even if they don’t understand unsubtitled Russian. The production’s appeal lies in any case not in its dialogue, but what we’ll call its look and feel.
“Featuring a score by Andrei Romanov of the rock band Akvarium and some incredibly cheap production design, no one is going to confuse this Lord of the Rings with Jackson’s films,” writes /Film’s Chris Evangelista. “The sets look like, well, sets, and the special effects — if you can call them that — are delightfully hokey. This appears to have had almost no budget, and that only lends to the charm.”
Despite its cheapness, Khraniteli displays exuberance on multiple levels, including its often-theatrical performances as well as visual effects, executed with the still-new video technology of the time, that oscillate between the hokily traditional and the nearly avant-garde. Some scenes, in fact, look not entirely dissimilar to those of Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway’s high-tech vision of Shakespeare that also premiered in 1991.
That year was the Soviet Union’s last, and the prolonged political shakeup that ensued could partially explain why Khraniteli went unseen for so long. Until now, obscurity-hunters have had to make do with The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit (previously featured here on Open Culture), Leningrad Television’s earlier adaptation of Tolkien’s pre-Lord of the Rings children’s novel. It was the now long-gone Leningrad Television’s successor entity 5TV that just put the Soviet Fellowship of the Ring online — and in seemingly pristine condition at that — to the delight of global Tolkien enthusiasts who’d known only rumors of its existence. And as many of them have already found, for all the shortcomings, Khraniteli still has Tom Bombadil, for whose omission from his sprawling blockbusters Jackson will surely never hear the end.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.