A Long-Lost Soviet Adaptation of The Lord of the Rings Resurfaces on YouTube–and Tolkien Fans Rejoice (1991)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 1985 Sovi­et TV Adap­ta­tion of The Hob­bit: Cheap and Yet Strange­ly Charm­ing

Illus­tra­tions of The Lord of the Rings in Russ­ian Iconog­ra­phy Style (1993)

Sovi­et-Era Illus­tra­tions Of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hob­bit (1976)

The Lord of the Rings Mythol­o­gy Explained in 10 Min­utes, in Two Illus­trat­ed Videos

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.

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