Day 6

Russian TV station uncovers a 'very, very cheap' Soviet-era Lord of the Rings film adaptation

Khranteli, a Soviet-era made-for-TV movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic, The Fellowship of the Ring, was posted to Russian broadcaster 5TV's YouTube channel in its entirety earlier this month.

'I'd like to say every penny is on the screen, but that's not a compliment in this context,' says podcaster

An actor plays Frodo, and holds The One Ring in Khranteli, a Soviet-era television adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. (5TV/YouTube)

If you have ever wondered what a production of The Lord of the Rings with costumes straight out of a high school musical might look like, look no further than a recently unearthed version made for Russian television.

"My sense is that some of the creatives probably really, really wanted to do this, and the money people were probably very, very skeptical and had to be talked into it," speculated Ally Pitts, host of Russophiles Unite!, a podcast about Russian cinema.

"I'd like to say every penny is on the screen, but that's not a compliment in this context."

The Soviet-era made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy, was posted to Russian broadcaster 5TV's YouTube channel in its entirety earlier this month.

The nearly two-hour long film, called Khraniteli, which translates to "The Guardians," was produced on a shoestring budget for Leningrad TV as the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse in 1991. 

WATCH | Part 1 of Leningrad TV's Khranteli

Speaking to the BBC, Russian artist Irina Nazarova said the costumes, makeup and acting "screams of a country in collapse." It has been described as a "glorious fever dream" with special effects that are "at their best, not very good."

"It just looks very, very, very cheap," said Pitts. "My wife described the costuming, for instance, as like about the level of a high school play."

Requested by Tolkien fans

According to the New York Times, 5TV scoured its archives, at the urging of Tolkien fans, to find and digitize what they call a "film adaptation of a theatrical production." 

"Everyone believed that the recording of the performance was lost," the company said in a statement.

Khranteli came years into Soviet Union politician and president Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost — a policy of "openness and transparency" — and along with it, less censorship of content.

Khranteli kicks off with a dramatic shot of the One Ring. (5TV/YouTube)

Up until then, a work of fantasy like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was likely frowned upon, says Pitts.

"Often fantasy has [a] pseudo-medieval setting, and the Soviet Union, of course, was always looking forward to the bright future of communism," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Tolkien's series wasn't published in Russia until the 1980s, but Pitts says versions known as samizdat — the copying and distribution of literature and art banned by the state — likely circulated for years, if not decades, before.

"People, if they wanted to read or indeed to listen to things, they would go to extraordinary lengths to make that happen — and great personal risk," said Pitts.

'Not sure that's what Tolkien had in mind'

Pitts says that with all its flaws, Khranteli seems to be a "extremely misguided labour of love."

"The people who made it probably really, really wanted to make it, but wanted to make it so much that they didn't care that much about it being the most fantastic thing ever," he said.

"The line between, you know, ambition and folly is often quite a fine one, and I think they fall into the side of folly."

Khranteli features barrow-wights, characters cut from Peter Jackson's 2000 adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring. Podcaster Ally Pitts described the Soviet interpretation as 'goth clowns.' (5TV/YouTube)

And while Khranteli may not be critically acclaimed like its big-budget Hollywood counterpart, Peter Jackson's 2000 adaption of The Fellowship of the Ring, Pitts says it's got at least one leg up on the competition.

"One of the things, as a big Lord of the Rings fan myself, I would have loved to have seen Peter Jackson's take on the barrow-wights, which were some evil ghosts-slash-zombies the hobbits encounter very early in the story," he said.

While they were left out of Jackson's epic for pacing reasons, they make an appearance in the Soviet version. "But basically they look like goth clowns, so maybe I'm not sure that's what Tolkien had in mind," he added.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Hannah Theodore.

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