A Soviet ‘Lord of the Rings’ Is Unearthed, Epic in Its Own Way

The hobbits and elves are familiar, if the Soviet folk-rock is not. One man is clearly a wizard, though the special effects are, at their best, not very good. And the growl of an actor painted green does sound — sort of — like he might be saying “gollum.”

What’s unmistakable over 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 TV and, until recently, a little-known version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy “The Lord of the Rings.”

For the first time in decades, audiences can now watch this adaptation of the first volume in the trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” which aired for the first and last time on Russian television in 1991, the year the Soviet Union dissolved and the performance vanished into the archives of state TV.

The Russian broadcaster Channel Five, after recently finding and digitizing the footage in what it called a “long and painstaking process,” posted the two-part recording online in late March.

“Everyone believed that the recording of the performance was lost,” Channel Five said in a statement. But after Tolkien fan clubs urged the broadcaster to scour the archives of its Soviet predecessor, Leningrad Television, workers for Channel Five managed to find the footage last year.

“At the numerous requests of fans of Tolkien’s work,” the channel said, it decided to post the “film adaptation of a theatrical production” online. Its title is “Khraniteli,” which translates to “The Guardians.”

Online, the production has found an audience, despite, or perhaps because of, its hapless special effects, confusing editing, operatic acting and seemingly nonexistent budget. On YouTube, Parts 1 and 2 have been watched almost two million times. After reporting the film’s rediscovery this week, The Guardian also appraised it (“the sort of LSD freak-out you saw on after-school public information films in the 1980s”). The BBC, Vulture and Entertainment Weekly followed suit.

“It’s so bad it’s good,” said Dimitra Fimi, a lecturer in fantasy and children’s literature at the University of Glasgow. “It’s a weird concoction of stuff — some of it is really close to the narrative and other bits are curtailed somehow.”

Dr. Fimi said that, like other scholars she had spoken with, she enjoyed the production even as it left her wrestling with mysteries like “why is Gollum wearing a lettuce on his head?”

So far, Tolkien fans in Russia and the West seem to appreciate the production for what it is and what it is not. Everyone knows it is not the director Peter Jackson’s blockbuster “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of the 2000s.

“Тhere 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 inside with old, mechanical automobiles.”

The effects? “Too old-fashioned,” he said. The acting? “Poor.” The costumes? Those were “not bad.”

Few would argue about the effects, at least. When the wizard Gandalf sets off magic fireworks, the actor lifts his cape and drawings of fireworks appear. A bug-eyed bird puppet stands in for a giant eagle, and the villainous Sauron appears as an eye superimposed over a cup of pink ooze. Magic is often depicted with a watery effect and some spooky music.

“I unironically love it,” said Maria Alberto, a fan studies scholar at the University of Utah. People who say, “Oh, it’s really bad, it’s really cringe,” she said, had grown used to decades’ worth of “polished adaptations.”

She said the production reminded her of fan-made adaptations of other Tolkien works, in which an audience can watch the process of adaptation unfold in chaotic detail. “What I’m kind of seeing with this film is they’re still figuring it out,” she said.

Arseny Bulakov, the chairman of the St. Petersburg Tolkien Society, called the production “a very revealing artifact” of its era: “filmed in destitute times, without stage settings, with costumes gathered from acquaintances — and at the same time with great respect for Tolkien and love for his world.”

Mr. Bulakov said it reminded him “of the early years of Tolkienists” in Russia. “Not getting paid for half a year, dressed in old sweaters, they nevertheless got together to talk about hobbits and elves, to rewrite elvish poems by hand, to try to invent what was impossible to truly know about the world.”

Tolkien’s books were hard to find for decades in the Soviet Union, with no official translation of “The Hobbit” until 1976 — “with a few ideological adaptations,” according to Mark Hooker, the author of “Tolkien Through Russian Eyes.” But the “Rings” trilogy was “essentially banned” for decades, he said, perhaps because of its religious themes or the depiction of disparate Western allies uniting against a sinister power from the East.

In 1982, an authorized and abridged translation of “Fellowship” became a best seller, Mr. Hooker said. Translators started making unofficial, samizdat versions in the years that followed — translating and typing out the entire text on their own.

“Khraniteli” was broadcast at a moment of “great systemic turmoil” as the Soviet Union was dismantled, and part of “the flood of ideas that rushed in to fill the vacuum,” Mr. Hooker said. “For the average Russian, the world had turned upside-down.”

Irina Nazarova, an artist who saw the original broadcast in 1991, told the BBC that in retrospect, the “absurd costumes, a film devoid of direction or editing, woeful makeup and acting — it all screams of a country in collapse.”

Mr. Hooker compared the production itself to a samizdat translation, “with all the rough edges.” Among them are wobbling cameras, as though the hobbits were filming their journey with a camcorder, and sudden cuts to a narrator who, smoking a pipe or smiling silently, sometimes seems content to leave his audience in the dark.

The production includes some scenes from the books that are not found in the Jackson films, including one with the character Tom Bombadil and the creatures called barrow-wights. It also deviates in some ways, with the character Legolas played by a woman and no appearance of the monstrous Balrog.

All these decisions are “fascinating” to Dr. Fimi and her fellow scholars, she said, especially for “what that particular cultural moment is doing with that text.”

And though the Jackson trilogy is well-regarded, the community is excited to have a new adaptation to mull over before a coming Amazon series based on Tolkien’s work, she said. “The more plurality we have of different versions and different visions of Tolkien’s work, the better.”

Channel Five intends to make the production even more accessible. “In the near future,” it said, the video would get subtitles in English.

Andrew Kramer contributed reporting.

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