You may think you are familiar with The Lord of the rings, But nothing can prepare you for an adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy text made in the Soviet Union.
The made-for-TV movie was first aired on Leningrad Television in 1991 and was thought to have been lost in time, as first reported The Guardian. But the station’s successor, 5TV, recently discovered a copy of its archives and uploaded the entire work to YouTube in two parts.
Running for around 1 hour and 50 minutes, this adaptation focuses only on the first book of Tolkein’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and it’s a riot of low-budget special effects, bizarre camera work, and Soviet ambient music.
Rather than the epic Hollywood fantasy captured so well by Peter Jackson, this adaptation feels like a strange fairy tale told by a mad pipe smoker in the woods. In other words: it captures a completely legitimate aspect of The Lord of the rings, but not one that we are necessarily used to.
If you don’t have time to see it all, here are a few moments of choice, identified and helpfully marked by YouTube user Chris Staecker in two comments:
- The opening sequence. Featuring music composed by Andrei Romanov of the Russian rock group Akvarium, an incredibly murky shot of the One Ring and snippets of the Nazgûl riding through the snow.
- Sméagol fights Déagol, claims the One Ring, and becomes Gollum. For the Soviet adaptation there is none of that “slow transformation into a horrible shadow of his old self” for Sméagol. No: he puts the ring on and suddenly it’s Mr. Green-skinned sneaky hands. And why exactly does the chorus repeat “rrrrrrr” over and over again in the background? That, my friend, is a little thing called environment.
- The hobbits set out on their adventure. If this part looks like a behind-the-scenes footage from a 90s theater company, that’s because it is. Where did the sled come from? Why is that hobbit arguing over a mouthful of food? Who gives a fuck. Also advance to see them trapped in the Old Forest.
- It’s old Tom Bombadil, that jolly guy! Here he is: one of Tolkien’s weirdest characters, a mysterious figure who could be a god who was left out of Peter Jackson’s adaptation for being outside the plot. He can certainly be removed from history without much damage, but it’s still a pleasure to see him here with his wife Goldberry.
- Frodo meets Aragorn in The Prancing Pony. As Staecker points out, the creators, at this point, have given up trying to make the hobbits appear smaller than the other characters. The Soviet Aragorn has a decidedly less sexy mystique than Viggo Mortensen, but really who doesn’t.
- Elrond’s Council. It feels more like a scene from one of Shakespeare’s historical plays than the lush elegance of Jackson’s Rivendell, but it does the job. Move on to see Saruman warn Gandalf about the orc army that is coming, beautifully depicted as little guys in horned helmets sliding across the bottom of the screen.
- Fighting the orcs in Moria. The orcs here are less monstrous creatures and more simply “some guys I guess”. What the special effects lack is more than made up for in shaky camera work. Jump forward to see them traversing The Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and Gandalf is dead, I presume?
- Enter Galadriel and the magic … of dance. This is how I remember this scene from the books. Elves are immortal and live forever in strange enclaves. That means you are basically a cult. The hobbits, meanwhile, are stunned by how good they are at dancing and then get high. Fast forward a few minutes and you can see Galadriel being tempted by the One Ring.
- Frodo breaks an apple in two with his hands! No, I know this scene is a bit boring and it’s mostly about Boromir getting weird and gooey, but the apple thing is still great. Have you ever tried to do this? It is very difficult.
- Frodo and Sam are doing it for themselves.. All the others are corrupted by power: only friendship remains! I love the ending here, particularly the musical choice. This is really what The Lord of the rings It’s about the heart: just guys being guys.
And that is! What’s really surprising to consider is that this adaptation also aired just a decade before the first of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster trilogy. Had the Soviet Union survived a bit longer, we might have seen similar versions of The two Towers and The return of the King.