Long-lost and Psychedelic: Khraniteli, the Soviet Fellowship of the Ring (1991)
It might just be me, but there are few things more exciting than the rediscovery of art previously thought lost. Even if it isn’t particularly great art, there is still the thrill of notching up a victory for human knowledge against the inevitable sands of time. There is a reason teary-eyed Doctor Who fans celebrate whenever a stray Hartnell or Troughton episode reappears from the 1960s.
So today, I take enormous pleasure in passing on some good news.
Khraniteli, the hitherto-missing 1991 Soviet adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, has been found, and uploaded to YouTube for all to enjoy. Sincere thanks to all responsible.
This also gives us the full-set of Soviet Tolkien adaptations – alongside the 1985 live-action Hobbit, and the 1991 animated Hobbit pilot episode, both of which I have already reviewed. Given that we also have the 1966 Snyder Hobbit, the 1971 Swedish Lord of the Rings, and the 1993 Finnish Lord of the Rings, that leaves only the 1979 Jackanory Hobbit missing among the more obscure Tolkien film and television adaptations (one day, I suppose…).
Anyway, Khraniteli is a live-action television movie. It was apparently filmed at Leningrad in 1991, and was only ever screened once on Soviet television. That it survives after thirty years is an enormous stroke of luck.
Here are the two parts, totalling just under two hours:
Part One (A Long Expected Party to the Barrow Downs):
Part Two (The Barrow Downs to the Breaking of the Fellowship)
What to make of this?
Well, it goes without saying that Khraniteli looks pretty cheap, and the special effects – yes, there are special effects – have aged very, very badly. Some of the stylistic choices are a bit weird, and certain things did jump out at me:
- Aragorn is very young. They throw in a scar on the cheek, but he really does not look like he’s been wandering the wilderness for decades.
- Is Legolas being played by a woman?
- Gimli looks like an escapee from a certain Monty Python sketch (No-one expects the Dwarven Inquisition).
- The hobbits’ furry feet are represented by knee-high fluffy boots.
- The Ringwraiths have some colourful tastes in bridles.
- Eru only knows what Gandalf is riding during his escape from Orthanc (yes, we see Saruman).
- Bilbo in Rivendell is clearly cosplaying Richard Wagner.
- We don’t see Gandalf fall in Moria, let alone the Balrog, and the first sign of disaster is represented by the Fellowship bursting into tears.
- The pacing is also off, spending a luxurious length of time on the early parts of the story, and then going into warp speed later. It’s not as bad as the (even cheaper) Finnish version from two years later, but the film suffers for it.
- Like the Finns, the Soviets also adopt the practice of having an overarching story narrator – in this case, a pipe-smoking bearded bloke with glasses and a ponytail (which makes him look weirdly contemporary in 2021). I don’t think it works overly well. Things pop back to him puffing away on his pipe, in a way that feels distracting.
Since the film has no English subtitles, and I can’t speak Russian, I was reduced to following along via my knowledge of the source material. Easier said than done – the bloke with glasses I had previously thought of as Sam eventually turned out to be Pippin.
I must say, however, that for all its faults, it is actually a pretty creative interpretation, one that even borders on the psychedelic at times. Here is some of the more out-there stuff, which is less about cheapness, and more about this being an idiosyncratic adaptation:
- Tobacco pipes are everywhere.
- The hobbits leave the Shire in the snow, and actually sled to the Old Forest, after a lengthy chat with what looks to be the innkeeper of some Shire pub.
- The dream sequence beside Old Man Willow is gloriously trippy.
- We actually see Goldberry, albeit she and Tom Bombadil are made to look like giants next to the hobbits.
- The Barrow Wight is a monstrous ghostly clown cavorting in a graveyard – a graveyard with Christian crosses at that.
- Frodo dances with a woman at the Prancing Pony.
- We see a live-action Saruman without a beard, and an Elrond with one.
- The arrival of the Fellowship at Lothlorien looks like they’ve stumbled into a production of Euripides’ Bacchae.
- The culminating confrontation between Frodo and Boromir has some interesting symbolism… Frodo tries and fails to reach an apple, so Boromir fetches it for him (remind you of anything?).
I might well be missing a fair bit, of course, since I was largely reduced to following visual cues, and I might give it another go if someone supplies some English subtitles. All told, I enjoyed the film for its creativity. Objectively, it is neither a great film nor a great Tolkien adaptation, but I appreciated the genuine imagination and effort put into this, quite apart from the inherent delight at seeing a Lost Tolkien Film.