The Slovakian Radio Hobbit (1989)
‘Tis the season for unearthing the rarest gems in Tolkien adaptation – which, considering that the fandom has been dominated by Peter Jackson for nigh on two decades, is a positively heart-warming development. It is why I have devoted so much blog space to the obscure and weirdly wonderful world of Tolkienian television and cinema, as it stood before the Coming of Jackson. These poor neglected things need more love. Sure, no-one will ever see these works as staggering examples of creative art, but we ought to treasure them all the same.
Today I am digging yet further, by reviewing a Slovakian-language radio adaptation of The Hobbit, from 1989 (back when the country was part of Czechoslovakia).
Reviewing this creates a unique headache – unlike the Swedish or Soviet efforts, where I could not understand the language, but could at least follow along via visual cues, this is a radio adaptation.
There are no visual cues.
I am thus reliant on my knowledge of the source material, and the voice-acting, to guess what is going on. Well, that, and the YouTube versions of the Slovakian Radio Hobbit are set against relevant pieces of art, allowing at least some visual guide. Wish me luck.
The radio adaptation in question is in two parts, with each part being just under forty minutes. For reviewing purposes, I have broken down each part into eight five-minute segments, allowing me to give what amounts to a real-time response to what is going on. Or at least to explain what I think is going on.
Part One (An Unexpected Party to Riddles in the Dark):
I: Gandalf confronts Bilbo outside his door. Gandalf is noticeably prone to laughter – almost as though he knows something Bilbo (and the audience) does not. Bilbo does not take kindly to this, so retreats inside. He stuffs his face with dinner, and goes to sleep.
II: The Dwarves show up in one big heap. Party time, complete with comic songs. Eventually the Quest is explained. The overall tone is extremely light and fluffy, with the Dwarves being a messy rabble.
III: The Company sets out on the Quest. The Dwarves continue to be a bit silly, while Bilbo whinges. This adaptation is definitely going for a playful light-hearted tone.
IV: The trolls. I actually think this is the pinnacle of the entire radio play. The trolls’ voices – deep and brutish – are absolutely perfect, while Gandalf’s intervention is noticeable, even for someone who can’t understand the language.
V: We get more laughing Gandalf (he’s rather prone to this), and then onto Rivendell. The Rivendell Elves sound out-and-out drunk, and not in a good way. I am actually not sure if Elrond is there at all. It is a very short stay anyway, because soon we’re up into the Misty Mountains.
VI: The other highlight. The Company is captured by the Goblins, and unlike the Elves, the Goblin song is perfect. The Great Goblin’s horror at Orcrist is very apparent… though I was scratching my head a bit as to his death, which sounds weirdly drawn-out. Bilbo becomes isolated, and is clearly confused and exhausted.
VII: Bilbo encounters Gollum. Gollum’s voice is distracting – it’s too deep and monstrous, making him sound much larger than he is. On the other hand, for the first time in the story, Bilbo stops whinging and actually becomes pro-active.
VIII: Bilbo follows Gollum up, and escapes the Mountains. The effects of the Ring (clearly picked up at some point in the previous five minutes) are represented by a strange tinkling noise.
Overall, I actually enjoyed the first forty minutes of this radio play – the tone is a world-away from Jackson’s ponderous nonsense, and not hard to follow, even for someone who does not speak Slovak.
Alas, this was to change in the second part.
Part Two (After the Misty Mountains to the Return Home):
The second forty minutes of this radio play had one big problem: if you are devoid of visual cues, and are entirely reliant on your knowledge of the source material to understand the story… heaven help you if the radio play departs from the source material. Which this part certainly did.
It wasn’t Jackson-style additions. No, it was the cuts. If you aren’t sure what is being cut, that rather throws off your guess as to what is actually going on. Oh well.
I: A recap of Part One. I’m not sure it was needed, to be honest. The pacing is also a bit off in the second part generally, as it speeds up to conclude the story inside the forty-minute time limit. I actually think a three-part version might have worked better, since it would have allowed for more organic and less-rushed storytelling (as in Part One). As it is, we get copious narration from laughing Gandalf. Narration in a language you can’t understand, without visual cues, is a recipe for confusion.
II: Recap concludes. Bilbo rejoins Gandalf and the Dwarves.
III: They appear to entirely skip the Fir Trees, the Eagles, and Beorn. This is what I meant by the problem of cutting… fair enough if you are watching a visual medium, or can understand the language, but I am an Anglophone listening to a Slovakian radio play. As it is, they enter Mirkwood, where the Dwarves seem to get lost.
IV: I can’t tell if the spiders are cut or not. It’s still Mirkwood. The Dwarves are captured by the Wood-Elves, and Bilbo is organising the escape.
V: There’s a cheerful Barrel song. The story suddenly moves at warp speed, as we race past Lake Town, and up to Erebor. Bilbo confronts Smaug.
VI: Smaug throws his temper tantrum – which is a disappointment, since it makes him sound vaguely asthmatic in an audio-only medium. There is a narration of his attack on Lake Town. The Dwarves stumble into abandoned Erebor.
VII: The Dwarves learn of Smaug’s death – and the impending attack – via the old raven. They become less a rabble, and altogether more energetic. The Battle of Five Armies ensues, with appropriate sound effects. Bilbo groggily wakes up, and is reunited with Gandalf.
VIII: Bilbo sees the dying Thorin, and returns home.
As I have said, the replacement of dramatised action with narration makes it damned hard to work out what was actually cut in Part Two, as opposed to merely being narrated away. Part One was genuinely enjoyable, even for someone who does not understand Slovak… but the second forty minutes was an exercise in frustration.
Phew. And people complain about not having subtitles with the Soviet film. They should try this one. But in all seriousness, it was far from a waste of time, and I could definitely understand the light-hearted tone the radio play was going for. The troll episode was definitely the highlight of the piece.
Apparently, this adaptation is now quite obscure even in Slovakia, where a more recent radio adaptation has been done of The Lord of the Rings. That one is a monumental eighteen-parter, totalling well over ten hours. Time will tell if I am mad enough to tackle that particular quest.