I watched the Soviet Lord of the Rings

Is it as indelibly bizarre and fabulously awful as you would have hoped, oh da.

Before I stumbled on this curio on YouTube by chance, I had never known about the existence of a Russian-language attempt to adapt Tolkien’s fantasy epic ten years before Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Made in 1991, this TV play miniseries was broadcast just once before the Soviet Union fell apart, and was thought to be lost forever before re-surfacing in 2021 to the delight of internet. I must have been doing something else on the day it was screened back in 1991, because I’ve no memories of watching it in Russia whatsoever.

Titled Khraniteli (Keepers or Guardians in English translation), the miniseries is a fairly faithful adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring – including the scenes with Tom Bombadil which Jackson omitted from his movies – shot in about a week on a shoestring budget, with sets that can be kindly described as rudimentary, ludicrous and hilarious special effects, and some creative decisions that are, um, truly baffling. The costumes are a mix of medieval garbs borrowed from some other theatrical productions, and weird avant-garde designs. The makers only had enough budget for three horses, so the Nine Riders are actually just Three Riders, with some scenes simply replaying the same footage of three riders going past, three times over. On the plus side, the Ringwraiths have a pretty rad early 90s electronic theme.

There’s really no point in writing a conventional review of this movie, so here are some of the moments that made me go WTF and/or howl with laughter.

Gollum with lettuce on his head

Gandalf’s birthday fireworks – proudly brought to you by 1991 Microsoft Paint!

Moody teenager Aragorn and female Legolas with no speaking lines

The Eye of Sauron

Gandalf’s escape on a Great Eagle (Gandalf is actually a bit of a smug jerk in this version)

Middle-earth’s own version of The Wiggles

The Fellowship of the Ring using Gimli as a portable table

Elena Solovey as Galadriel – what on earth is she doing in this monstrosity??

I guess it’s fair to mention some genuine positives as well:

1) Thanks to this series I learned that J. R. R. Tolkien’s first name was John.
2) Soviet Evil Galadriel is still better than Jackson’s Nuclear Galadriel (one of the trilogy’s rare visual missteps).
3) Sam in this version is still a loyal and devoted friend… awwww.

As a lover of singularly terrible movies, I’m rather sorry that we couldn’t have a similarly psychedelic low-budget take on The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

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