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Now on YouTube: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as you’ve never seen it, unless you were in Russia in 1991

UPDATED: Thu., April 8, 2021

By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

A few, hypnotically bad minutes of “Khraniteli,” the recently rediscovered 1991 Soviet TV adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” should be enough to get your weekend off to a start from which you might never recover. I don’t want to overstate its disorienting effect, but understating it would be a dereliction of duty.

Last week, without fanfare, the state-run Russian TV station 5TV posted the rarity on YouTube. The 105-minute Russian-language adaptation reportedly aired once before slipping, Gollum-like, into the vaults of what was then known as Leningrad Television.

An April 5 story in the Guardian stoked interest among Tolkien’s adoring English- (and, of course, Elvish-) speaking millions. The story is narrated by a bearded man wearing oversized eyeglasses that scream 1991. The soft-focus blur in many scenes, intended to create an aura of magic and wonderment, appears to be hair gel smeared on a Yeltsin-era camera lens.

The acting (Hobbits, especially) is leaden to the point of making the viewer forget that Russia was home to several monumental developments in theater as well as film. Until last week, the TV adaptation was presumed lost forever.

While its apparent state-sanctioned recovery and YouTube posting might not rival the hoped-for recovery of Orson Welles’s original cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” for example, or F.W. Murnau’s long-lost, late-silent era melodrama “4 Devils,” it’s nonetheless big news for ardent Tolkien fans.

Published in 1954, “The Fellowship of the Ring” circulated in the Soviet Union as underground samizdat throughout the ’60s and ’70s prior to its first official Russian-language publication. A ballet-centric TV version of “The Hobbit” aired in 1985, also on Leningrad Television.

By the time of the 1991 “Fellowship of the Ring” TV version, with its charmingly artless rear-projection effects and unleashed, unchained mugging, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and Soviet college students were heavily into Tolkien just as students the world over had been already. They continue to be thanks in part to Peter Jackson’s fantastically popular film trilogies.

If you brave the ’91 YouTube novelty, opt for the English subtitles, which are profoundly un-idiomatic and stilted. They’ll only add to the paradoxical torpor-soaked craziness of the project, introduced by the signature theme by Andrei Romanov of the rock band Akvarium. It makes “Song of the Volga Boatmen” sound like “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

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