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Modern fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's work surely know The Lord of the Rings at least partly (if not primarily) through the lens of the beloved big-screen adaptations directed by Peter Jackson at the dawn of the 21st century. But for decades after the original 1955 publication of the Middle-earth saga, it was not a guarantee that the quest to destroy the One Ring would ever make it to the screen. The closest thing many American fans got was the 1978 animated film by Ralph Bakshi.
But now a new treasure has been unveiled. It turns out that in 1991, the Soviet Union adapted the first volume of LOTR, The Fellowship of the Ring, as a TV movie titled Khraniteli. Thought lost to time, the whole thing has now been uploaded to YouTube in two parts by 5TV, the successor to original broadcaster Leningrad Television.
There are no English subtitles for the Russian dialogue and scene-setting, but it's not too hard for LOTR fans to figure out what's going on. Then again, it was filmed and broadcast a full decade before Jackson's culture-changing version of The Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters, so the set pieces and special effects are a lot rattier.
Nevertheless, it's fun to go through and spot how this older take on LOTR handled certain pivotal scenes (including one that never made it into Jackson's films). Below, check out five of our favorite moments.
As a member of the ancient order called the Istari, Gandalf is identified as a "wizard" to most residents of Middle-earth. But the hobbits of the Shire have much less familiarity with magic than, say, the elves of Rivendell do. So instead of discussing metaphysical concepts, Gandalf contents himself with showing the hobbits fireworks, which are delightfully mind-blowing to the people of the Shire.
In Jackson's Fellowship, viewers see Gandalf's fireworks form a gigantic dragon. Here, Khraniteli makes inventive use of its low budget by having Gandalf wave a red flag that displays images of explosions and sparkles — magic, in its own way.
Gollum is one of the most important and memorable characters from LOTR, but he doesn't play a big part in the story until The Two Towers. Thankfully, the creators of Khraniteli still fit some Gollum time into their version of Fellowship by having Gandalf tell Frodo the story of how the Ring corrupted the hobbit-like being Smeagol into the monstrous Gollum shortly after the young hobbit acquires the artifact. In Jackson's films, this flashback opens The Return of the King.
After Smeagol's buddy Deagol finds the One Ring lying in a riverbed, the two friends fight over the precious gold object until Smeagol emerges victorious. It doesn't take long for the Ring to corrupt him beyond repair, though, and in Khraniteli that transformation is signified by the actor reappearing in a silly green suit. The scene takes place around 20 minutes in if you want to watch and see how this actor's rolling throat sounds compare to Andy Serkis' interpretation of the guttural "gollum" noise that gives the creature his iconic sobriquet.
Tom Bombadil gets his due
Now here is an instance where Khranteli unambiguously has the leg up on Jackson's films. Jackson famously jettisoned the section of Fellowship that involves the character Tom Bombadil. An enigmatic figure who has enormous power in the vicinity of his woodland home but could not care less about the struggle to destroy the One Ring, Bombadil doesn't really fit with the main story of LOTR. What he does do is instill the reader with a sense that Middle-earth is bigger and more magical than this one saga, full of mysteries that not even Tolkien himself fully understood.
The Bombadil scene in Khraniteli certainly evokes a sense of fairy-tale surrealism, as he and his wife, Goldberry, tower over the miniature hobbits in their warm home.
Gandalf's eagle ride
Gandalf sets Frodo and his hobbit companions on their quest, but is absent until they get to the elf haven of Rivendell. At the Council of Elrond, he explains why: He was held captive by his fellow wizard Saruman, and was only able to escape with the help of one of Middle-earth's enormous eagles. The sight of Ian McKellen soaring across the sky on the back of a CGI bird is one of the most unforgettable images from Jackson's films, but Khraniteli's take is memorable in its own way. Check out the bugging eyes on that bird puppet!
Trekking through Moria
What is LOTR without its giant battles? The climax of Fellowship takes place in Moria, a place of ancient dwarf mines that have since been abandoned to hordes of goblins and orcs. Lacking the detailed sets or budget for hundreds of extras, Khraniteli gives the scene a unique look, with the main actors' images spliced against an underground-looking background, engaged in blurry fights with untold enemies.