J.R.R. Tolkien fans across the globe encountered the seemingly impossible last month: a film version of “The Lord of the Rings” they’d never heard of. There was Gollum gargling in his cave. Except that in this version, he’s speaking Russian, sports orange eye-shadow and has what appears to be bright green cabbage leaves pasted to his head.
“Khraniteli,” or “The Protectors,” was an adaptation of “The Fellowship of the Ring” made in the Soviet Union just months before its collapse in 1991. It aired briefly as a televised children’s program before disappearing for 30 years. The two-part, two-hour-long production is enjoying newfound fame since its producer 5TV, formerly Leningrad TV, posted it online out of the blue. It has racked up a collective 2.3 million views on YouTube as a new generation revels in its accidental campiness and undeniable sincerity.
No one was more shocked that the film had resurfaced than Georgiy Shtil, the 89-year-old veteran Russian actor who plays Bilbo Baggins.
“Friends started calling me with compliments, but at first I couldn’t even recall what they were talking about. I did many films at the time that never got to see the light of day” because of the political circumstances, he said. “It was a very, very hard time when we were making the movie; people were more focused on the changes in government than any show.”
Since finding it on YouTube, Shtil has re-watched the film twice.
“We had almost no budget, no costumes, and almost no time. I was pleasantly surprised we were able to do so much with so little,” Shtil says. “Mostly, I just thought about how great it was to see everyone in the cast, and how much I miss them.”
Shtil and his “Khraniteli” colleagues all knew each other from the theater scene in St. Petersburg, where they worked for some of the most renowned theaters in the country. Many of them continue to perform there, despite their advancing years.
Shtil and Yevgeni Solyakov, the now 81-year-old who played Boromir, each currently appear in numerous productions a week at the esteemed Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theater in St. Petersburg. Sergey Shelgunov (Merry Brandybuck) and Valeriy Dyachenko (Frodo) are busy at the A. Bryantsev Youth Theater, a 15-minute walk away.
Shtil is close friends with Tom Bombadil (Sergei Parshin), who works at the famous Alexandrinsky Theater and led the city’s theater union, and used to play tennis with Galadriel (Elena Solovey), who fled the country days after shooting wrapped.
These illustrious stages seem far from “Khraniteli,” whose rudimentary effects — fireworks drawn in by hand, or video game-like chirrups to indicate magic — have delighted modern viewers.
But the production tried its best despite an extraordinarily low budget.
“We used everything that the TV station had to offer at the time. The backdrops, the cheap plastic props, the wigs and make-up, everything was just what we could find there for free,” recalls Shelgunov, 68.
As for Gollum’s strange cabbage-head costume, Shtil explains: “He probably just took whatever was available.”
It was popular in the Soviet Union to turn plays into TV movies, often just by recording stage productions without adding further cinematic frills.
But director Natalya “Natasha” Serebryakova was determined to do something more, adding in horses, outdoor scenes, and as many special effects as Soviet TV was capable of. (It may seem crude today, but the green-screen effect that allows Tom Bombadil and Goldberry to tower over the smaller Hobbits, for instance, was cutting edge at the time.)
“Natasha wanted to create a sort of mysterious atmosphere, so she’d put some candles in the foreground and try to shoot through them for a kind of blur effect,” explains Shelgunov, chortling. “The film is 100% the result of her struggles, working 30 years ago without any money. Frankly, it’s a huge win that it looks as good as it does.”
The production marked the first and last time he ever rode a horse. “Thirty years later, I still remember how absolutely, extremely cold it was,” he said.
If “Khraniteli” looks thrown together, that’s because it was.
Shelgunov estimates that shooting was completed in about nine hours over the span of less than a week.
Leningrad TV only gave the production three-hour windows to use its equipment and stages before clearing them out to make way for other programs. The cast was also on the clock. They could only work on “Khraniteli” in the gaps between the morning rehearsals and evening performances for their main theater jobs.
The team would rehearse for “about an hour,” then jump slapdash into shooting huge chunks right away, with almost no retakes, he recalls. “It was like, okay, it’s Bilbo’s birthday, so there’s a party, we drink, you talk, one camera’s there, another here, and okay, action!”
The cast answered other burning questions from Western viewers: Why was Legolas played by a woman? “Why not!” Why was the Balrog cut out? “It might have required too many people on stage at the same time.” No one could recall where they got the bird puppet with huge, bulging eyes used as the Great Eagle, who carries Gandalf to safety.
The actors lived mostly off their state-sanctioned salary, paid under the Soviet system of nationalized theaters. They did “Khraniteli” essentially for free, earning a nominal sum equivalent to one-fourth of their monthly salary or less.
Although times were hard, they were also full of camaraderie, the older cast members recall.
“Before, the theater was a community. It was your home. People really cared about each other, and if you had problems, they would work together to solve them,” says Solyakov. “Acting now has been professionalized, and has become first and foremost a job.”
“Khraniteli” likely wasn’t subject to heavy state censorship because it was targeted at children and had a rather abstract fantasy plot. Director Serebryakova and many of the actors were known for their work on children’s programming and fairy tales.
“If the censors had been smarter, they would perhaps have seen that the movie portrays a very harmonious society where everyone lives happily, but implies that something is not right underneath the surface,” Solyakov says.
Tolkien was banned from the Soviet Union’s state-controlled publishing industry until 1982, when an abridged translation of “The Fellowship of the Rings”— the least “ideologically sensitive” volume — was officially released for the first time by a children’s publisher in Moscow.
In the absence of approved translations, unofficial ones appeared, circulating via samizdat, the illegal underground press. The first complete version of the trilogy appeared in 1975, written out entirely by hand by a dedicated reader over the course of a year, at great personal risk.
The art director of Shelgunov’s theater somehow managed to obtain a prohibited copy of “The Hobbit” about a year later. They began to prepare a theatrical version called “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” which opened in 1977 and ran for an entire decade. Leningrad TV adapted it into a TV movie in 1985, whose footage is still available online.
A few times a month for 10 years, Shelgunov played Gollum. Unfortunately, without even a proper version of the text, no one had a clue what the character should look like.
“There wasn’t a clear idea of what kind of creature he was. The director decided he should just look strange,” he said. He wore a costume with long, webbed fingers and feet and long hairs hanging off the body. “We didn’t know Gollum’s gender, so we made him something between girl and boy — a bit of both.”
Like any Stanislavski-trained actor worth his salt, he approached the role as he would any serious Russian classical drama. “I tried to understand his psychology and what kind of person he is. I tried to depict his deep loneliness,” Shelgunov explains.
Solyakov looks back on his 1991 portrayal of Boromir with equal solemnity. Watching the film for the first time last month, he felt that he perhaps hadn’t quite been ready to take on the complexities of the flawed hero. “I don’t think I played the role to the fullest. I wish I hadn’t been so emotional when I was trying to explain why I wanted the ring — I should have remained very composed.”
An ardent admirer of Anthony Hopkins, he wanted to bring out the “demon inside” of himself, but struggled, having had a career mostly playing positive characters, like priests or Jesus Christ.
Shtil loved Peter Jackson’s blockbuster take on the trilogy, but still found the Soviet version charming in its own way. “Ours has professional ballerinas, and a lot of songs and poems. The foreign movie doesn’t have that.”
Miffed that the production has now become the butt of ridiculing memes in Russia, Shelgunov is a bit less romantic in his assessment.
“I’m not proud of it; I feel a bit ashamed,” he laughs. “It’s very simple, very primitive. But everyone can see that we did the best we could with what we had.”