For most of the 20th century, filmmakers tried in vain to bring The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's epic tale of little people walking through swamps, to the screen. But where a million capitalist studios failed, a ragtag fellowship of Soviet filmmakers succeeded, creating the definitive Lord of the Rings movie armed with nothing but a dream, the USSR's only green screen, and one guy's weekly beet budget.
March 2021 saw the unexpected internet release of the Soviet-era Lord of the Rings movie. Renamed as Khraniteli ("The Keepers") the made-for-TV film was produced by TV Leningrad (known for other USSR hits like So You Think You Can Squat and The Real Housewives Of Gulag 17) and was shown only once on Russian screens before vanishing for thirty years. But once is all you need to have this version of Middle Earth, which looks like it had the budget of a Rankin and Bass animation and the psychedelic vision of that failed The Beatles adaptation, seared into your mind.
As any good communist kid knows, Tolkien's The Keepers is a story about the rise of the orc proletariat against the oppression of the Gondorian bourgeoisie. To prevent them from unionizing, the Middle Earth Allies form a Fellowship of the Status Quo to destroy the One Ring To Seize All Means of Production. This band is led by the immortal Gandalf, shown here on break from guarding the Holy Grail against Nazis.
Frodo, a Hobbit who is immune to the powers of the One Ring because his matted toupet is already strangling his brain …
Now, eagle-eyed audiences might notice that the production values of this Soviet TV movie are a bit lower than the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster. But the similarities between The Keepers and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings can be so striking that you'll sometimes forget which version your mortal eyes are beholding.
Just like Peter Jackson's trilogy, The Keepers kicks things off with a striking close-up shot of the One Ring in all of its bonbon wrapping paper glory ...
They also share perfectly choreographed fight scenes using only the bare minimum of green screen effects ...
And, in quite a casting coup, Sir Ian McKellan in a fat suit.
But the movie does deviate a bit from the more popular capitalist blockbuster. On the one hand, it remains more loyal to Tolkien's vision, showing passages cut out entirely by Jackson for boring cinematic reasons. The movie retains such great scenes as when Gandalf Guantanamo's Gollum into divulging the location of the Ring ...
It even dedicates half an hour to Tom Bombadil, who looks like a giant, to accurately portray how much of a dead weight he is to the plot.
And who can forget the book's iconic moment where Frodo has a fever dream about being challenged to a dance-off by the zombified cast of The Wizard of Oz.
Other times, the movie does take some artistic liberties with Tolkien's source material -- especially with the characters. Some of these interpretations are hard to explain, like why Smeagol dons the Ring and instantly transforms into a decaying Gollum like he's the Chernobyl Green Lantern.
Likewise, you might have to be a Russian folkloric scholar to understand why the Soviet Fellowship consists of a Legolas who's an actual lady ...
A red-capped North Pole elf called "Gimli the Gnome" ...
Or why Boromir is played by Eastern Europe's biggest celebrity, Vlad the Impaler.
That doesn't mean that all of the movie's changes are bad. In a single scene, The Keepers manages to avoid the entire "Why didn't they just trust the Eagles to fly the Ring into Mount Doom" debate by making the proud avian race look like they spent the last Age inbreeding harder than a bunch of chauvinist European royals.
Other decisions are clearly to blame on budget restraints. Like why the Hobbits are only an inch shorter than the rest of the cast. Or why Rivendell looks like the backroom of a Siberian brothel. Or why, instead of the movie ending with an epic fight against the Balrog, Gandalf dies off-screen after getting his ass kicked by five children in shitty Halloween costumes.
Sadly, by the time the first movie wrapped in 1991, the Soviet government could no longer afford to make the sequels because the country had run out of communism. Still, The Keepers can stand proudly on its two hairy feats as what film scholars will surely call "an attempt" at a Lord of the Rings film. The low-budget nightmare is now available in two parts on YouTube in Russian without subtitles. But don't let that stop you from enjoying the movie. It wouldn't make a lick more sense if you understood what they were saying.
For more Mordorian Marxism, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: 5TV