Inside ‘Khraniteli,’ The Soviet ‘Lord of the Rings’
JRR Tolkien fans around the world encountered what seems impossible last month: a movie version of “The Lord of the Rings” they had never heard of. There was Gollum gargling in his cave. Except in this version, he speaks Russian, sports orange eye shadow, and has what appear to be bright green cabbage leaves stuck 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 was briefly aired as a children’s television show before to disappear for 30 years. The two-part, two-hour production has gained new fame since its producer 5TV, formerly Leningrad TV, unexpectedly put it online. He’s racked up 2.3 million collective YouTube views as a new generation revel in his accidental campiness and undeniable sincerity.
No one was more shocked that the film 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 remember what they were talking about. I made a lot of films at the time that never saw the light of day ”because of political circumstances, he said. “It was a very, very difficult time when we were making the film; people were more focused on government changes than on any other show.
Since finding it on YouTube, Shtil has watched the film twice.
“We had almost no budget, no costumes and almost no time. I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to do so much with so little, ”says Shtil. “Most of the time I just thought how great it was to see everyone in the cast and how much I missed them.”
Shtil and his “Khraniteli” colleagues all knew each other from the St. Petersburg theater scene, where they worked for some of the most renowned theaters in the country. Many of them continue to perform there, despite their years of advancement.
Shtil and Yevgeni Solyakov, now 81 who played Boromir, each appear in numerous weekly productions at the prestigious 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 a close friend of Tom Bombadill (Sergei Parshin), who works at the famous Alexandrinsky Theater and headed the city’s theater union, and played tennis with Galadriel (Elena Solovey), who fled the country a few days after the end of filming.
These illustrious scenes seem a far cry from “Khraniteli”, whose rudimentary effects – hand-drawn fireworks, or video game chirps to indicate magic – have delighted modern viewers.
But the production did its best despite an extremely low budget.
“We used everything the TV channel had to offer at the time. The backdrops, the cheap plastic accessories, the wigs and the makeup, it was all exactly what we could find there for free, ”recalls Shelgunov, 68.
As for Gollum’s weird 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 simply by recording stage productions without adding other cinematic flourishes.
But director Natalya “Natasha” Serebryakova was determined to do something more, adding horses, outdoor scenes and as many special effects as Soviet television was able to do. (It might sound crass today, but the green screen effect that allows Tom Bombadil and Goldberry to dominate little Hobbits, for example, was cutting edge at the time.)
“Natasha wanted to create some sort of mysterious atmosphere, so she put candles in the foreground and try to shoot through them for a kind of blur effect,” Shelgunov explains with a chuckle. “The film is 100% the result of his struggles, working 30 years ago without money. Frankly, it’s a huge win that looks that good. “
The production marked the first and last time he rode a horse. “Thirty years later, I still remember how absolutely, extremely cold it was,” he said.
If “Khraniteli” seems to be thrown together, that’s because it was.
Shelgunov estimates the shoot was completed in about nine hours over a period of less than a week.
Leningrad TV only gave the production three-hour windows to use its equipment and stages before clearing them to make room for other programs. The cast was also on the clock. They could only work on “Khraniteli” in the intervals between morning rehearsals and evening performances for their main theater jobs.
The team would rehearse for “about an hour,” then jump right away, pulling huge chunks, with almost no recovery, he recalls. “It was like, okay, it’s Bilbo’s birthday, so there’s a party, we drink, you talk, one camera is there, another here, and okay, some action. !
The cast answered other burning questions from Western viewers: why was Legolas played by a woman? “Why not!” Why was the Balrog cut? “It might have required too many people on stage at the same time.” No one could remember where they had found the huge, bulging-eyed bird puppet used as the Great Eagle, which was carrying Gandalf to safety.
The actors lived mainly on their state-sanctioned salaries, paid under the Soviet system of nationalized theaters. They did “Khraniteli” essentially for free, earning a face amount equivalent to a quarter of their monthly salary or less.
While times were tough, they were also full of camaraderie, the older members of the cast recall.
“Before, the theater was a community. It was your house. People really care about each other, and if you had any problems, they would work together to solve them, ”says Solyakov. “Acting now has become more professional and has become above all a profession.”
“Khraniteli” was probably not subjected to heavy state censorship because it targeted children and had a rather abstract, fanciful plot. Director Serebryakova and many actors were known for their work on children’s programming and fairy tales.
“If the censors had been smarter, they might have seen that the film portrays a very harmonious society where everyone lives happily, but implies that something is wrong below the surface,” Solyakov says.
Tolkien was banned from the state-controlled publishing industry of the Soviet Union until 1982, when an abbreviated translation of “The Fellowship of the Rings” – the less “ideologically sensitive” volume – was officially first published by a children’s publisher in Moscow.
In the absence of approved translations, unofficial translations appeared, circulating through samizdat, the illegal underground press. The first full version of the trilogy appeared in 1975, entirely handwritten by a dedicated reader over the course of a year, at great personal risk.
The artistic director of the Shelgunov Theater somehow managed to get a banned 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 lasted for an entire decade. Leningrad TV adapted it to a TV movie in 1985, images of which are 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 was no clear idea what kind of creature he was. The director decided he just had to look weird, ”he said. He wore a suit with long webbed fingers and feet and long hairs that hung over his body. “We didn’t know Gollum’s gender, so we made him something girl and boy – a bit of both.
Like any Stanislavsky-trained actor worthy of the name, he approached the role as he would any serious classic Russian drama. “I tried to understand his psychology and what kind of person he was. I tried to describe his deep loneliness, ”explains Shelgunov.
Solyakov returns to his portrait of Boromir in 1991 with equal solemnity. Watching the movie for the first time last month, he felt he might not be quite ready to take on the intricacies of the flawed hero. “I don’t think I played the role to the fullest. I wish I hadn’t been so moved when I tried to explain why I wanted the ring – I should have been very calm.
A strong admirer of Anthony Hopkins, he wanted to bring out the “demon within” himself, but struggled, having had a career primarily playing positive characters, like priests or Jesus Christ.
Shtil loved Peter Jackson’s blockbuster on the trilogy, but still found the Soviet version charming in his own way. “Ours has professional ballerinas and a lot of songs and poems. Foreign film doesn’t have that. “
Noting that the production has now become the butt of ridiculous memes in Russia, Shelgunov is a little less romantic in his assessment.
“I’m not proud of it; I’m a little ashamed, ”he laughs. “It’s very simple, very primitive. But everyone can see that we did our best with what we had.