Jesse’s Hobbit Hijinks #1: The Soviet One
Ask yourself: is there any way it could NOT be the most awesome thing you've ever seen?
Soviet film, in its time, was responsible for some of the great works of propaganda. No, I’m not talking about Battleship Potemkin, or Ten Days that Shook The World. Not even The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. No, I’m talking about The Hobbit. I’m not implying Peter Jackson is Soviet sleeper agent (Though with a beard like that…); I’m referring to The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit. The Russians shot it in 1984 as a teleplay. What could be a better metaphor for the greed-ridden and illusionary world of the capitalist West than a whimsical children’s story?
It stars Zinovy Gerdt as ‘The Professor,’ narrator and failed Tolkien doppelganger; Mikhail Danilov as the tallest Bilbo Baggins ever; Anatoly Ravikovich as Thorin Oakenshield; Igor Dmitriev as Gollum; and Ivan Krasko in a sparkling performance as Volshebnik Gendalf and runs under an hour and twelve minutes–roughly half of An Unexpected Journey.
The film begins with The Professor making a lengthy entrance into what appears to be a typical Soviet restaurant. He sits down at a wicker table, removing the country’s only bowler hat from his head, and proceeds to get comfy. He goes on to explain the realm of Middle Earth–at least that’s what I assume, but not speaking Russian myself and not being able to find an actual translation I am forced to operate by educated assumption. By his tone he could have just as easily been telling his grandchildren about the glory days of the old Empire.
After the professor is done speaking, we cut directly to our gargantuan Comrade Baggins, in front of a Shire created by shanghaied Doctor Who (classic series) set designers. He puffs on his pipe, when who should bound into shot, women’s nightgown aflutter? Gandalf, that’s who, wearing an exceptionally fake beard and enough glitter to make him look like a severely aged Ziggy Stardust! The following dialogue is either the good morning back and forth, or a blistering indictment of the decadent West. The scene ends with Gandalf making the mark on Comrade Bilbo’s door.
We flash back to the narrator for another minute. Next, we see all the dwarves trickle into Bag End. Imagine twelve Russian stereotypes, but instead of furry hats they are wearing different colored hoods; now you have your dwarves. The dwarves feast and share Comrade Baggins’ food equally amongst themselves. The Professor comes back, explaining the story still further, or complaining about the lack of service in this cafe. The Dwarves prance around singing, cleaning and teasing the Hobbit while Ziggy Stardust’s father laughs on. Thorin (Orange Stalin looking one) then launches into his people’s tale of oppression and exile. After sufficient needling, Bilbo agrees to go with them.
The Narrator reclines in his seat as he advances the story, or complains bitterly that he’s been there for over twenty minutes and no one has taken his order. We next catch up with our band of adventurers singing as they trek through fog and artificial wind over what looks like the same ground shot from different angles. (Sneaky Commies) The song ends and our merry band of adventurers is shot from the final angle walking off into the mist (Back the way they came). No trolls try to devour them, no elves aid them in their journey.
We’re back in the restaurant, setting the scene for the goblin cave and listening to an old man carry on about the rising price of borscht. The dwarves curl up to sleep; Gandalf, with a predatory smile, and an airbrush effect Stalin would have been proud of, vanishes. Comrade Bilbo is haunted by dreams of goblins (and what appears to be a swan puppet) The cave wall opens and Goblin ballerinas from the Leningrad State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre pour out. They dance in sync and, apparently, their skipping and high kicks so unnerve our stout dwarves that they are defenseless and easily swept away to captivity.
We next meet the Goblin King, here played by Joseph Stalin. After he and Thorin trade words, things deteriorate. Gandalf appears and rescues his comrades by flinging his sword magically across the set and killing the tyrant. The dwarves, led by Gandalf the Glittering, make their escape; they do role call then, suddenly the horde catches up with them. In the “spontaneous melee” Comrade Baggins is shoved down into the void.
Our narrator, vodka-less, prepares us for riddles in the dark. A shivering Comrade Bilbo listens to the steady drip of water and stumbles onto the ring of power. The professor introduces us to Gollum, here played by one of the USSR’s leading nuclear physicists: transparent fins protrude from either side of an unnaturally green face. He and our massive hobbit run through the riddles or Capitalist jokes. (How many capitalists does it take to screw in a light bulb? None; they hire a member of the proletariat!) In the end, Comrade Baggins shows the creature from the bubbly lagoon what he has in his pocket, slips it on, and vanishes. Gollum freaks out through interpretive dance and delivers a short monologue before being mocked by a now invisible hobbit.
After a short visit with our narrator, we are back with the dwarves and Gandalf, who rages at them for having lost the hobbit. The dwarves seem to play it off as a joke, while without explanation the elderly Ziggy disappears from the scene. The laughing dwarves are about to get a healthy slap in the face by instant karma as they are captured by puppet show spiders, again without a fight. (Goblin ballerinas, stuffed spiders; our dwarves seem less hardy every minute) Enter our stout Comrade Baggins who, with the aid of a throwing knife and vicious one liners about the puppeteer’s mothers, drives the pantomime predators away and cuts down the dwarves.
Our narrator, who has long ago given up his dreams of being served, wakes from a nap long enough to describe Laketown before slipping back into his dreams. The town residents are played by more interpretive dancers. Enter the dwarves and Comrade Bilbo; in probably the best effect of the production, the dwarves and hobbit are miniaturized in front of the villagers. After some introduction, the whole crowd launches into a song. The townsfolk dance in the background while the rainbow of dwarves-and-hobbit join in, still in miniature. The narrator steps in here, and by his tone seems to be apologizing to the authorities for the outburst of merriment. The dwarves arrive at the mountain and prepare Comrade Baggins for his mission by splashing him with vodka.
The hobbit enters the Dragon’s lair, and amidst all the alluring loot, finds the Arkenstone. He forgets himself and his delighted laughter draws the attention of Smaug. He and Comrade Baggins speak at length, the now-miniaturized hobbit trying to lull the great red beast back into a policy of non-aggression. In the end, he fails; when next we meet our comrades, they are suddenly in the ruin of Dale. The human, after an explanation from comrade Bilbo, draws a single arrow and stops the creeping red menace dead. There is much rejoicing, until it comes time to divvy up the loot. Comrade Baggins, in an attempt to share it all, gives the Arkenstone to the human, much to Thorin’s disappointment. The dwarf berates the large hobbit until Gandalf appears, chiding him for such bourgeoisie behavior. Thorin proceeds to cry.
A split second later, the goblin army is upon them, and the ballerinas of the goblin horde and those of Dale launch into what can only be described as a dance-off, at the end of which Comrade Bilbo and a severely wounded/dying Thorin have one last heart to heart where Thorin laments the greedy capitalist quest that has laid him low. He is carried off; next Comrade Baggins is paid and says his goodbyes to the remaining dwarves, and Gandalf the Glimmering. We are treated to one more song and a final visit with the narrator, who after laying the final moral of the story on us, in no uncertain terms tells us the service was dreadful and he’ll be a potato’s uncle before he comes to this cafe again. He dons the bowler hat and strolls off.
Ultimately it would be as unfair to compare the Soviets’ Hobbit to the multimillion dollar efforts of Peter Jackson, as to compare the architectural grandeur of the Pantheon to a hotdog stand. One of the lessons that can be taken from it is that regardless of political ideology, the classics will almost always bleed through. As is evident throughout the review, I do not speak Russian, but most of the events do happen, and perhaps the narrator in his long discourses on pre-Soviet life was in fact describing things that the special effects department, lacking the funding of the KGB, were unable to produce. It may be worth the watch if you’re a diehard Tolkien fan and feel like putting in the effort to learn Russian; hey, it can’t be any harder to learn than Quenya or Sindarin, right?
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