Child of the kindly West
The standard history of Tolkien adaptations ushers us right from the terrible 1980 Rankin/Bass TV animation The Return of the King to Peter Jackson's monolithic big-budget blockbuster trilogy starting with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring over two decades later; but that is only because the standard history is written by English speakers. To blast right through that 21-year gap would be to miss out on two European TV adaptations, very rare and strange little beasts, of which the first is a 1985 telefilm adapted unofficially from The Hobbit, made for a Soviet children's anthology series - which already promises something unbeatably weird even without the Tolkien connection - titled in Russian, Сказочное путешествие мистера Бильбо Беггинса Хоббита, which translates delightfully to The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit. Thanks to the power of YouTube, the film is right there to be watched by you or me or anybody, though it helps to speak Russian, given that the only version with English subtitles is self-evidently a parody. I have it on dubious authority that the dialogue is all taken more or less intact from Tolkien's novel, and so have jumped in to watch the thing as best I can; besides, film is a visual medium and the storytelling should all be communicated through the image, right?
Yeah, well, to hell with you too, Comrade Gollum.
The plot, obviously, is impossible to follow precisely, but it looks to hew as closely to the book as 71 talky minutes (six shorter than the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit) allow: Bilbo is sitting in his garden when up sashays - and there's really no other word for it - Gandalf the wizard, who toys with the self-satisfied little hobbit for a while before revealing his identity and making a date for tea. He also unexpectedly brings along thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield whom Bilbo receives with befuddled equanimity (one of the most distinctive shifts in tone between this film and the standard versions - admitting that I am in no position to judge the niceties of performance - is that Bilbo seems considerably more confident and in control, and wittier, than the nervous homebody of Tolkien who only slowly learns of his own inner strength through much torment.
This kicks off a very choosy adaptation of the story: the subsequent adventures include the goblin caverns, riddles with Gollum, spiders in Mirkwood, Laketown and the desolation of Smaug, and the Battle of the Five Armies; not appearing at all are Rivendell, the eagles, Beorn, the wood-elves, or barrel-riding. And some of what is there is pretty thin: Smaug's attack on Laketown begins and ends in about 15 seconds.
Of course, some of that has to do with this movie's apparently miniscule budget, as befits a Soviet children's show made during the death rattle of the Soviet Union, when the country didn't have enough money to buy real things, let alone to create lavish TV adaptations of fantasy novels for a young audience. The signs that this was made on a shoestring are everywhere : if it's not a Gollum wearing a ripped hoodie and, God's my witness, that orange netting that they have at construction sites, it's a rubbery hand-puppet Smaug, or giant spiders that appear to be made out of pipe cleaners, and who trap the dwarves by forcing them to stand really still as a spider web is held up just a couple of feet from the camera to look like it's on top of them.
But even the astounding cheapness only takes us so far: this is a weird little movie in absolutely every way, whether it's the costume design (Bilbo wears a bright pink shirt, red and white scarf, and a sort of tam/beret hybrid, looking every bit the Communist Truman Capote; Gandalf has sparkles over every inch of himself; Thorin has a giant orange coat covering everything but his face, looking like a bearded version of Kenny from South Park) or the tableau-like staging of very nearly ever scene in the whole thing, or the grandiose performances - in fact, the whole thing feels eerily like a pantomime, very presentational and broad in every regard. It even has full-on musical numbers, as the dwarves dance about in Bilbo's kitchen, or the hazmat goblins sing their threatening goblin song, or the residents of Laketown... worship the moon? I actually have no idea what's going on, but it looks very ceremonial.
Parts of this are unbelievably shitty: the film's impossible reliance on green screen for everything from making the dwarves seem short to creating a bubbling pit of acid in the back of Gollum's cave (which is further augmented by dripping noises so loud that they almost drown out the dialogue), or the abrupt death of Smaug, which looks just like some kid filmed himself playing with action figures, and between the chintzy sets and ad hoc costumes, it all looks unbearably amateurish; I suppose there may be some cultural norms happening here, but if all late-stage Soviet children's TV looked like this, it's no wonder that Russia sank into anarchic depravity in the '90s.
At the same time, nobody involved seems terribly embarrassed, and some people - the actor playing Bilbo especially, always looking totally smug and joyful about himself - really appear to have gotten into it. The fact is, the loopiness here is kind of addictive, in its way, so utterly alien to anything familiar in the West that the fascination of it more than overwhelms the godawful badness of it. There are even some moments that genuinely work: the Battle of the Five Armies is represented as a painting of the battle with a double-exposure of actors milling about with swords, so abstract as to almost not make sense, but it's a beautiful attempt to do something epic on no budget at all. And the music - or the songs, rather, the music itself is dreadfully jazzy and totally out place, more like a Tom & Jerry cartoon than a fantasy adventure - the songs are not at all what one would expect out of Tolkien, but they somehow work; the most explicitly Slavic part of the movie, the only tonally steady part of the whole picture. The "Song of the Lonely Mountain" adaptation is even, legitimately, sort of great: soaring and moaning and gloomy. But of course, the Russians know from singing about misery.
I haven't even mentioned the strangest part: the whole thing is introduced by a man with a bowler and umbrella, wandering into a foggy room with just a table and chair, and another table and chair in the background, otherwise totally devoid of habitation; he is our narrator, and I have no idea who he is - if he's the Rod Serling of this anthology show, or just some random man, or hell, if he's supposed to be Tolkien - or why he is stuck in this featureless hell with only a bistro table to call his own. He is a particularly soulful man, looking sorrowfully off into the distance as he tells us this story of a vigorous, bouncy little pink adventurer; his tone of voice is elegaic, and his tendency to appear just when the energy of the story is at its highest makes it seem like he actively wants to keep things from getting too fun. It's one more layer of inexplicable weirdness wrapped around a movie that has almost nothing else to offer, but it's things like this that make the project magnetically off-kilter rather than simply terrible shlock. Bad this is, but bad in the most magnetic, hypnotic, endlessly watchable way.