I have a penchant for seeking out obscure adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, if you haven’t noticed. First was my quest to play every pre-film trilogy computer game remotely related to Tolkien’s work. Then there was my long-time interest in a Finnish television series from 1993 called Hobitit (The Hobbits) based on The Lord of the Rings. I was first made aware of its existence back in The Tolkien Forum’s heyday, when one user made an offhand mention. Those were the days of my high school Tolkien obsession, so when I got wind of this, I just had to find it.
There was a problem. The series aired on Finnish television all of two times, and was never released on VHS. Because of the huge cost of the license after Jackson’s films, it’s not likely we’ll ever see a DVD release. Thus, I immediately met with frustration on trying to find it, and once my willingness to hunt after these sorts of things wound down, I stopped looking. But never fear, the internet has come to the rescue and finally sated my curiosity: the entire series is now available on YouTube, complete with English subtitles. Would it live up to the mystique that slowly built over the years due to its rarity? Or would it be like the Soviet adaptation of The Hobbit (i.e. “What did I just WATCH”)?
Warning, there be spoilers ahead. This review also assumes you’ve read the book, because hey, why else would you seek out an obscure Finnish adaptation like this?
Well, it’s not quite that level of terrible. The best comparison is to the BBC series based on The Chronicles of Narnia. The script’s origin as a stage play is evident, and it is best to see this as a filmed stage play rather than a television dramatization. The most obvious feature of Hobitit is its ultra-low budget. There are no sweeping vistas here, most of the time the camera stays close, almost too close, though in some cases this seems like a blessing. While the hobbits might call humans “big folk” there is no difference in size between humans, dwarves, hobbits and elves, something eminently noticeable when we see everyone on screen together, which isn’t often. Outdoor scenes are obviously rear-projected indoors. The Black Riders are mainly animated, partly transparent, and the one scene with an actual horse is simply the same shot looped repeatedly with the Rider’s voice dubbed in. Some of the painted backgrounds and models are quite nice, if not especially convincing: I like the Mordor backgrounds, but the same level of care isn’t apparent in the rest of the series. Most disappointingly, the Balrog and Shelob are mentioned but never seen. Gandalf simply falls into a pit, Frodo as well, just stumbles as Gollum yells, “Shelob got ‘im!” and in the next shot, he’s covered with webs. This makes sense in the context of a play, and perhaps it is a blessing here. I don’t know whether I’d want to see the puppets and poor animations from BBC’s Chronicles of Narnia showing up and completely wrecking any atmosphere these scenes might have had.
Acting, too, is inconsistent. Those playing Frodo and Gandalf are by far the best. The latter especially stands out, using some creative line-readings to inject some humour into an otherwise dour adaptation. The same actor plays Aragorn and Gollum, though you can’t really tell. His Gollum, like every other adaptation’s version of Gollum, completely steals the show. However, his Aragorn is about as unregal as you can get. Other characters don’t fare nearly as well, and this isn’t helped by the often bizarre costume design. I have no idea why Boromir wears full samurai garb (topknot, katana and all), or what the snake tattoo on his temple might symbolize in Gondor. The frank ridiculousness of these choices, for which a low budget isn’t even an excuse, is so distracting that I found it difficult to take certain characters seriously no matter how earnestly the actors presented themselves.
Following this theme, the music is hit-or-miss. Instrumental work is a strange mix of Finnish folk music and jazz, but some of the songs adapted from Tolkien into Finnish and set to a tune are quite pleasant.
So, what about the adaptation itself? Here, the series fares better. With only nine 25-minute episodes to work with (about four hours) and a lack of resources to show battles—both constraints inherited from the stage—writer Toni Edelmann wisely focused entirely on the journey of Frodo and Sam after the breaking of the Fellowship. This gives the story some room to breathe in an otherwise short run time. It opens with an elderly Sam reading to children from the Red Book of the Westmarch, and he stays throughout the series to narrate any scenes that are just too much for the camera. It’s clear that this is, in fact, Sam’s story, making Hobitit a rather more personal adaptation than others. Again, without spectacle, this is one of the more successful aspects of the show, unfortunately let down by the actor playing the younger Samwise.
Even with the entirety of Gandalf, Pippin, Merry, Legolas, and Aragorn’s journeys reduced to a short explanation by the older Sam of what everyone was up to while he was in the Dead Marshes, truncation is still necessary. Yes, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs are indeed in this version, as is the Scouring of the Shire. But this is traded for other simplifications: the attack at Weathertop and the Ford are collapsed into a single scene where Aragorn and the Hobbits manage to drive the Black Riders into a river using torches; the entirety of the Fellowship’s journey from Rivendell to the Falls of the Rauros is resolved in one episode, with the trip through Moria summed up with “we were ambushed by orcs” and made a single cave. Lorien is simply a stop by a pool (it’s called the Mirror of Galadriel, but that it ain’t), complete with a strange choice to make Galadriel a reflection in the water rather than actually have her on screen. And even with these changes, it takes six episodes to finish up The Fellowship of the Ring with three more to plough through the remainder of the story.
Yet this is precisely where a frankly unimpressive adaptation starts to shine. This might owe more to Tolkien than to Edelmann, as the interactions between Frodo, Sam and Gollum are the most adaptation-friendly bits of The Lord of the Rings. Gollum, as mentioned above, still manages to be fantastic even when played by a dude in green paint, and there are some moments that are truly touching, somehow transcending the lacklustre surroundings and acting. Though on the latter score, it’s here that the actor playing Frodo also gets to show that yes, he can pull off a convincing performance. It helps that the backgrounds and subtle use of effects are far better in this segment than anywhere else, finally giving a little shot of atmosphere to an otherwise lukewarm series. The filmmakers represent a Nazgul on his winged steed by a passing shadow and the hobbits cowering in fear; I can’t stress how much better this one scene is compared to any of the scenes with Black Riders beforehand.
Obviously, with time running out, this part is simplified (and doesn’t last nearly long enough). The stairs of Cirith Ungol are right next to the Black Gate, Faramir doesn’t make an appearance—though Sam does sing the Oliphaunt song—and the tunnel opens directly onto the slopes of Mount Doom. This telescoped geography makes sense to me, especially for a stage adaptation. As well, the series really brings out just how difficult this journey has been, the horror and despair of it all, as Frodo seems to physically age the closer he gets to his goal.
I can’t really recommend this show except to Tolkien fans who, like me, heard it existed some time ago. Sheer inaccessibility gave it a semi-mystical aura, and while I can’t say I had any expectations for it, I still watched it for the same reasons I watched the 2011 Conan movie: there simply wasn’t an option of not seeing it. The tediousness of the first six episodes, coupled with some truly horrendous set and costume design, makes Hobitit something of a struggle to sit through. I can’t help but feel that my positive reaction to the last segments of Hobitit is, in a sense, comparative: just about anything was an improvement over the first bit, and I’m a lot more forgiving when there are budgetary constraints over what can and can’t be shown.
On final judgement, I think I would have appreciated this far more on the stage, where it was intended. It’s an interesting artefact in the history of fantasy film, but not much more than that.