There is an argument to be made that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is this generation’s Star Wars (even though, you could also argue that Star Wars is this generation’s Star Wars, given that series recent trilogy). But the journeys of Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimili in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and later Bilbo, Thorin, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur (phew) in The Hobbit movies captivated millions of people around the world in their film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy epics.
And with the Amazon show on the way, we thought it apropos to go back to remembering Middle-Earth and the first trilogy that dominated the early 2000s, as well as the second trilogy that made its presence felt in the 2010s, for better or worse. Keep in mind that while we love everything Lord of the Rings, some of these films are better than others. Much better.
6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
I hate to be negative since we’re all Lord of the Rings fans here, but The Desolation of Smaug is aggressively bad and by far the worst LotR related movie out of the bunch. Where do I begin? Splitting The Hobbit into two movies (And then three!) already seemed like a cash grab, especially since the book is pretty short. But The Desolation of Smaug turned out to be a bloated mess that dragged out the story to ridiculous proportions. Plus, it’s an ugly movie. How could a film that came out ten years after The Return of the King look about ten times worse than that movie? It was the CG. Way, way too much CG.
The story concerns the leader of the dwarves, Thorin, heading into the Lonely Mountain with the other dwarves to confront the dragon, Smaug, who’s voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. This doesn’t even happen in the book, though. Only Bilbo confronts the dragon. Along the way, Bilbo and the dwarves are tailed by the CG orc, Azog, who looks like he belongs in a video game. Azog, by the way, is also not in the book. At least not as a character. Legolas is in the movie for some reason, even though he’s also not in the book. And Gandalf fights Sauron… which is also not in the book. In fact, the only thing I do remember from the book that’s in this movie is the barrel scene, and even that was way different.
And yes, while I know books are usually different from movies (the Lord of the Rings films made quite a few changes), it’s usually not this big of a departure. It just feels like padding here. Plus, the movie drags on and on and lacks any of the charm or humor found in the book. In truth, it feels like a crappier version of Lord of the Rings done by somebody else. It’s way too serious for its own good, and I hate it with my full heart and soul. Next.
5. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Is the third and final movie of The Hobbit trilogy necessary? No, not at all. But The Battle of the Five Armies is still a lot more interesting and fun than its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug. This story concerns Thorin, who now has his gold from the previous movie, holing himself up and hoarding it all for himself, just like Smaug once did. It takes some prompting from Bilbo to rouse him to be the king that he’s meant to be.
So yeah, completely different from anything I remember in the book, but that’s fine. At least there’s a pretty boss final battle for the climax that last almost an entire hour. People literally groaned in the theater when the Strider, Aragorn, was alluded to toward the end of the movie. But after The Desolation of Smaug, it couldn’t get much worse. Thankfully, The Battle of the Five Armies ended up being a lot better.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Out of the three Hobbit movies, An Unexpected Journey is the best out of the bunch. Maybe it’s because it’s the only film in the trilogy that even feels remotely like the book since it has some lighthearted moments sprinkled in with all that unneeded darkness. The Dwarves sing “Misty Mountains”, it has Gollum, and probably the greatest scene in the entire trilogy of Smaug decimating Erebor.
The story of this one is also straight and to the point. Bilbo is requested to go on a journey with some dwarves, and then stuff happens. There are some pacing issues, but one gets the feeling that everybody making this movie knew all along that they were going to stretch the book out like a rubber band. It’s not up to par with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it’s close enough to be at least a little enjoyable.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Now we’re talking. Whereas The Hobbit movies felt like nice diversions (well, besides The Desolation of Smaug. Did I mention I hate that movie?), The Lord of the Rings trilogy felt like genuine art. The Two Towers, which may be the best book in Tolkien's trilogy, happens to be the “worst” movie in the film trilogy. And I don’t even like calling it the “worst” since it’s still one of the greatest movies of all time.
The movie is split up into three stories, just like the book. Frodo and Sam are on their way to Mordor where they meet up with the treacherous, but pitiful, Gollum. Aragorn and the rest of the fellowship battle at Helm’s Deep. And Merry and Pippin go along with Treebeard to defeat the evil wizard Saruman, played by the late, great Christopher Lee. Also, we get that AMAZING opening scene with Gandalf fighting off the Balrog, that was parodied to great effect on Family Guy.
Honestly, the only thing holding The Two Towers back is its pacing, which is soooo slooow. Especially when it comes to Treebeard the Ent, which talks just as slow as he is supposed to sound in the book. Also, they took one of the best moments from the novel—the fight with Shelob—and shoved it into The Return of the King. That said, it's still a masterpiece, and most people’s favorite in the film trilogy. Just not mine.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The beginning that started it all, it’s fascinating to look back at what a perfect film The Fellowship of the Ring is. Bilbo makes an appearance, still a slave to the ring. The black riders are on the hunt for Frodo. And Gimli is upset that they call it a mine. A mine!
Seriously, from front to back, the world of Middle-Earth was brought to life from that very first battle in the war for the ring. It set the tone for the entire trilogy. Plus, Peter Jackson’s weird sensibilities gave the film a distinct strangeness that was both unsettling and authentic at the same time, like that scene where Saruman used two staffs to make Gandalf do that weird spin. It's late at the time of me writing this, but I honestly want to watch this movie RIGHT NOW and go through the entire trilogy again. This first film is that good.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The first (and as of this writing, only) fantasy film to win best picture, The Return of the King is the perfect movie. Basically, Frodo and Sam drop the ring in Mount Doom, Legolas and Gimili continue keeping count of how many orcs they murder in cold blood, and Aragorn leads a legion of ghosts to victory. You know, just your average Best Picture winner. Also, this film has Shelob the spider, a holdover from the second book.
What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? The pacing is perfect, it has about three endings, but each of them is satisfying: Gollum meets his end in a powerful and sad way, Frodo goes away on a boat to... somewhere, and Sam gets to go home and be a family man. Honestly, The Return of the King was a culmination of everything we wanted and everything we needed. It's the best movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one of the greatest, most epic films of all time. Period.
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.