Middle-earth: ranking Peter Jackson’s films in quality order

From An Unexpected Journey to The Return Of The King, we rank the six films that make up the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

Objectivity is annoying, frankly. My process for writing these articles is to watch the films in story order, ignoring my existing opinion and other versions of the story. This was easy for Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings, but less so for The Hobbit, where it was initially hard to distance criticism from the controversial adaptation. Ultimately though, a film should be able to stand alone, to appeal to people unfamiliar with the source material.

Thus, I have ranked the Middle-earth trilogies in order of quality, watching the theatrical cuts – as that’s what I’ve been able to watch for all six films – in story order (that is to say: An Unexpected Journey through to Return Of The King), ignoring familiarity with the DVD Appendices and my adoration of Sylvester McCoy as much as possible.

This commitment to objectivity will, of course, result in a ranking based entirely on my own subjective opinion. If nothing else, I hope we can all objectively agree on that. So, from worst to best, here we go:

6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The titular battle arrives after the leftover Smaug is mopped up, huge worms deposit orcs like subway trains and swiftly depart, the minute rabble of argumentative dwarves somehow turn the tide, and there’s not a huge sense of closure for the characters whose stories end here. Tauriel, for example, is never seen again, one of many supporting characters who could’ve been something more. This film feels rushed, there’s unrealised potential here, an uncertainty over how to tell this story.

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For example: focusing on Bard the Bowman to represent Lake Town, caught in the crossfire as the “five” armies arrive, is undermined by Ryan Gage’s Alfrid. Gage is saddled with a pantomime henchman role, written and directed for boo-hiss villainy but without comeuppance, and the contrast between the quiet heroism of Bard role and the broad comedy of Alfrid just jars, neither the best example of their kind but both one undermining the other.

Battle of the Five Armies is a perfectly serviceable fantasy romp, albeit it a very silly one, though it’s not the battles and fights that will linger in the memory. This is Richard Armitage’s best work as Thorin, and Martin Freeman’s performance alone gives the movie hints of the elegiac quality of its predecessors. Unfortunately Bilbo’s character development was effectively finished by the end of Desolation of Smaug, leaving Thorin to his long fight.

When viewed in one sitting, The Hobbit trilogy clearly sets out its characters in the first movie, but by this stage the focus is limited to a few, resulting in superfluous roles. The expansion of the book now feels like a missed opportunity, each film suffering rather than benefiting from its length. This didn’t have to be the case. I’ll talk more about the skewed focus in The Desolation of Smaug.

There are peaks here – chiefly whenever Bilbo has a conversation with another character, two actors selling the story completely – and there’s also love for the story evident. When we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, though, it becomes clear that The Hobbithas other qualities that aren’t immediately apparent.

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The cusp of Mirkwood promises excitement, as Gandalf heads off to investigate the Witch-King of Angmar. There’s no lingering early on. Rather than a slow build up of dread, the camera roves and the cuts are rapid, pausing just long enough to note the effect the ring is already having on Bilbo.

Then Thranduil steps in. Thranduil is amazing, if you have a fondness for camp. Lee Pace chewing the green screen and contorting himself into strange serpentine shapes is entirely memorable. It’s here, in the Wood Elves’ realm, that Desolation of Smaug grows spacious, laying down plot strands and moving away from its title character (most of the Dwarves effectively become extras), fleshing out its new locations and individuals then veering back into credulity-straining blockbuster action sequences.

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Gandalf, meanwhile, only appears in three scenes after he leaves the group , but presumably he’s fed up of the Dwarves’ being a bit rubbish. None of them listen to Ken Stott’s Balin, and it’s remarkable how easily they give up once the sun sets on the Lonely Mountain. Considering how much room these films have been given to breathe, some scenes feel like they’re exhaling for ages, while others flit by. The balance is curiously chosen and flawed. The finale especially feels like it carries on past its natural end point, only to turn into wheelbarrow surfing on molten gold. By the time the giant gold dwarf King appears, you’ve either gone with it or you’re slumped in defeat, half-expecting Bombur to sail over a passing shark.

There’s still the initial confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug to enjoy though, to the point where the dragon seems more likeable than Thorin. Even though Freeman is doing approximately ninety-seven pieces of business in any given scene, he grounds the entire film somewhere pleasantly melancholy, finds comedy and tension, and generally raises this film’s quality substantially.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

There are moments in this film that are the equal to anything from Lord of the Rings, such as the opening Erebor sequence and Riddles in the Dark, scenes that are thrilling, tense and wonderfully crafted. After the opening glimpses of Smaug and the Dwarves’ backstory, the tone implies that we’re in for more of the same. It becomes clear that we aren’t when the Dwarves start singing.

To be honest, in isolation, it’s not a bad sequence, but in the context of the rest of the film it’s the first clue that this trilogy will be tonally jarring. Overall it never manages to strike a balance between the relative grit of Bilbo and Gollum telling each other riddles (yeah, somehow that’s the dark and dramatic bit), and the side-scrolling adventure games of Goblin Town, with their cartoon physics and slapstick violence.

Still, in this movie more of the Dwarves have distinctive characters, and Dol Guldur is initially rife with potential. There is some fan service – Gandalf’s sly smile to Galadriel is a highlight, while Saruman natters on in the background like a pub bore – which is a pleasant distraction, but the film drags when it should be getting going.

Just after leaving Hobbiton there’s an awkwardly crowbarred-in flashback sequence that clunkily exposits while sacrificing momentum, and this keeps happening. Ultimately, if I think a film has too much Sylvester McCoy, then it definitely has too much Sylvester McCoy.

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It’s a hybrid, ultimately, of inoffensive but lightweight romp and bearded shouty Northerner Fantasy, which means there’s a little to enjoy for everyone, but not as much to love for most.

3. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Way to use a massive spoiler for the title, Unwin and Allan.

The final part of Lord of the Rings is a tricky one to adapt, featuring the most action, and multiple lengthy endings (with a lengthy struggle in the Shire upon the Hobbits’ return). The Battle of Pelennor Fields necessitates an increase in CGI, possibly causing the occasional ropey effects shot. Return of the Kingalso has more perfunctory dialogue (it wouldn’t be a Middle-earth film without some) than the preceding two films in its trilogy. The ‘time of the orc’ may have come, but it sure as hell won’t be big on oratory.

Nonetheless, this is a film with brilliant moments. Pippin’s curiosity and Sam’s childlike blubbing above Cirith Ungol are perfect character moments, contrasting with their later heroism. While Helm’s Deep may be the best battle of the franchise, the build up to Pelennor Fields is also superbly realised. Faramir’s suicidal charge towards Osgiliath to impress his despairing father Denethor is coupled with Billy Boyd’s best work in the trilogy. The World War One imagery is a powerful reminder of Tolkien’s experience in the trenches.

Theoden’s arc, rising above the Elves’ insistence that men will fail, is an interesting counterpoint to Denethor. Theoden also loses a son, and secretly thinks all is lost, but turns that into a nihilistic drive to do what he can, to live on as a story. I love Theoden because of his flaws, but his demise is overshadowed by the stupendously fatal departure of Denethor. Overkill? No. The perfect amount of kill.

Part of the problem is Return of the King peaks early on, between Pippin and Gandalf going to Minas Tirith and Bernard Hill clattering spears with his sword and screaming ‘DEATH’, and despite cutting down on the endings of the book, it does drag. The climax does flow naturally from the story but isn’t terribly filmic, though it’s tweaked about as well as it can be. Once it turns out that Hobbits are faster than lava, the film doesn’t quite seem to know how to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, with slow-motion laughter and Aragorn’s languid singing not cutting it.

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You can’t deny though, that with Frodo gifting the book-within-a-book to Sam, it eventually ends in exactly the right place.

Alright, you can, but I won’t read it.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Opening with an epic plummet, the cartoon physics in the fight between Gandalf can be excused because A. Wizard, and B. Dream sequence (just imagine The Hobbit is Radagast hallucinating). Also it’s a handy reminder that the situation is awful.

After a slow start the chase element of the film picks up pace, though the occasional lump of dialogue remains unburnished. As Gimli becomes an out-and-out comedy character, Aragorn’s tracking skills improve to almost Time Team levels of extrapolation. A solid enough start, but where The Two Towers really starts to pick up is with the introduction of Gollum and the Rohirrin.

Gollum is stunningly unremarkable. He’s just another character, albeit an important one who looks unusual. The melding of performance, motion-capture, CGI, practical effects and foley work sells it perfectly. He’s basically just there, and that’s exactly as it should be. Also just there is Edoras, which they practically built on location just for this film, a Medieval European city on a hill in New Zealand.

We spend a fair bit of time with the Rohirrin, and it becomes clear that this is all build up for the finale. The middle of the film is long but is doing a lot of work. In the midst of it, Arwen is the only Elf who doesn’t haughtily dismiss the world of men, we get to know more about Gollum, meet Faramir and the Ents (sounds like a sitcom, isn’t), reintroduce Gandalf and see Aragorn fight a Warg-rider who looks a bit like Nori.

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The key to Helm’s Deep’s success is how well the film sells the overwhelming odds: people leaving their homes and possessions, Christopher Lee’s raised eyebrow, leaving the dead unburied, Theoden’s private fears, Aragorn yelling demoralising information in the common tongue rather than Elvish, the arming of the old, the young, and the clearly terrified. The Uruk-Hai are an inhuman wall of monstrosity, screaming, roaring, feral, and the stuntmen’s Haka is combined with the sight of Rohirrin families huddling beneath the rock. The wait is agonising.

The battle itself is a more successful version of the action/adventure blend of The Hobbit‘s set pieces. Everyone gets a hero moment, but the emphasis on practical effects blended with CGI means it’s better realised with no shark-jumping moments (after The Battle of the Five Armies, Legolas skateboarding on a shield feels like Dogma 95). Gimli’s comedy is now a welcome break from the tension, but it still finds time for tragedy and violence.

The coda also flags up one of the themes of the film, the idea of the character’s actions living on as stories after their death. Considering these tales are being written by one of the characters, and do enter into the legends of their world (and ours) it’s an entirely fitting piece of meta-fiction, and a lovely note to end the film on.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I am now going to praise The Hobbit, and talk about football.

Neil Lennon didn’t score or set up many goals, opposition fans hated him, and he was renowned for being solid rather than spectacular. What he did do, however, was support the flair players, making them look better. Neil Lennon is The Hobbit trilogy, enhancing The Fellowship of the Ring. The Shire sequence at the start has extra pathos and melancholy, a return, not a beginning.

Introducing epic fantasy to a mass audience – and it was an introduction for huge numbers of people – required a selective reverence to Tolkien. Swathes of the books are gone, referenced at best, but the catchiest of Tolkien’s prose was harvested along with some of the most beautiful and wordy.

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Static, solid camerawork and a greater care for characterisation mean each cast member makes their mark. The Council of Elrond could easily be boring, instead it’s a brilliantly economic character introduction with iconic lines and Frodo’s quiet heroism played perfectly. Then you see what the ring’s done to Bilbo. Not only is it one of the best jump scares ever, but now there’s more history to it.

Fellowship is the Empire Strikes Backof the franchise. The heroes lose heavily, but not totally. Gandalf is dead (and Ian McKellen nails both the kindly old firework peddler and the man who knows he’s going to die in Moria) Boromir is dead (like Theodon, another character of great tragedy). Merry and Pippin are taken, and the Elves have made lofty pronounciations about the strength of men.

The cameras know when to swoop and suck you in. The music instantly ingrains itself. You find yourself forgiving lines like ‘Let’s hunt some orc’. The fact that there’s another film to watch is a temptation, not a hassle. This is the start of something big.

It’s not finished.

The Hobbit trilogy suffers from the inevitable problem with prequels, but when the story is watched in Middle Earth’s chronological order, the Lord of the Rings films are improved and enhanced by the supporting trilogy, so: would you rather have had The Hobbit made first?

It would be better, surely, to have the story of the Ring told chronologically, so that the prequels didn’t suffer from a lack of jeopordy? Then again, if you start with The Hobbitthen consider how the established tone of the stories could change. How, if a single film resulted in the green light for a Lord of the Rings adaptation, the cast and crew would be different, how the problems and solutions, friendships and fellowships could change due to a change of schedule. Never underestimate luck as a mitigating factor in the quality of movies.

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There are many intangible things that made Lord of the Rings work as well as it did, and possibly a consequence of that is that The Hobbit suffered as a result. If the books had been adapted in order, we simply don’t know how things would have unfolded, so, given all that: would you rather have had The Hobbit made first?

It’s finished.