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Every 'Lord of the Rings' movie, ranked

Every 'Lord of the Rings' movie, ranked

In honor of The Fellowship of the Ring's 20th anniversary, let's rank all of Peter Jackson's six visits to Middle-earth.

By John Albinson

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the groundbreaking first installment in the film series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic book series from the 1950s, turns 20 years old this year, on Dec. 19. It’s been two decades since Peter Jackson’s iconic movie trilogy hit theaters for the first time and redefined how fantasy could be depicted on screen. Fellowship was an instant smash and was quickly followed by The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003). Never before had such an ambitious cinematic adaptation been attempted on such a large scale – and, as we can now say with confidence, with such incredible success. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed an astounding $3 billion at the box office and was a critical darling as well, earning 17 Oscar wins and an additional 13 nominations.

But Jackson couldn’t stay away from Middle-earth for long. After a nine-year absence from the world of Tolkien, Jackson returned in 2012 with a new trilogy – this time, one based on The Hobbit, the LOTR prequel Tolkein wrote in 1937. Beginning with An Unexpected Journey and followed by The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), Jackson’s Bilbo Baggins-led trilogy also grossed $3 billion worldwide. That’s a lot of gold, for those counting at home.

In the 20 years since Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf first hit theaters, The Lord of the Rings have become three of the most iconic films ever made and a staple of pop culture. They have inspired numerous video games, extensive merchandise, countless memes, and have legitimately boosted the tourism of New Zealand (Jackson’s native country and the filming location for all six movies). And while The Hobbit may always feel like LOTR’s little brother, there’s no denying that those movies share the same charm and magic as its predecessors. To celebrate Fellowship of the Ring's 20th anniversary, we head back to the Shire to rank all six The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. 

6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Only Peter Jackson could turn a relatively slim children’s book into a sprawling, eight-hour trilogy. Were Tolkien fans mad that they divided The Hobbit into three movies? Of course not. But if any of the three movies feels like it could have been shorter, it’s An Unexpected Journey.

This first chapter in The Hobbit series sets the stage for the latter two movies, where we meet a young Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf as they join Thorin Oakenshield and his company of Dwarves (Balin, Dwalin, Fíli, Kíli, Dori, Nori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur, to be exact) as they embark on a quest to the Misty Mountains to reclaim a legendary lost treasure guarded by the evil dragon Smaug. An Unexpected Journey may be the weakest of the three Hobbit movies, but it re-introduced us to the world of Middle-earth almost a decade after The Return of the King’s release.

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The second movie in The Hobbit trilogy is when the action and stakes really pick up.

Bilbo and the Dwarves finally reach the Misty Mountains, Smaug is awake and pissed off as ever, and we even get an appearance from the Necromancer, who’s basically a prepubescent version of our old pal Sauron. Whereas An Unexpected Journey spends much of its time setting up the story, The Desolation of Smaug’s strength lies in its ability to revel in the Dwarves’ quest: The sequence where Bilbo and the Dwarves escape the Wood-Elves’ compound by floating downstream in empty wine barrels is one of the most exciting in the entire six-movie arc, and Bilbo’s encounter with the creepily calm Smaug (voiced to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) in his lair of gold is pure movie magic. We’re also introduced to Esgaroth, the lakeside community right next to the Misty Mountains where Smaug eventually attacks – and meets his fate.

4. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The last installment of The Hobbit trilogy is also its strongest, as Peter Jackson returns to what he famously does best: shooting incredibly expansive and epic battle sequences.

In The Battle of the Five Armies, we see a massive fight between Elves, Dwarves, and Humans against Orcs and Wolves, all set against the majestic mountainous backdrop of Dale. And, lo and behold, a relatively happy ending do we get: Smaug is killed by Esgaroth’s citizen of the year, Bard, while Azog and his Orc army are defeated, sending Bilbo back to the Shire safe and sound (and with a certain Ring still in his possession). While The Hobbit movies may not be on the same level as Lord of the Rings (and, c’mon, what is?), they are still a cinematic triumph that expanded the world of Middle-earth while still staying true to Tolkien’s original work. That’s something worth raising your pipe to.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

And now the real fun begins. It’s fair to say that The Two Towers gets overshadowed by its two series companions: Fellowship is the one that started it all while Return of the King is the epic conclusion. But make no mistake: Peter Jackson’s second LOTR movie is just as good as any fantasy film ever made.

Think about all of its iconic moments: Gandalf’s triumphant return as Gandalf the White, Merry and Pippin meeting Treebeard and the Ents, Frodo and Sam wading through the Dead Marshes, and of course, the Battle of Helm’s Deep – arguably the greatest fight in the entire Tolkien canon and one of Jackson’s crowning technical achievements. The movie’s final quarter is dedicated to this battle in which we see Saruman’s evil army of Uruk-hai storm the Gondor fortress of refuge, where Aragorn and the Rohan King Théoden hold off the sinister intruders until Gandalf arrives. It’s an astounding finish.

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Bilbo’s 111th birthday party. Frodo getting the Ring. The Black Riders in the forest. The creation of the Fellowship at Rivendell. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” Boromir’s death at the hands of the Uruk-hai. Fellowship of the Ring is the 178-minute masterpiece that introduced us to Tolkien’s universe and changed the course of filmmaking in the process.

Peter Jackson’s exceptional world-building skills are on full display in this first installment, as he makes the sprawling (and sometimes overwhelming) world of Middle-earth feel open and accessible to all viewers. The opening scene in the Shire, where we first meet Frodo and the Hobbits, is in the same pantheon of legendary movie moments as Luke Skywalker’s introduction on Tatooine or our first glimpse of Hogwarts. And even though it’s been twenty years since Fellowship’s release, you wouldn’t know that by looking at it – the visual effects have aged beautifully and are just as stunning as they were in 2001.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Was there ever any doubt? The thrilling conclusion to The Lord of the Rings took home a record 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Jackson, and was the highest grossing film of 2003 with over $1 billion at the global box office. The pinnacle of Jackson’s Tolkien series, Return of the King is one of the greatest movies of all time – full stop.

From Gollum’s chilling origin story to the sensational Battle of the Black Gate to the heart-stopping finale with Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom, what more could we have asked for? It’s hard enough to live up to Tolkien’s beloved book series, but it’s even harder when you’re the last installment in its universally-lauded film trilogy. And yet, Return of the King delivered on every fan’s expectations and crafted a perfect send-off for Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn and every character we had grown to love over the course of the trilogy.