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SYFY WIRE J. R. R. Tolkien

'Lord of the Rings,' 'The Hobbit,' and more: Every J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation, ranked

With The Rings of Power upon us, let's look back at which past attempts to adapt Tolkien's world were the best. 

By James Grebey
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002); The Hobbit (1977); The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Prime Video is taking fantasy lovers back to Middle-earth in the new series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Although the show, which is the most expensive TV show of all time, is exploring a time period thousands of years before The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring, it is hardly the only adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world. There have been several movies based on Tolkien’s works, and some are better than others. Which adaptations are precious to us? Which one is the worst? And which adaptations of Middle-earth are in the middle of the pack?

For this ranking, we’ll be looking at nine titles — one for each of the Nazgûl. All three of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies are in the running, as are all three of his The Hobbit movies. The animated 1977 Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit is a contender, as is the studio’s 1980 take on The Return of the King. Finally, there’s legendary animator Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings. The Rings of Power will be added to this list once the season is over, as it feels premature to place it after only two episodes. There have been a few Nordic or Soviet Tolkien adaptations, but we’re sticking to English-language titles only. 

Let’s get to the ranking — the greatest adventure is what lies ahead. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins, “I like less than half of these movies half as well as they deserve.”

9. The Return of the King (1980)

This Rankin/Bass film is kind of a sequel to their 1977 take on The Hobbit, but it’s also kind of a sequel to Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which came out two years earlier and only covered the events of the first two books in the trilogy while Rankin/Bass handled the third. Legally, it is very much not a sequel to Bakshi’s movie (he was actually pretty pissed off about the whole thing).

The Return of the King isn't great, in large part because it’s telling the third part of a three-part story. The omission of the first two chapters means that everything feels abrupt and rushed, and Gandalf’s narration has to do a lot of heavy lifting as he introduces major characters or plot points as they are happening. Aragorn, for instance, the titular returning king, doesn’t show up or really even get mentioned until an hour and 17 minutes into this 98-minute film. The dialog is mostly characters saying what they’re doing, too, desperately trying to establish some context of what’s going on after it’s already started happening. And yet, there’s no sense of urgency, as The Return of the King seems fairly uninterested in the story it’s telling, haphazardly meandering from plot point to plot point as though begrudgingly going down a checklist. It makes all the derivations from the source material — a strange framing device, a long sequence where Sam just kinda wanders around while Frodo’s imprisoned, and a bunch of bonkers folk songs — all the more irritating. At least it fitfully looks interesting, probably because it was animated by Topcraft, a Japanese Studio that would beget the vaunted Studio Ghibli.  

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

How did this happen? How did Peter Jackson, who made The Lord of the Rings trilogy such an incredible success, make three Hobbit movies that are all so bad that they make the Lord of the Rings movies just a little bit worse by their mere existence?

Whatever the reason, the third movie in a trilogy based on a single book that is shorter than any individual Lord of the Rings book, is the worst of the bunch. Despite the name, the climactic Battle of the Five Armies, does not actually have enough going on, narratively, to fill out an entire movie, and so Jackson and Co. invent a bunch of stuff that supposedly looks cool but actually looks like graphics from a PS2 cutscene to pad out the battle. The single best way to describe how The Battle of the Five Armies fell so far is to look at Legolas (a character who is not in The Hobbit book). In The Two Towers, he famously slides down some stairs on a shield while firing off arrows. In Return, they one-upped that by having him take down an oliphant single-handedly in a sequence that looks cool but does start to make him seem less like a character and more of a video game quicktime event. In The Battle of the Five Armies, he defies the laws of gravity to run up some crumbling stone tower while fighting Azog, a character who is barely mentioned in The Hobbit. What are we doing here?

7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

You can see the promise in The Hobbit movies in An Unexpected Journey. Howard Shore is back, and his “Lonely Mountain” leitmotif is instantly iconic as anything in the original trilogy. The sequence between Bilbo and Gollum is perfect. And it does feel good to be back in the world of Middle-earth. 

The problem is that the charming, quaint world of The Hobbit’s Middle-earth is apparently no longer good enough. That’s why there needs to be all these padded-out additions, like Azog and some framing devices featuring Frodo that lay it on really, really thick. Also, these movies just look worse than the Lord of the Rings films despite being made a decade later. You can chalk a lot of that up to an overreliance on CGI. The original movies used it (relatively) sparingly. Gollum, an all-CGI character, was a marvelous technological breakthrough that still holds up today. Azog, meanwhile, doesn’t feel like a real character, and not just because he essentially isn’t one, story-wise. He just looks like weightless CGI compared to the practical orcs of earlier films. This overuse of CGI leads to things like the truly absurd sequence where the dwarfs escape from the goblin king, a stakes-free dash through unimportant and unbelievable enemies. 

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

The Desolation of Smaug has a few things going for it. The conversation between Smaug and Bilbo is, like the Gollum sequence from the previous movie, pretty much taken verbatim from the book, and as a result, it’s delightful, even if the dwarfs’ later tussle with the dragon is a little over the top and more or less pointless. It also introduces arguably the only good addition to The Hobbit canon, Tauriel, the elf who begins to fall in love with Kíli the dwarf. 

However, the movie suffers immensely from the need to retroactively make a children’s book that was written before Lord of the Rings and an explicit prequel, resulting in an underwhelming side plot where by the movie’s logic Gandalf really should have known for sure that Sauron was coming back and yet he’s still caught pretty stumped come the events of Fellowship. We also get much more Laketown politics than anybody was asking for. And then this is a minor thing, but despite Jackson being dead-set on shooting and releasing his Hobbit movies in 48 frames per second, there are a couple of POV shots when the dwarfs are escaping in barrels down the river that are obviously pixelated because it seems pretty clear that they just slapped a Go-Pro onto a barrel and let it rip. 

5. The Lord of the Rings (1978)

To Ralph Bakshi’s credit, he wanted to fully adapt all three of Tolkien’s books, but a three-movie plan became two movies and the second one, which would have covered The Return of the King, never made it out of the Shire, so to speak. The Lord of the Rings, therefore, is an incomplete tale that covers The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers at a pace that’s breezy at best and rushed at worst. It’s still effective, though. While some characters — especially anybody who isn’t in the Fellowship — don’t get much in the way of screen time or development, Bakshi is largely faithful to Tolkien, and specific moments or lines pulled straight from the text are as effective in this truncated telling as they are in the original.

It also looks wild in a way that’s a mixed if ultimately admirable bag. Bakshi was a big fan of rotoscoping, a process by which animators essentially painted over live-action footage. When rotoscoping works, it makes for incredibly fluid animation, since the animators are essentially tracing over an actual living and moving person. It can also look uncanny, because the live-action elements are clearly not a part of the same world as the more cartoonish Hobbits. This works great with the orcs and especially the Nazgûl, who are supposed to be “other” from our heroes, but it’s less effective when all of the sudden in Bree there are just, like, real human dudes sitting around.

4. The Hobbit (1977)

The Hobbit is a children’s book, despite what Jackson’s trilogy would have you believe. It’s charming and quaintly odd. That actually makes it a good fit for Rankin/Bass, as it is not an epic but something more akin to a fairytale. (It is also a complete story, unlike one-third of The Lord of the Rings.) It has a curious, slightly ugly aesthetic that actually works well with the vibe of the story it’s telling. This is, after all, a book about a little guy who lives underground being asked by other little guys who live underground to go steal from a dragon (who lives underground). It’s kind of a grubby story, and Rankin/Bass make that into something unique and lovely. 

The Hobbit also boasts some songs that, from our vantage point close to 50 years later, we can only assume must have made sense at the time. They are what I imagine you would get if you sent a 1970s folk musician back in time and told him his only chance for survival is to endear himself with the King and attempt to become the court’s bard. Also, he had a lot of quaaludes on him when he got sent back in time. And yet, something about hearing “the greatest adventure” over and over again actually works for this Hobbit. If other Tolkien adaptations were high fantasy, The Hobbit is more akin to fantasy, high. 

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

This is where it gets hard. Although the Tolkien Estate does not really like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies (baffling, right???), his trilogy is by far the best, most stirring, beautiful, and epic depiction of Middle-earth on film. You could put these three movies in any order — or even cop out and make them a three-way tie for first, and it would be a valid arrangement. Nevertheless, just as Frodo’s burden was to carry the Ring, ours is to commit to a ranking. The margins here are razor-thin, but The Two Towers is getting a bronze medal. 

Two Towers is when The Lord of the Rings opens up. The Fellowship has broken. Sam and Frodo on their hike to Mordor, have the “smaller” story, though the stakes are huge. Gollum makes his full debut in Two Towers, and Andy Serkis’ performance (aided by legions of extremely talented animators) is transportive even today. Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas go to rescue Merry and Pippin, in the process aligning themselves with the horse-lords of Rohan as they fend off Saruman's Uruk-hai. It’s at this moment when Lord of the Rings truly becomes an epic, as there are nations battling with massive armies, and we start to see what war looks like. Two Towers makes Middle-earth look big enough to field massive armies and have different peoples, while all the movies that had come before it were smaller in scale. It all comes to a head in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, which might just still be the single best battle sequence ever filmed.

Because it’s a middle chapter, Two Towers can’t benefit from the humble beginnings of Fellowship or the grand catharsis of Return, but that’s not to say that it’s lacking in emotional heft.

Also, this is the movie where Viggo Mortensen broke his toe kicking that helmet

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

If you believe the Academy Awards, this is the best Lord of the Rings movie. It cleaned up at the 2004 Oscars, winning a record-tying 11 awards including Best Picture. It earned every one of those awards, certainly, but that deluge of Oscars was also, in a way a culmination prize — a way for the Academy to honor the whole trilogy.

That’s both fair and selling the movie short, because Return of the King is an incredible capstone to an incredible trilogy and a sweeping triumph in its own right. While there are some quibbles one can make about Return, like the too-easy way the ghost army literally sweeps over the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or the number of endings the movie has (all the endings are good though, actually), it’s hard to deny that Return is the ultimate high-fantasy finale. The battles are epic, especially the charge of the Rohirrim (“Ride now, ride now, ride! Ride for ruin and the world's ending!”) and the final battle before Mordor’s Black Gate. 

But, what makes Return of the King such a great portrayal of Tolkien’s world is that, even though it’s got plenty of epic sequences and iconic fantasy heroes, it never forgets what’s at the heart of Middle-earth. It’s two Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who ultimately save the day, with unwitting help from a fallen soul who found an important and ultimately good role in the world. It’s why the most stirring moments of Return come not when Gondor is victorious but when its newly crowned king tells four small Hobbits that they “bow to no one.” It’s why the final image of the trilogy is not a regal look at that returned king in all his splendor but a lovely, bittersweet shot of Samwise Gamgee, home with his family. 

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

For as much praise as Return of the King gets for finishing the trilogy, none of it would matter without Fellowship, the film that first introduced audiences to what would be the defining version of Middle-earth. (Prime Video’s series is clearly going to have a similar aesthetic.) Fellowship exerts its excellence in its opening moments, first with a masterful voiceover from the impossibly ethereal Galadriel explaining the history of Middle-earth, full of massive battles between the forces of good and evil and the twisting saga of one Ring of Power. Then the focus is on the Shire. That contrast — between the world-ending fantasy stakes and peaceful folk trying to live their lives — is what makes Middle-earth. Jackson nailed it from the start, and his casting, costuming, and especially his music is perfect for Tolkien’s world. 

It’s hard to pick one moment that cements Fellowship as the best Tolkien adaptation. The opening is great, the Balrog is impressive, and Boromir’s death is tender and earnest. Perhaps, though, the best sequence in the film is a smaller one — a conversation between Frodo and Gandalf during a lull in their trek through the Mines of Moria. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo says, lamenting that the Ring of Power has shown itself and threatened all that he holds dear. 

“So do all who live to see such times,” Gandalf replies. “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

It’s Tolkien’s original dialog, but Fellowship recognizes how simultaneously important and subtle this exchange is. It’s the driving force of the story, and Fellowship gives it the quiet and emotional moment it deserves. This is what Middle-earth is all about.

The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power are now airing on Prime Video.

Looking for some high-caliber high fantasy? Click here for our list of the best fantasy films available on Peacock.