John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien, author of such high fantasy novels as The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was recently the subject of Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien, a new biopic about the prolific author produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures and released through Disney last weekend.
Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins as Tolkien and Edith Bratt respectively, the biographical film follows Tolkien’s early years as a writer in England, as well as his eventual marriage and involvement in the first World War, all of which had a remarkable impact on the iconic stories he would write decades later.
When it comes to filmed adaptations of Tolkien’s writing, audiences today are probably more familiar with the Middle Earth films by Peter Jackson, which have left an indelible mark on pop culture consciousness, one that won’t disappear anytime soon. What many may not be aware of, however, is just how many other Middle Earth stories have been adapted long before Jackson would make his initial trilogy. Many of these adaptations have long faded into obscurity, while others are almost impossible to find in the first place.
As a way to commemorate both the release of Karukoski’s film and the legacy of Tolkien’s work as a whole, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch and rank every Middle Earth film adaptation I can possibly locate, then rank all of these films accordingly. But again, I wasn’t able to track down everything, such as the 1971 Swedish TV film Sagan Om Ringen, a 1979 episode of the BBC’s Jackanory, and the lost USSR-produced 1991 TV film Khraniteli.
I’ve also decided to only include officially sanctioned productions, which excludes fan films like Chris Bouchard’s The Hunt for Gollum and Kate Madison’s Born of Hope, but those are only a few examples of impressive fan productions worth seeking out on your own if you’re up for an unexpected journey.
With all that said, let’s begin this ranking with:
12. The Hobbit (1966)
Sadly, the earliest Tolkien adaptation also happens to be the worst. Producer William L. Snyder commissioned this 12-minute short after cheaply obtaining the rights to the novel of the same name on the grounds that a film be released. A minimum running time was not specified thanks to a contractual loophole, resulting in an unfaithful, clumsy, and largely unmotivated collection of stills set to unenthusiastic narration. For only being 12 minutes long, the story still somehow manages to feel painfully muddled, and the occasional striking image (literally a still image in this case) is the only positive this knockoff has going for it.
11. The Return of the King (1980)
Functioning more as a direct sequel to Rankin/Bass’s previous adaptation of The Hobbit than to Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, this musical version of The Return of the King originally aired on ABC and feels appropriately flat and cynical to that description. The animation is cheap, the Elizabethan slant on the language is wildly distracting, and it manages to turn one of the most epic conclusions to any saga into a perfunctory fantasy. Effectively skipping over the plot of the first two books makes it feel all the more misguided, especially given the disappointing departure from Bakshi’s memorable aesthetic from two years earlier. It’s not utterly unwatchable, but there’s very little life or charisma to speak of, and it may be better left unwatched.
10. The Fantastic Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit (1985)
Among the more obscure adaptations of The Hobbit is this low-budget and Soviet-produced televised play. There’s no dramatic weight to match the length of the title, but it does possess a shabby, child-oriented charm, almost like a particularly high-profile community play complete with a chorus in the form of a fatherly narrator. It never comes close to achieving the thematic heights we typically associate with Tolkien’s saga, but it’s at least interesting to see a familiar story told in a different language and radically different style. It’s not necessarily good, but it isn’t all that bad either.
9. The Hobbits (1993)
Despite what the title may suggest, this Finnish mini series from 1993 is actually an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, told exclusively from the perspective of Frodo and Sam. Over the course of 9 episodes, Frodo and Sam’s entire journey is traced from The Shire to Mount Doom and manages against all odds to feel both portentous and exciting. It’s still working with a modest budget, so it never achieves a level of immersion necessary for an all-time classic, but there’s a clear and surprising level of effort at work. The music, costumes, and tactile environments all make for, if nothing else, a unique experience that is fascinating in its own right. The emotional beats don’t actually hit very hard, but the passion behind the project is almost enough to make this adaptation work, making this a decent find for Tolkien purists.
8. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Peter Jackson’s worst Middle Earth film has a lot in it to admire, especially with how it nicely concludes an admittedly hit-or-miss trilogy. But ultimately, The Battle of the Five Armies makes far too many mistakes to outshine its brethren. It has a shaky start with its hasty wrap up of the previous film’s now arbitrary cliffhanger, and it quickly loses its footing when it comes to continuously shifting between suspenseful buildup and immense payoff.
Some of the action is thrilling to watch, but in a way that comes off as contradictory considering the pacifistic, anti-war attitude of the original novel. The patient winding down of the resolution is easily the highlight of the film, and although it’s the low point of the modern adaptations by Jackson, it still works well enough as a heartfelt conclusion to make it worth watching if you’re already invested.
7. The Hobbit (1977)
Widely considered the first proper Middle Earth adaptation, this version of The Hobbit directed by animation veterans Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. captures the fanciful whimsy of Tolkien’s work in a way no other adaptation of the story has managed thus far.
In only a short amount of time, it manages to travel to a variety of atmospheric locations while maintaining the dramatic stakes throughout, and the film nicely encapsulates the benign simplicity of Bilbo Baggins himself. It’s honestly too short to have much of an impact, and many of the characters are given short shrift compared to subsequent explorations, but it still communicates the spirit of the novel in a pleasantly skillful manner.
6. The Lord of the Rings (1978)
The best of the non-Jackson movies comes in the form of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which follows the plot of The Fellowship of the Ring and the majority of The Two Towers. The cult favorite director of Fritz the Cat, Coonskin, and Wizards has an impressive eye for developing fantasy worlds, and Bakshi’s take on Middle Earth is immersive and dynamic enough to rival Jackson’s live-action productions.
The stark environments and overarching sense of mystery are definitive of a fantasy animation era I’m particularly fond of (look up Time Masters if you have a chance), and the additions of Rotoscope animation and notable voice actors (John Hurt, Anthony Daniels) make for an altogether essential addition to Tolkien’s adapted work. It’s not as emotionally driven or meticulously paced as some might prefer, and it unfortunately only covers half of the story, but it’s worth seeking out regardless, as it has plenty to offer in return.
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Cited by many as the best of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug is perhaps the most effective in its sweeping sense of urgency and significance. It features Thorin Oakenshield and the Company of Dwarves at their best, and it manages to handily incorporate an impressive number of side characters into the story as the plot progresses.
Not all of these characters leave a significant impression by the end, especially given the underwhelming final installment, so time hasn’t been terribly kind to this adaptation in my eyes. It’s a middle chapter if there ever was one, right down to the frustrating (and ultimately somewhat pointless) cliffhanger, so it doesn’t function very well on its own. But there are enough dynamic performances and incidental plot points to overlook the less impressive moments. The highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low compared to the remaining installment in this trilogy I’ve yet to mention.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy doesn’t have a particularly good reputation, and it’s easy to find plenty of flaws within the entire enterpise, as touched upon previously. There’s a frustrating abundance of tonal inconsistencies, the pacing of the original story doesn’t necessitate three 2.5-hour epics, and many of the additional subplots end up being superficially, even brazenly designed for fan service over effective storytelling.
But there’s also something seriously worth admiring with the first two films, mainly in the unmistakable sense of newfound wonder, which is where An Unexpected Journey is able to shine the brightest. For all of its odd energy and indulgent set pieces, we do get to once again relive the excitement of experiencing Middle Earth for the first time, and through the eyes of Martin Freeman’s brilliant portrayal as Bilbo Baggins. It’s an enticing adventure and also the best of the Hobbit trilogy by my measure.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
As you may have predicted, the top three entries in this list are practically interchangeable. It’s one of the most acclaimed and culturally salient series of films ever produced, and all three installments are uniquely and stunningly well-made, but they have enough differences to at least assign some form of ranking.
What The Fellowship of the Ring does best is efficiently and thoroughly introduce this now iconic visualization of Middle Earth, which for many is the definitive Tolkien interpretation until further notice. And Fellowship also does well to show us how universal fantasy can truly be for a new generation. The film nicely jumps between intimate character interactions and warlike action scenes, while also advancing and building the story to elicit powerful emotional reactions worthy of the original novel.
Jackson doesn’t use up every trick right off of the bat with his opening chapter, nor does he resort to a series of obnoxious teasers. Instead, he uses Fellowship as a perfect start to what may be a perfect trilogy, and my only regret is that I couldn’t somehow put it higher up this list.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
With every great beginning comes a (hopefully) great ending, and Jackson’s The Return of the King is undoubtedly among the greatest of all endings. Without ever feeling exhausting or extemporaneous, it succeeds at finishing an utterly massive story in which the entire world is believably at stake, while still taking plenty of time to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we’ll always have to go.
It’s a film about endings and beginnings, things that die and things that can’t die, and how a powerful journey affects everyone differently. Everyone in front of and behind the camera is at the top of their game here, and it’s clear to see why this conclusion solidified the trilogy as three of the greatest films ever made.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Despite how utterly terrific Return of the King is, I’ve always felt an undeniable connection with the middle chapter of this series. There have been countless war stories on the big screen, so I imagine it’s incredibly difficult to stand out in the right ways, but Peter Jackson makes pushing the standard look easy with The Two Towers.
With the Fellowship splintered and recovering from heavy losses, everyone is suddenly bestowed with powerful purpose in their great war against darkness, and seeing them go about their tasks unaware of whether or not any of it truly matters makes for possibly the most personal and harrowing Tolkien adaptation. The movie keeps every character on a constant precipice of utter defeat, making their determination to fight onward for one more day all the more powerful, culminating in Sam’s phenomenal speech about “the tales that really mattered,” which could very well be the peak of fantasy cinema, and perhaps even cinema as a whole.
In my eyes, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is easily among the best that modern action cinema has to offer, but discovering these remaining adaptations proved to be an enlightening quest. How many have you heard of or seen? Which of my rankings do you agree or disagree with? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks as always for reading.
Sam is a frequent contributor to Cinemaholics and former co-host of Anyway, That’s All I Got. Yes, he’s still recovering from the first time he saw Pulp Fiction.