There and Back Again: A New Viewing Order for The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Films

How do you solve a problem like viewing order?
How do you solve a problem like viewing order?

By Michael W. Harris

Well, I finally did it. I watched all six Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films back to back to back to back to back to back, and all in their Extended Editions (the only way to watch the films, as will be assumed throughout this post). That’s almost 21 hours of movie, to say nothing of breaks for cooking food, taking periodic walks, let alone sleep and other necessities. But throughout my viewing, the question lingered: what is the right viewing order of these six films? A film series I hereby dub the Tolkien Hexalogy, for lack of a better term.

Back when the final Hobbit film was released, an article on Medium.com was published that gave a number of possible viewing orders outside of the obvious options of story chronology option (Hobbit followed by Lord of the Rings), which is the how I watched them over two days this past week, or the release order (Rings followed by Hobbit). But none of the orders in the Medium article really resonated with me, and I mused if there was a viewing order that solved some of the viewing issues with the Hobbit films (somewhat bloated storyline, spoilers and foreshadowing for Lord of the Rings that might not make sense without seeing those films, etc.) the way that the rightfully famous Machete Order makes the Star Wars prequels watchable.

So what I will present in this post is my Machete inspired Tolkien Hexalogy viewing order, but just as Rod Hilton starts off his Machete Order post with some disclaimers, I feel like I must first tackle the elephant in the room…

Part I: In Defense of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Films

Let’s me just state this flat out: the version of Hobbit Peter Jackson gave us is problematic. It is overly long, contains lots of material not in the original book (though this material is either hinted at or written about in The Lord of the Rings, its appendices, or the Unfinished Tales), and the last film, The Battle of the Five Armies, takes what is essential the last twenty or so pages of book and expands it into an over two and a half hour long film with a battle sequence that is trying to outdo both Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields, though it fails to live up to either.

So, if you are a Hobbit purist and would rather watch a version of those films that is a better reflection of the actual book, I would recommend downloading one of the following fan edits and watch it instead and follow it with the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Tolkien Edit: https://tolkieneditor.wordpress.com/
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: http://www.maple-films.com/the-hobbit-fan-edit
“There And Back Again” – A Hobbit’s Cut: https://ahobbitsholiday.wordpress.com/

However, if you are like me, and are a film purist and try to find the good in what you are given, then I would like to make a case for the Hobbit films that Peter Jackson gave us. However, I also fully acknowledge their flaws. So here are some of the commonly cited problems and why I will defend them:

  1. The added material that explicitly connects The Necromancer to the rise of Sauron gives added weight to the story of Lord of the Rings. It actually raises the stakes for Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond. They dropped the ball when it came to containing Sauron’s return to Middle-Earth so now when faced with the full return of Sauron and the finding of the One Ring, they spring into action with the Council of Elrond.
  2. By structuring the films the way he did, Jackson allowed for the more natural unpacking of all of the material he wanted to cover. Three films would have been overkill for the original Hobbit novel, even two films might have been stretching it, but with the expanded story, having three films is much more natural and gives all the moving parts time to breath. Indeed, the only film that actually feels overly long is Desolation of Smaug, at least in my opinion. (I would have cut some material out of the Mirkwood sequence, not to mention the inane barrel chase down the river.)
  3. The biggest issue: Tauriel, Kili, and Legolas. While I agree that the romantic triangle with these three is annoying and unnecessary, I do think that when viewed as part of Legolas’s overall backstory—his distrust of Dwarves and why he is simply “Legolas of the Woodland Realm” and not “Legolas, son of Thranduil” when almost everyone is introduced in such a manner because of his strained relationship with his father—that is works to a certain degree. If Tauriel could have been as good as a character as Éowyn, who I believe Jackson and Co. were trying to recapture in Tauriel, then I doubt this would even be as much of an issue as it is.

There is a lot to like about Jackson’s Hobbit films, and I feel like part of the criticism stems from the dual fact that he a) diverged so much from the original source material (i.e. just Tolkien’s original novel, which itself underwent a number of revisions reflecting the growing world Tolkien was creating) after providing a masterclass in adaptation in the original films, and b) relied on CGI more in The Hobbit, thus repeating much of the same error as George Lucas did in the Star Wars prequels.

Indeed, many people felt like Jackson suffered from the same hubristic fall that Lucas did with Star Wars: make a beloved and groundbreaking film trilogy only to follow it up with a mediocre-by-comparison series of prequels. Regardless, though, the Hobbit films exists and if you wish to watch the entire Tolkien Hexalogy, then my personal recommendation is to watch them in the following order…

Part II: Presenting The Temp Track’s Order

I really wish I could have a cool sounding name like the Machete Order, but alas, ‘twas not to be. But without further ado, here is my recommended viewing order:

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  4. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

This order solves the largest issue facing chronological story order: many facts that an audience member is assumed to know since The Hobbit was released after Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is told as a flashback by old Bilbo recording his journey and while preparations are on going for his 111th birthday, as seen in the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. For someone unfamiliar with the original Rings trilogy, almost everything about that opening with go right over their heads, along with the storyline about the Necromancer and how it is the return of Sauron. Additionally, the entire reason why Gollum’s ring is evil is never directly stated in the films, but is assumed that the audience knows.

The second issue that this order addresses is that if you watch the films in release order, which solves the issue with story order, is that you are then ending with Battle of the Five Armies. This is a rather weak film to end on, plus that film does nothing to wrap up the larger story of the Rings of Power, which you got to see three films ago in what is a much more fitting end to the saga as a whole. Furthermore, the ending of Return of the King also brings Bilbo’s story to an end, so you are then seeing the ending of his story before even knowing the full extent of it.

Thus, in my order Fellowship serves as a “prologue” for the entire series, which sets up a number of elements necessary for the Hobbit and retains the ending of the overall saga. It also solves a number of other issues:

  1. Fellowship of the Ring ends with a classic “down” ending (much like The Empire Strikes Back): the Fellowship is broken and Gandalf is dead. We then jump to the Hobbit films to fill in the backstory of so much, including Gandalf and why he matters for Middle-Earth. This deepens the worry for the fate of the world without him and gives the audience even more time with the character before his return in Two Towers. You spend three movies thinking he is dead and worrying about that fact while also learning more about him.
  2. The Lord of the Rings is Frodo’s story, The Hobbit is Bilbo’s story, but the overall story of the Tolkien Hexalogy is of Gandalf and the Rings of Power, something that I feel is brought out by intermixing the films in the way I have suggested.
  3. In Lord of Rings we see that Saruman has been corrupted by Sauron and is now in league with him. The Hobbit films show this process beginning and provides the context and backstory for it. So we learn about his fall in Fellowship and then can view everything that happens in The Hobbit through this lens.
  4. Gollum is introduced though not fully seen in Fellowship. The story of his encounter with Bilbo, briefly seen in Fellowship, is now fully seen immediately afterwards in Unexpected Journey, thus adding more shading to his relationship with Frodo.
  5. The Dwarves do not get a lot of screen time in Lord of the Rings, so Hobbit fills a lot of that material in, along with giving context to the entire Fellowship sequence in the Mines of Moria and who Balin is—though this chronology is still a bit fuzzy and messy because Jackson did a poor job of actually making that clear on screen.
  6. At the end of Fellowship, the world of Middle-Earth still has yet to be fully revealed, with Gondor having just been reached, Minas Tirith seen in only one sequence, and nary a mention of Rohan. The world is still fairly small and Middle-Earth as seen in Hobbit slots in nicely as it is also fairly focused and takes place in almost completely different lands save for the Shire.
  7. This order also saves the viewer from having to jump around discs and films that they would have to do with some orders in which you watch just the opening of Fellowship, then just the opening of Return of the King, and so on.

Finally, what this order also accomplishes is that the three massive battle sequences are nicely lined up one after another: the Battle of the Five Armies, the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and the Battle of Pelennor Fields. So the first three films feel like a meta story that builds up to all-out war and then it finally explodes.

Now, with this new viewing order laid out, the question becomes how does one watch almost 21 hours of movie without fatigue setting in? Well, that is largely up to you and whatever brave souls you convince to joint you, but my recommendation would be to watch it over three days. You begin with viewing Fellowship (208 minutes) the first evening, followed by The Hobbit the next day (532 minutes), and finishing up on day three with Two Towers and Return of the King (474 minutes). This will give plenty of time in between for breaks, walks, cooking, and maybe playing some Lord of the Rings themed games or other such diversions. You could also power watch Fellowship through Desolation in a day (576 minutes) and then finish with Five Armies through Return of the King day two (638 minutes), but that might be asking a lot of some people’s schedules and attention spans.

Part III: Conclusions

One big disclaimer: as of this writing I have yet to actually watch the films in this order. When I watched these films over Thanksgiving vacation, it was my first time watching the Hobbit extended editions and my friend and I made the decision to watch the films in story chronological order. But as we were watching them, I was thinking through better viewing orders and discussed the possible reasons with my viewing companion. We both came to the conclusion that the proposed order is optimal for most viewers seeking an alternative to either story order or release order. With that in mind, the next time I sit down to watch the Tolkien Hexalogy, I intend to view them in this new order and will probably use it for all subsequent marathons.

But is this order better than either release order or story order? I would say yes for the major reasons I laid out earlier. It is better than story order because of all the information that is left out of the Hobbit films that one is assumed to know since the films were released after Lord of the Rings. And I feel like it is better than release order because The Battle of Five Armies is a relatively weak film to send out the series on, especially because it doesn’t wrap up the actual meta story of Gandalf and the Rings of Power nor does it even conclude Bilbo’s story. Thus, both of these two major issues with either story or release order are solved by shuffling Fellowship to the front as a prologue and then viewing the rest essentially in story order.

The biggest issue with this order is that the shift from The Battle of the Five Armies to The Two Towers will probably feel a bit abrupt and disjointed. Five Armies ends with what is essentially the initiating event of Fellowship (Gandalf’s arrival at Bag End) and Two Towers open with a recap of Gandalf’s fall from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and then showing his subsequent battle with the balrog. It sort of works but still might feel odd to some because by watching Fellowship first and jumping back you are cutting out what is the smother transition. However, immediately after the Gandalf introduction in Two Towers we see Frodo waking up and a viewer assumes it was a dream. This same viewer could then also think of the preceding three Hobbit films as also a dream since we know that Bilbo had given Frodo the Red Book of Westmarch containing the tale of Bilbo’s journey along with assorted lore of Middle-Earth. It may not be the most elegant of transitions, but it can work with a bit of a creative viewing mindset.

And that is where my tale will end, I think. Try out the order the next time you watch the Tolkien Hexalogy and let me know what you think. I for one am excited to give it a proper try the next time I pull my Blu-rays off the shelf and venture to Middle-Earth once again.

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