The six Middle-earth films - The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit - are a fascinating tale of two trilogies. The original trilogy is widely regarded as one of the best in film history, capturing the scope and majesty of the books it is based on. The Hobbit trilogy, on the other hand, is riddled with problems, and although it contains many of the same actors that were in the original trilogy, it was unable to live up to the heights of its predecessors.
There are a fair number of truly great performances in the original trilogy, and that’s thanks in large part to the actors, but it’s also because of the remarkable care that Peter Jackson took in writing and directing that trilogy. When he attempted to replicate that magic in The Hobbit trilogy, the results were less successful, and so many of the performances were as well.
That’s not to say that The Hobbit is without its good performances, or that the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is without its missteps, but there is definitely a split between the two.
Here are the 8 Best (And 7 Worst) Actors In The Series, Ranked.
Few actors are more readily capable of playing a villain than Christopher Lee. The esteemed actor has had a long, varied career, and every role that he takes on further illuminates his brilliance. As Saruman, Lee has a wonderful menace that made him a perfect match for Ian McKellan’s loveable Gandalf.
When Saruman is ultimately defeated near the end of The Two Towers, Lee is surprising because of the amount of vulnerability that he imbues in the character. Gone is the sinister evil that characterized him at first. In its place is fear and a sense that Saruman is finally realizing that he may not have chosen the winning side. It’s in that moment that he realizes just how wrong he really was.
Evangeline Lilly is usually great. She lights up the screen in Ant-Man, and her work on Lost was always quite compelling. Unfortunately, the role of Tauriel, which was created for The Hobbit films, was never going to be an enormous success. On screen, most of Tauriel’s scenes fall flat, and although she was added to bolster the female presence in the trilogy, she always feels largely tacked on to the action going on around her.
Lilly gives the role a steely resolve, but her skills aren’t large enough to sell the love triangle she’s forced to participate in, or basically anything else she does on screen. It’d be wrong to say that The Hobbit films wasted her, but it’s safe to say she wasn’t used as effectively as she could have been.
Elijah Wood was tasked with doing something almost impossible. Frodo is brave and adventurous, but as he becomes corrupted by the ring, he becomes harder and harder to deal with. And American Elijah Wood had to express that all with a British accent.
Wood’s performance works so well in part because he establishes Frodo’s goodness so succinctly and immediately. From the first moment, you understand how pure and innocent he is, which only makes the terrible transformation he undergoes even more traumatic. Wood plays Frodo with the gentility the character deserves, and that’s why you ultimately understand the trauma that he endures and know why he has to leave his life behind.
Frodo’s journey is tragic and heroic, and Wood understands both of those aspects of the character.
Aidan Turner’s role as Kili leads to one of the more unnecessary aspects of the entire Hobbit trilogy. The romantic subplot between Kili and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is not only unnecessary, it’s also entirely unbelievable. Turner does his best to imbue Kili with some real feeling, but he falls well short of that task most of the time, thanks in large part to an unnecessary emphasis on his character.
Because the story of The Hobbit is stretched out into three separate installments, these kinds of storylines were used to fill space in the trilogy, and it seems like Turner and the other actors involved understood that truth all too well. As a result, these storylines rarely worked, and many of the performances, Turner’s included, suffered for it.
Sean Bean dies. That’s become something of a joke, as it’s something that seems to happen to his character a disproportionate amount of the time. Boromir’s death is one of the first in that long lineage, and although his death may be something of a joke, it’s also one of the most profoundly moving moments in the entire trilogy.
It’s moving because of Bean’s portrayal of the conflict inside Boromir. He’s a man who wants to be a king, but never gets the chance. He’s tempted by the ring, although he ultimately redeems himself and sacrifices his own life to save the hobbits.
Sean Bean’s Boromir is not as morally righteous as many of the characters in the trilogy, but it’s his weakness that makes him so fascinating. Bean plays that perfectly.
The love between Arwen and Aragorn is not uninteresting, but it pales in comparison to everything else that’s happening in Aragorn’s life. None of this is Liv Tyler’s fault. After her epic scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen really doesn't have much, but even so, her performance is competent.
Tyler's impact is hurt by comparison to her frequent scene partners. Both Hugo Weaving and Viggo Mortensen are remarkably gifted actors, and every line that both actors deliver is imbued with meaning and a feeling of importance. In such incredible company, it’s no wonder that Tyler had a little trouble keeping up. Liv Tyler is capable of great work, as seen in HBO's The Leftovers, but as Arwen, she rarely got to show us that.
Cate Blanchett is amazing in everything. She’s got two Oscars to her name, and both of them were well deserved. As Galadriel, Blanchett gives off the perfect aura. We understand the raw power at the core of this character, and also the grace that contains that power. When she is tempted by the ring, we understand how fearsome she’d be if she possessed it.
Even in The Hobbit films, Blanchett’s grace gives her the presence to pull off plenty of mystical mumbo-jumbo that the average performer could not. Blanchett is the perfect choice because of the subtlety of her powerful presence. You understand that Galadriel could rip you to shreds, but she really doesn’t have to show you that power. It’s just there, underneath everything she does.
Legolas’s relationship with Gimli is cute, but other than that, Bloom’s character plays a largely expository role throughout both trilogies. Legolas is meant to be a bit of a bore, but Bloom’s portrayal of the character didn’t make matters much better. Bloom mostly just exists to look stoic and deliver information that only he has because of his elven powers.
While his companions Aragorn and Gimli have rich and specific personalities, Legolas somewhat falls flat in comparison. He is really good with a bow and seems to be capable of defying the laws of physics. Even so, he’s never a very compelling character. It may be fun to watch him perform wild stunts, but Bloom never gives us much of a reason to care about Legolas - particularly in The Hobbit.
Aragorn is arguably the most dynamic character in Lord of the Rings. It’s true that Frodo likely has more screen time, but Aragorn is the story’s chosen one. In many fantasy stories, this characters is a fine enough person, but he’s not the most interesting person to watch in any given scene. This is by design, but it means that the expectations for Aragorn were pretty low.
Not only did Viggo Mortensen meet those low expectations - he exceeded them. His commitment to making Aragorn into a nuanced, interesting man who wants to do what’s right, but also has his own desires was astounding. Aragorn is decent and strong, but he’s also stubborn and has a bit of a temper. Mortensen makes him feel human and creates an iconic character in the process.
King Theoden is certainly a memorable character, but not always for the right reasons. When he turns up in the second film, it’s clear that Bernard Hill did not receive the memo about subtlety that many of the other cast members seem to have gotten. Although he isn’t consistent, Hill sometimes feels like he’s in a different trilogy; one with a more bombastic, over-the-top tone than these movies actually have.
There are some moments Hill is involved in that are genuinely moving.
Ian McKellan is still the only actor in this franchise to receive an Oscar nomination for his work on the films, and that makes sense. As Gandalf, McKellan managed to turn a grizzled old wizard into someone we cared for deeply. He also has many of the most iconic moments in the trilogy, including his battle with the Balrog in the first film.
McKellan is one of the many performers in this trilogy who has the innate ability to make even the strangest dialogue sound perfectly natural. What’s more, he finds the humanity inherent in the wizard and understands the ways he must modulate the character when he transforms into Gandalf the White. McKellan was the best, and really the only choice to play this iconic character.
Ryan Gage plays a character who is never even named in The Hobbit. Gage plays Alfrid, an adviser to the Master of Lake-Town who consults with the Master on a variety of manners relating to Lake-Town’s defense.
Alfrid is meant to be an intensely unlikable figure, and Gage manages that. But he is not unlikable in the way that many of the characters in the original trilogy are. Whereas a figure like Grima Wormtongue was delightfully slimy, Alfrid was just annoying, and a lot of that comes down to Gage’s performance.
Alfrid’s meant to be a villain in this story, but instead, he’s just an obstacle. He doesn’t do enough to feel like a real threat, and that ultimately hurts the movie.
Aragorn and Frodo may seem like the most important characters in Lord of the Rings, but the real heart of the story comes from Samwise Gamgee. Frodo’s loyal companion possessed an inherent goodness that becomes incredibly important when it comes time to actually destroy the One Ring.
As played by Sean Astin, Sam is just decent and kind. He never means any harm, and he never comes across as overly sentimental. Instead, he feels like a true friend. Sam is someone you know you can count on, and Astin’s earnestness only makes that feeling stronger.
Sam is a hero because he’s uninterested in heroics. He’s only interested in helping those around him, and because he’s played so perfectly by Astin, he becomes the beating heart of the entire story.
While the hobbits in the original film never feel too outlandish despite their height, the same cannot be said about the dwarves that inhabit The Hobbit films. Of course, the strangeness of the dwarves’ appearance was only reinforced by many of the performances given by the actors portraying the dwarves.
This was perhaps most true of Richard Armitage’s Thorin, ostensibly the central dwarf in this merry band. Like Aragorn, Thorin is fairly humorless and is really seeking help because he wants to take his seat on the throne in the Lonely Mountain. He eventually becomes corrupted by the riches inside the Mountain, but none of that resonates because of Armitage’s somewhat flat performance.
He’s a lot like Aragorn, except Armitage doesn’t have the charisma required to pull off the character.
Andy Serkis is the undisputable king of Jackson’s universe. As Gollum, he feels so real and authentic that it’s hard to remember that he’s actually a CGI creation. Not only does Gollum feel like an ingrained part of this world, you also find yourself having enormous sympathy for him.
This is a creature who’s divided. He wants to be good and decent, but has been so thoroughly corrupted by the ring that he never really can be.
Serkis helped to pioneer motion capture technology, and has been widely recognized as a genius for the way he is able to take advantage of it. That reputation is one that he started to build with Gollum, and it’s one that he most definitely deserves. He’s giving the best performance in these films, and his body isn’t even on the screen.
Who's your favorite actor in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies? Let us know in the comments!