Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy still stands to this day as one of the greatest cinematic feats of all time. The Hobbit trilogy, Jackson’s attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time, was less successful. It did just as well at the box office, but the fans who showed up in droves to see the story of one relatively short novel play out in a trio of three-hour epics were left pretty disappointed.
After The Lord of the Rings unexpectedly became one of the highest grossing and most popular franchises at the multiplex, Peter Jackson got a pretty clear idea of what the fans wanted to see and then put those things in the spotlight in The Hobbit trilogy. Fans loved Legolas in The Lord of the Rings, so Jackson gave Legolas a significant role in The Hobbit. Fans loved the battle sequences in The Lord of the Rings, so Jackson crammed a battle sequence into just about every plot point in The Hobbit and made the whole third movie one mammoth-sized battle sequence.
The Lord of the Rings books came with reams of material for Peter Jackson and his co-writers to work from. When they were turning those books into three feature-length screenplays, they could handpick the subplots that needed to be there and served the story the most and put them into the movie. However, the short and sweet single Hobbit book contained enough material for just one tight, fleshed-out movie. This meant the writers had to make up a bunch of subplots that had nothing to do with the overarching narrative just to stretch the trilogy out to the nine hours the studio wanted.
The Lord of the Rings deals with some very lofty, very heavy concepts. There’s a reason it’s been compared to the Bible in terms of scope and theme. You can’t leave your brain at the door when you watch The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, this is a point in LOTR’s favor. But sometimes, when you’re watching a movie, you just want to have some fun. The Hobbit has a thematic focus that’s easier to keep an eye on than The Lord of the Rings. It’s about the dangerous power of greed. This meant that The Hobbit movies could be lighter and more fun than their more critically acclaimed cousins.
Because The Lord of the Rings trilogy came first, it felt like a breath of fresh air and it was treading on entirely new ground. The Hobbit trilogy felt like a retread of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because that’s exactly what it was. Easter eggs and callbacks to The Lord of the Rings were shamelessly forced into the unnecessary subplots of The Hobbit. The Hobbit falls into the pitfalls of the prequel by focusing too much on the past and not enough on telling its own stories. As the original, The Lord of the Rings didn’t have any of those problems.
There aren’t a lot of one-on-one fight scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are plenty of larger battle sequences where armies of hundreds clash with one another, but we don’t see many characters in scuffles. The one-on-one fights that are in The Lord of the Rings are between characters like Frodo and Gollum (i.e. untrained fighters).
However, The Hobbit trilogy has a few one-on-one fights to punctuate those larger battle sequences, and they’re brilliantly shot and choreographed. For example, the fight between Thorin and Azog is one of the most incredible scenes in Peter Jackson’s whole Middle-earth saga.
Tonally, The Hobbit didn’t really know what was going on. The book it was based on is more of a children’s story than anything else, taking inspiration from fairy tales and intended to be told to kids, whereas The Lord of the Rings was more of an epic tome of war and death and love and power. The movies reflected those themes and felt suitably grand, suitably grim, and suitably epic. But when it came to The Hobbit, although the plot was tonally consistent with the book, the visual style was trying to emulate The Lord of the Rings movies, leaving its overall tone all over the place.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy had some of the most breathtaking action sequences of all time – the Battle of Helm’s Deep, for one – but The Hobbit trilogy had more of that stuff and less of the talky scenes. The only problem with all the action sequences in The Hobbit is that they’re generally inconsequential. Since The Hobbit is such a slim book, all the moments of action are quite brief and no one gets hurt. Peter Jackson dragged these moments out to spectacular half-hour set pieces, but they had very little impact on the plot and the characters mostly came out of them unscathed.
Due to the fact that it’s based on one book and stretched out into three movies, the plotting and pacing of The Hobbit trilogy is wildly inconsistent. Its structure simply wasn’t written to be split into three separate three-act narratives. If The Hobbit had been made as a two-part movie as Guillermo del Toro initially intended, it would’ve been a different story. But being made as a trilogy meant that sequences that only took up a few paragraphs of the book were dragged out into meandering hour-long sections of the movie. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, was written as a trilogy. As a result, its plotting and pacing were a lot stronger and more consistent.
The Lord of the Rings can’t really be held accountable for having less developed CGI effects than The Hobbit, because LOTR was made when CGI as a whole was in its infancy and The Hobbit was made a few years of technological advancement later.
Still, it can’t be denied as a point in The Hobbit’s favor. The Lord of the Rings’ CGI effects have some rough edges. For example, Gollum looks suitably creepy, but in an uncanny-valley way, relying on Andy Serkis’ performance to sell the character. The Gollum of The Hobbit looks realistic and has Serkis’ incredible performance behind it.
When Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the film adaptation of The Hobbit, he wanted to make it a two-part movie, because the book is split into two parts and that made sense. But because trilogies make more money than two-part movies (because there’s one more movie to charge audiences to see), the studios pushed for a trilogy.
Peter Jackson replaced del Toro and did his best to give the studios the trilogy they wanted and give the fans the story they wanted, but he only succeeded on the first count. The Lord of the Rings was supposed to be a trilogy, so naturally, it works better as a film trilogy.