Total Film magazine released their Top 10 scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. While I certainly agree with some of their choices, I would place some scenes higher or lower than others so I have created my own list in this post. To celebrate six glorious films, more than fifteen years of hard work by a dedicated team of Tolkien nerds, and the greatest fantasy writer of the twentieth century who inspired all of this, I have compiled my own personal selection of the most entertaining, epic, and powerful scenes in this film saga (with the obvious exception of the latest film-I’m sensing a follow-up blog post after the release of BOFA). Feel free to comment with your thoughts and your personal favorites from this list (or not) and share in the celebration!
10. Queer Lodgings (The Desolation of Smaug)
Beorn was always one of my favorite characters in the book. We know almost nothing about him, he is very mysterious, and extremely dangerous. I was highly disappointed when I saw The Desolation of Smaug and he received maybe ten minutes of screen time, but the Extended Edition did him some justice. There is the comical and downright hysterical introduction of the dwarves to him with Bofur sending them out at very inconvenient times. This is closer to the book and it was even funnier! I enjoyed the conversation between Beorn and Gandalf, even though it differed from the book, because it showed that Beorn was not just a man who could change into a bear, but a man with a motive to hate orcs and help the dwarves, and also a character who could determine good and evil by himself without looking for personal gain. This instantly made him a good guy in my book and I loved the portrayal of him by Mikael Persbrandt.
9. Amon Hen (The Fellowship of the Ring)
I cannot say how many times I cried while watching this entire sequence, and for good reason! It is powerful and moving and leaves you wanting more of this movie. This is a great way to end the first movie even though it does not coincide with the arrangement of the books. Introducing Boromir, watching his downfall and his redemption, and ultimately his untimely death all in one film is really important. It gives the first film a story arc as well as a character arc for Boromir and sets the stage for us to be willing to meet his brother in the second film. Sean Bean dies in almost everything he acts in, let’s be honest and we just come to expect that. But his dying scene as Boromir with Aragorn is by far his best death scene. This is the union of two Men who have everything to lose and every reason to be brothers. Aragorn is still unsure about how he wants to pursue the throne of Gondor (though this is drastically different from his character in the book), and Boromir is hesitant to accept a king at all. In this scene, however, we are privy to witness these two coming together for the good of all. Boromir understands that the Ring caused him to act irrationally and blind him to the bigger picture. I loved seeing Legolas walk in on this emotional and intimate moment because this is the second time we see him truly sad about losing someone (the first time being after Gandalf is lost in Moria).
- An Unexpected Party (An Unexpected Journey)
This scene was the topic of some controversy at the release of An Unexpected Journey because of the way the scene had been drastically changed from the book. Well, maybe not drastically. The dwarves appeared in the same order but, in the book Thorin did not arrive on his own after the first song. Many people also objected to the individual approach for each of the other dwarves in the company. Personally, I’d have to say that it was precisely these elements that make this scene one of my favorites. Don’t get me wrong, I am a Tolkien purist, but I am also a firm believer that books and films are two separate forms of art and a direct conversion is impossible. I love that each dwarf has been fleshed out and given their own personality and history and I love even more that each actor had a huge part in developing their characters. The atmosphere in this party was contagiously fun and outrageous, which only added to the aura of a children’s story as Tolkien intended his original tale. The fact that Thorin makes a grand entrance alone, after the chaos of the party, is also significant. It is impossible to make a film that follows thirteen main characters, or even half that. Bilbo is clearly the title character, and Gandalf, as a returning cast member from Jackson’s first trilogy, is an important character, but this story needed to focus on Thorin Oakenshield; his past and his family, as well as his motivation for this quest. The film kept Tolkien’s original songs, Blunt the Knives and Misty Mountains, and they were performed beautifully. Overall, I believe this scene was judged a little too harshly because it truly captures the Tolkien spirit and childlike feel of the book.
- Prologue (The Fellowship of the Ring)
This was an excellent way to briefly explain to an audience unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work (or at least Middle-earth’s early history) what had happened up to the point where the story begins. Tolkien’s legendarium was so vast that it can overwhelm even people who have studied it for years. That is why it was so important for Peter Jackson to accurately depict three crucial points: one, who Sauron was and to what extent his power reached; two, the power and significance of the Ring; and three, the relationship between the peoples of Middle-earth up to that point (specifically the races of Men and Elves since that would be a pivotal story point in the second film). Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh wrote the opening sequence and the choice to have the voice of Galadriel was an ingenious one because she is the only character we meet who in fact was present for the majority of the history of Middle-earth and would have remembered all of the events. Jackson’s ability to create a brief yet moving action-packed opening scene also set the stage for all battle scenes to come. This scene was more powerful than anyone could have predicted and it definitely addicted viewers to what would become a classic trilogy and win seventeen Academy Awards.
- The Drowning of Isengard/Sam’s Speech (The Two Towers)
In my high school drama class I used Sam’s speech from The Two Towers for my monologue and for good reason. This speech, along with the montage of images from critical scenes while wrapping up the second movie, really hits home with its message.
It’s like in the old stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was before when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass, a new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t; they kept going, because they were holding onto something…That there’s some good in world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
The speech alone should say it all so I will only mention that this scene contains the end of the battle of Helm’s Deep and the drowning of Isengard. These are two very crucial moments in the film. Another crucial moment was what follows this scene which if Faramir releasing Frodo and Sam. He hears Sam’s speech and it moves him. Faramir understands what is at stake, both with Frodo’s task and the potential consequences from his father for letting Frodo go. This is pivotal moment in character development because he does what his brother Boromir could not do in The Fellowship of the Ring. I just love everything about this scene.
- “I can’t carry it for you!” (The Return of the King)
All things said about the Sam/Frodo relationship aside, this is the culmination of everything we have seen up to this point in the first trilogy. Sam has already proven that he can carry the Ring (when Frodo is given up for dead and captured in the tower of Cirith Ungol), and even more importantly that he can relinquish the item back to Frodo. But Sam knows that Frodo took the task upon himself and only he can be the one to throw it into the fires of Mt. Doom. Having said that, Sam also understands the weight of the Ring, both emotionally and literally (there is a beautiful image of them walking through Mordor and we see the chain around Frodo’s neck digging into his flesh). The message in this scene goes deeper than just these two characters and can be applied to our own lives and friends. We all have burdens and we all have trials. Sometimes we are the only ones that can learn from them or survive them but we always have friends who will support us along the way. Sam has been compared as a Christ figure in this scene and though it came out long after Tolkien wrote this scene, I am always reminded of the poem “Footprints,” where the writer speaks of one walking along a beach and sees their footprints and a second set belonging to Christ in the sand. During the most difficult points in their life they noticed only one set and wondered why God had left them to suffer alone. But God replies that it was during those moments the individual was not alone but being carried by Christ. This is the same role played by Sam for Frodo. He couldn’t do the work for him but he would carry him the rest of the way.
- Riddles in the Dark (An Unexpected Journey)
I have said this before but I will say it again: Peter Jackson’s success of The Hobbit trilogy rides exclusively on his ability to bring to life the most iconic scenes of the book. Chapter Five in The Hobbit was the largest portion of the book revised by Tolkien and it is the pivotal moment on which the entire Lord of the Rings hinges. The relationship between Bilbo and Gollum affects the relationship between Gollum and Frodo later and for the film, since it was the first scene shot for AUJ, it was the beginning of another journey into Middle-earth for Jackson’s crew. For the sake of time, there are a few missing riddles in this scene, but other than that, this scene is almost verbatim to the book. This scene has it all: humor, character development, and above all, a necessary link between trilogies. Tolkien himself said in his letters that the link between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was the Ring. The most important scene to accomplish this in the films is the Riddles in the Dark scene.
- Inside Information (The Desolation of Smaug)
This is another iconic scene translated from page to screen. More than that, this scene encompasses the significance of item possession in the second film. Each film has a theme and for The Desolation of Smaug there is a persistent theme of objects tied to characters; Bilbo and the Ring, Thorin and the Arkenstone, and Smaug and anything shiny and expensive. Gandalf incited the journey to Erebor out of fear that the dragon could be used as a weapon by the Necromancer. This element never actually unfolded in the book but the connection between the Necromancer/Sauron and all dark creatures is interesting. Ages earlier the dark lord Morgoth was in charge of all things evil, twisting good creatures in bad ones and even creating his own beings such as the balrogs. Connecting Sauron with Smaug is definitely an ode to that piece of Middle-earth history. Smaug has the ability to forcibly remove the Ring from Bilbo’s hand and also knows that the dwarves have sent him into his lair. He has a line which just dropped my jaw when I saw it for the first time. When Bilbo eyes the Arkenstone, Smaug says, “I am almost tempted to let you take it. Watch Oakenshield and let it corrupt his heart.” (I am ashamed to say that quote is hugely paraphrased, I don’t have access to my DVD right now due to moving and unpacking. If this really bothers you, please put the exact quote in comments, it would be welcome.) Smaug understands the weakness of Thorin and refers to Bilbo’s Ring as something “precious” to him, indicating that he understand that connection as well, yet he cannot see his own addiction to the gold under the mountain. This was one of the most highly anticipated scenes in the entire trilogy and Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch did not disappoint.
- Helm’s Deep (The Two Towers)
This was Total Film’s choice for best scene and I did agree with that at first. This epic battle scene was the starting point for every battle scene in cinema that would follow, even if unconsciously. This was a difficult scene to shoot. To begin with, Peter Jackson’s crew built Helm’s Deep. I mean literally built Helm’s Deep into the side of a mountain in New Zealand, then built a scale model replica. This undertaking was very labor intensive and material costly but it paid off in the end. The scene took place at night and in the rain so the lighting had to be perfect. This is also the only battle in the entire Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), that wasn’t from the perspective of a hobbit. From a storytelling perspective this was also an important moment because this was the reincarnation of the alliance of Elves and Men which had saved Middle-earth when Sauron was first destroyed. Unfortunately, this scene had its narrative flaws in the sense that it was very different from what happened in the book. Éomer was present for the full battle in the book and his relationship with Legolas and Gimli really takes shape and they are forced to place great trust in one another. Understanding the liberties Jackson had to take for the sake of time and fluidity, I have come to terms with these differences and Éomer’s grand entrance with Gandalf in the end makes it all worthwhile.
- Pelennor Fields (The Return of the King)
This is my personal favorite scene for several reasons. First, the entrance of the thousands of Men on horseback halfway through the battle is just epic in every sense of the word. That image the first time I saw it theatres will remain with me forever. Even though there was a lot of CGI that went into the creation of this scene, I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie. This scene transports the audience into the thick of the chaos and we are able to see it from several different perspectives. Despite my complaints of Éowyn’s character in the movies, I feel she was done some justice by this scene. Though still not as striking as the book, the moment she defeats the Witch King is still defining for her. The Extended Edition added a heartbreaking and powerful scene where Éomer finds his sister on the battlefield. I mean seriously, Karl Urban’s performance for that extremely brief moment was just spectacular. Then there Aragorn honoring his word and freeing the haunted army who fights for them. This is an important moment for Aragorn as not only a military leader, but as a king. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, has died and Théoden has perished in battle. Only Aragorn has a claim to the lands of Men and this act is a shining scene for him. Overall, this scene is epic and worthy of remembrance and reminds us why Peter Jackson won all those Oscars.
Some honorable mentions are Tauriel’s Feast of Starlight speech (although I hate the inclusion of her character in these films, the speech perfectly encompasses everything about the Elves and their beginning and it is even more appropriate that a younger elf is the one who spoke the words), Thranduil and Thorin’s conversation between two kings (and a conversation between two very gifted actors), and the parallel scenes of Frodo and Bilbo’s relationship with the Ring (Frodo touching it at night when no one is looking and Bilbo realizing how powerful it is after he goes berserk on an unsuspecting spider in Mirkwood).
Thank you for your patience (because that was an especially long post), but I am so excited and emotional about the end of this Middle-earth saga and I just wanted us to remember what made this franchise so great. I think we can all agree that The Hobbit trilogy cannot even be compared in epic, grand scale to The Lord of the Rings but the former still has much to offer. They both transported us to Middle-earth and made us laugh and cry. Thank you Peter Jackson, it’s been a wild ride and we are all eternally grateful. I will be viewing the movie at the first possible showing here in the States tomorrow evening and my review will follow shortly after.