How to watch ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies and series in chronological order

Created by J. R. R. Tolkien, (LOTR) is one of the greatest epic fantasy stories ever written in English literature. Director Peter Jackson adapted the books into six films divided into two trilogies — The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. More popularly clubbed as The Lord of the Rings movies, watching them in chronological order helps viewers place certain disparate events in the films in the way they connected.

About The Lord of The Rings

The epic tells of a climactic battle between good and evil in the fictional universe of Middle-earth which is populated by humans, dwarves, elves, hobbits and orcs.

In Tolkien’s universe, all beings find equal representation but do not trust each other completely. The differences between the more powerful forces — humans, elves and dwarves — are exploited by a malevolent entity named Sauron. He persuades the elves to forge a number of powerful rings and gets one for himself. Known as the One Ring, it has the power to rule over all others.

Eventually, Sauron’s deception is exposed, and he and his forces of orcs are defeated. However, by then, he had corrupted nine men who became his most feared lieutenants collectively known as the Nazgûl.

Through his four main books — The Hobbit: or There and Back Again and the three-part The Lord of the Rings — Tolkien tells the story of how a re-emerging Sauron is defeated by a hobbit named Frodo Baggins and a band comprising men, elves, a dwarf and a wizard.

There are also books that Tolkien couldn’t finish in his lifetime, but they are necessary reading for those who wish to know more about the backstory of everything written in the four main books.

The Lord of the Rings movie sequence as per release dates

Rings of Power
Image: Courtesy of IMDb

It is noteworthy that Jackson’s LOTR movie series, which was distributed by New Line Cinema, wasn’t the first based on Tolkien’s epic. That distinction goes to The Hobbit (1977), an animated film directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., which told the story from Tolkien’s book The Hobbit: or There and Back Again.

The same directors then made an animated film sequel, The Return of the King (1980), based on the LOTR book series by Tolkien. In between, acclaimed animator Ralph Bakshi gave his own touch to Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings (1978).

Together, the three films can satisfy Tolkien fans to some degree, but they do not match the level that Jackson reached with his live-action adaptations of The Hobbit movies and the LOTR trilogy, which, in the order of their release, will be:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Jackson’s six movies are among the highest-grossing films of all time. Taken together, it is the most awarded film series in history with a combined 475 awards out of 800 nominations across award ceremonies. These include its record for the highest number of Academy Awards for a single movie franchise — 17 wins of 37 nominations.

However, Jackson is not associated with the highly anticipated The Lord of the Rings TV series, which is the brainchild of J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay.

How to watch The Lord of the Rings movies and series in chronological order

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022)

Rings of Power
Image: Courtesy of IMDb

The Rings of Power is the first live-action series based on Tolkien’s works. Its story begins thousands of years before the events in The Hobbit trilogy.

It begins before Sauron’s rise and his defeat at the hands of the combined forces of men and elves. As such, it is through this series that the creation of the powerful One Ring, which is at the centre of Tolkien’s LOTR movie series, is presented.

Chronologically, the series within The Lord of the Rings universe is set in the second age of Tolkien’s Middle-earth while all the films are set in the third age.

Set in a world much before the one seen in The Hobbit or the LOTR trilogies, the series shows a completely different geography of Middle-earth. Lands such as the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, the dwarven kingdom of Moria and the city of Grey Havens are prosperous and thriving. By the time of the films, these places would appear completely destroyed, desolate and deserted.

Hobbits, one of the main races of Middle-earth as seen in the books and films, do not exist in the series. Instead, viewers get to see their ancestors — the Harfoots. Similarly, several prominent characters from the films appear as their younger selves. Most of these are elves, who are known for being immortal in Tolkien’s universe. Two such significant characters are Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo), both of whom are the protagonists of the series.

Some characters who are only mentioned or appear in flashback sequences in the films get properly fleshed-out appearances in the series. Among them are a young Isildur (Maxim Baldry), whose older version is shown in narrative flashes in the LOTR films, the elven forger of the rings Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) and the elven king Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker). New characters include Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Durin IV (Owain Arthur), Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Image: Courtesy of James Fisher – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. (US, Canada & New Line Foreign Territories)2012/IMDb

The film is the first in what is known as The Hobbit trilogy, which is based on Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. Its story begins 60 years before the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

At its centre is the Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who is implored by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) to help a group of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield II (Richard Armitage) reclaim their lost homeland, Erebor, in the Lonely Mountain from the dangerous dragon named Smaug.

During their journey, Bilbo gets the One Ring from Gollum (Andy Serkis). Overcome by its immense power, he decides to keep it in his possession forever. On the other hand, Gandalf is made aware of the presence of a malevolent entity named The Necromancer (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Being the first film when watching Lord of the Rings movies in chronological order, certain events, such as how Bilbo got his elven dagger named Sting, are depicted here. Some of the most important LOTR characters apart from Bilbo, Gandalf and Gollum also make their first appearances in this film. These include Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee).

Chronologically, this is the first time that viewers get to see the Shire, a peaceful meadow of quaint little dwellings populated by the Hobbit in The Lord of the Rings. This, therefore, marks the first glimpse of the distinctness in the lifestyles of the Hobbit and that of the Harfoots, who were nomads.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Lord of the Rings in chronological order
Image: Courtesy of IMDb

Following the events of the previous film, Bilbo and the dwarves, along with Gandalf, continue on their quest to reach the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, they are confronted by unforeseen dangers in the form of giant spiders of Milkwood and the Wood Elves. However, they also gain unlikely allies in the form of the elves Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a human named Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who possesses the only weapon that can kill Smaug. Meanwhile, Gandalf witnesses the return of Sauron as Orcs prepare to help Smaug.

This is the first film where Legolas, one of the extremely powerful characters in LOTR, makes his first appearance in chronological order. His ancestry is also revealed in this film as well as his relationship with his father, the elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), who has an intense dislike for dwarves.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc./IMDb

The film begins where The Desolation of Smaug ends. As such, there is no gap between the events in the two films. The dragon Smaug escapes Lonely Mountain and prepares to destroy the human habitation nearby.

However, Thorin refuses to honour his promise made to Bard and becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone. Meanwhile, Orcs reach Lonely Mountain to retake control from the dwarves. Unable to hold on for long, the dwarves must decide whether to join forces with the men and an army of elves led by Thranduil to defeat the Orcs.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Lord of the Rings in chronological order
Image: Courtesy of © 2001 – New Line Productions, Inc./IMDb

The first ever live-action LOTR film to be released on the big screen, The Fellowship of the Ring is the journey of Bilbo’s (Ian Holm) nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Sixty years after he obtained the One Ring during his adventure with the dwarves, Bilbo is visited by Gandalf (McKellen) before the former leaves for an adventure. However, no one, at the time, knew what it would entail. He leaves behind his ring to Frodo, who, with Gandalf’s help, learns about Sauron’s return.

The two seek the help of others — Hobbits Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the elf Legolas (Bloom), men Boromir (Sean Bean) and Strider aka Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). Together, the nine form the fellowship. They decide that Frodo must become the Ringbearer and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. However, in Frodo’s path are powerful orcs and Saruman, who Gandalf discovers has aligned himself with Sauron.

Besides new characters such as Arwen (Liv Tyler), this film marks the first non-chronological appearance of many of the pivotal characters who appeared in The Rings of Power series and The Hobbit trilogy, including Bilbo, Gandalf, Saruman, Legolas, Gollum (Serkis), Galadriel (Blanchett) and Elrond (Weaving).

It also shows the first glimpse of a desolated and devastated Mines of Moria, or Khazad-dûm — the place which was seen in all its glory by Elrond in The Rings of Power.

The Fellowship of the Ring was nominated for 13 Oscars. It won four for cinematography, make-up, music and visual effects.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Lord of the Rings in chronological order
Image: Courtesy of © 2002 – New Line Productions, Inc./IMDb

Frodo forces Gollum to help him and Sam reach Mount Doom as their other friends go on their own missions when Saruman threatens the kingdom of Rohan. As the story progresses, Gandalf gains more powers to become Gandalf the White and joins the forces fighting orcs in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Prominent new characters such as Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), Rohan’s king Théoden (Bernard Hill), his nephew Éomer (Karl Urban) and his niece Éowyn (Miranda Otto) make their first appearances in this sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Two Towers was nominated for six Oscars, winning two for sound editing and visual effects.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Return of the King
Image: Courtesy of © 2003 – New Line Cinema/IMDb

The most critically acclaimed of all films in the LOTR and The Hobbit trilogies, The Return of the King is considered a ground-breaking achievement in film-making, especially because of its success in building an immersive atmosphere of high fantasy through visual effects.

The film was nominated for a record 11 Academy Awards and won each of them, making it the biggest clean sweep at the Oscars. It is also the third film to equal the record set by Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) as the winner of the highest number of Oscars and is the first fantasy film to win the Best Picture statuette.

The Return of the King marks the epic conclusion of the acclaimed series. As the future of Middle-earth hangs in balance, the armies of humans under Aragorn come together for a decisive last stand against Sauron’s forces at Minas Tirith. On the other hand, Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom with Gollum, unaware that the latter aims to betray them to get the One Ring back.

The film is notable for showing viewers how an innocent Hobbit named Sméagol tragically became the abominable Gollum almost 500 years before Bilbo took the One Ring from him in the first film of The Hobbit trilogy.

(Main image: © 2001 New Line Cinema./IMDb; Featured image: Warner Bros. Picture – © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. (US, Canada & New Line Foreign Territories)2012/IMDb)

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