“It's like in the great 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 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 on to something.” – Samwise Gamgee, 2002
Revisiting a previous work of art, much less a successful one, can be a tricky business. The Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy was a global phenomenon that rekindled the world’s love for Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Nine years after The Return of the King debuted in theaters, An Unexpected Journey graced cinema screens. And so, a new age of Middle-earth adaptations was about to begin. Peter Jackson and crew had thought long and hard about how to approach their new Hobbit trilogy thematically. Would they adhere to the simpler narrative structure and child-friendly tone, or would they create a continuous thread of familiarity to their Lord of the Rings magnum opus. Although, some may have creative differences over the better direction to take, one thing’s for sure. In pursuing the latter, Peter Jackson and his team were able to weave together various narrative threads and retroactively plant the seeds for what would become the visual poetry of Middle-earth.
The marketing campaign for The Lord of the Rings trilogy revolved around a series of posters that spotlighted the important characters in the story. While unique, the posters collectively formulate a visual style that the filmmakers hoped would evoke the spirit of the films. Nearly a decade later, the Hobbit posters, while taking a slightly different approach, maintained that fantastical element. The theatrical poster for An Unexpected Journey focuses solely on the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. With The Desolation of Smaug, the artists chose to harken back to the Rings posters by featuring an ensemble of characters amid a plume of eerie smoke. The Battle of the Five Armies is a return to form, once again focusing on Bilbo as the film’s main protagonist and through whom subsequent events in The Fellowship of the Ring would unfold.
From the opening titles, we immediately see that the filmmakers intended to make it clear that that these two trilogies exist in the same cinematic universe. Following the New Line Cinema logo, the beautiful golden letterings appear, chiseled and cast in shadow. The unique typeface used for both trilogies was hand-drawn by concept artist and designer Alan Lee.
The same visual nods can be seen in each of the films’ individual title shots as well. Calligrapher Daniel Reeve, who designed the titles, maintained a consistent typography (with slight variations) throughout the six films. The unique colors used in each of the title frames also imbues a certain mood which carries over throughout the respective films. It’s interesting to note that An Unexpected Journey, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Return of the King each utilize a warmer color palette, perhaps alluding to the cozy confines of the Shire that the films begin in and eventually end with, respectively.
There is a fascinating narrative symmetry that exists across both trilogies as well. An Unexpected Journey and The Fellowship of the Ring both open with our main protagonists, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, respectively. Appearing against a backdrop of lush greenery, they highlight the serenity and tranquility of Hobbiton. Furthermore, both exhibit a sense of naiveté to the larger world outside the borders of the Shire. In the second pair of films, The Desolation of Smaug and The Two Towers, Smaug and Gollum both represent our main protagonists’ ultimate foil, not to mention the effects teams’ groundbreaking achievements. Finally, The Battle of the Five Armies and The Return of the King see our two rightful heirs, Thorin and Aragorn, reclaim their crowns and kingdoms (albeit for a shorter-lived moment in the former’s case).
Although not as evident, the opening shots of the films also share some visual symmetry with their Lord of the Rings counterparts. Both of the first films open with the flicker of an open flame, marking the beginning of a new story about to unravel. The opening shots of the second set of films each harken back to an earlier episode in the story that bring the audience up to speed on how certain events unfolded. The handing of the Key of Erebor to Thorin by Gandalf the Grey in The Desolation of Smaug and the latter’s showdown with the mighty Balrog in The Two Towers, both explain key events that would have a significant impact on the course our main protagonists would take. Perhaps not as evident is the relationship between the third set of opening shots. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with a nighttime shot of Laketown with the Lonely Mountain visible in the distance. The Return of the King, on the other hand, opens with a closeup shot of Sméagol with an unfortunate writhing worm in his grasp. Interestingly, Smaug was described by Thorin as a “specially greedy, strong, and wicked worm.” However, whereas Laketown is a peaceful settlement awaiting utter destruction by the wicked Smaug, the harmless worm clenched between Smeagol’s fingers is the one awaiting destruction by the soon-to-be wicked fiend. Additionally, both shots represent the quiet before the storm as moments later tragedy would strike, changing the course of history for our beloved characters.
Beyond the more arcane connections, there are many direct visual allusions in the Hobbit trilogy to its predecessor. Considering both trilogies begin at Bag End, we can see the ‘No Admittance’ sign hoisted over the gate in both films. Making an appearance early on in the film, Frodo Baggins is a neat little serving of nostalgia for the audience, making it easier to slip back into the Middle-earth they last saw nine years earlier.
The interiors of Bag End were re-created meticulously for the second trilogy. In these pair of shots, we can see that even Thorin’s treasured map is right where we last left it. We can also see an aged Bilbo moments apart in the films (but over a decade apart in the real world).
The filmmakers cleverly recreated Gandalf’s clumsy collision with the chandelier hanging over the entrance to Bag End. This time, however, the scene takes place at night, allowing the filmmakers to light its candles, for a warmer touch. Perhaps more than any other character, Gandalf the Grey serves as the unifying thread connecting both trilogies. Returning to lead our heroes on their greatest adventures, the audience immediately connects with Gandalf, who exudes a sense of comfort and security for both his companions and the viewers. His nearly identical appearance in both trilogies surely helps. In the words of the wizard himself, “You haven’t aged a day!”
Some things never change it seems. Just as he had been sixty years earlier, Bilbo is constantly wary of any visitors and looks outside his window for any unexpected guests. Although his adventurous Took side got the better of him years ago, it’s been a while since he’s gone on any real adventures.
Both The Fellowship of the Ring and An Unexpected Journey featured scenes amidst the Tower of Amon Sûl, a watch tower on Weathertop hill. It was here that the hobbits confronted the sinister Nazgul in the first film; sixty years earlier it remains a place of darkness where the enemy, led by Azog the Defiler, plots their next move.
The infamous trio of trolls who made a fleeting cameo in the first film as stone structures, return as their livelier counterparts in An Unexpected Journey. Preparing the poor dwarves for a delicious roast, the trolls meet their end when Gandalf arrives in the nick of time.
In both film trilogies, Gandalf utilizes the aid of a small creature to call upon Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles for assistance. Although some have questioned the wisdom of not utilizing the eagles to a greater extent for their travels, their primary purpose in the story is to intervene only when the situation calls for it.
As they have many times in the past, the eagles come to the rescue of Gandalf the Grey just in time. Both scenes utilize the same dark palette and color grading to evoke memories of their previous encounters.
We are introduced to Rivendell in both trilogies, albeit during different seasons. In these pair shots, we see the pedestal that holds the sword of Elendil from different angles. The filmmakers painstakingly recreated the set along with all of its minute flourishes to give viewers a sense of nostalgia for what was yet to come, funnily enough.
This painting by Alan Lee depicts Sauron as he hovers over the fallen king to deliver the final blow. Interestingly, Lee had neglected to paint in the Ring of Power the first time around and made sure to add in the little golden detail he had overlooked years earlier.
The relationship between Arwen and Aragorn is mirrored in the second trilogy’s relationship between Kili and Tauriel. The films present a forbidden relationship between a man and an elf, or, in the latter’s case, a dwarf and an elf. Just as Arwen had entrusted Aragorn with the Evenstar, Kili entrusts Tauriel with his treasured rune stone. Both shots mirror each other, albeit with the recipients reversed.
In Rivendell, Bilbo passes down his mighty sword Sting to Frodo. The scene is artfully mirrored in An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo comes across the sword for the first time in the trolls’ cave. The only difference is that the original sword did not bear the Elvish inscription engraved as seen in The Fellowship of the Ring. This was added later when Bilbo returns to Rivendell after the conclusion of his travels. The inscription reads: “Sting is my name; I am the spider’s bane.”
Bilbo also hands down his valuable Mithril shirt to Frodo. In The Battle of the Five Armies, we see Thorin handing Bilbo the extraordinary shirt for the first time in a scene that visually echoes that of the first film.
The meeting place of the Council of Elrond served as the same location where he once hosted his dwarvish guests sixty years earlier. Amusingly, where Bofur once stood and danced merrily, the fate of Middle-earth would one day be determined. This time around, we also meet Saruman the White before his turn to darkness. He makes an appearance at the White Council to discuss the looming presence of the Necromancer.
As the fellowship heads out of Rivendell we are treated to a magnificent shot of Rivendell. Although featured previously in the first film, the filmmakers decided to present the Last Homely House of Elrond in a different light (literally). The scene in An Unexpected Journey takes place during the summer time, rather than the autumn, and the lighting and color palette reflects this distinction as well.
Sting glows blue when orcs or goblins are nearby. The ancient Elvish blade was made by weapon-smiths in Gondolin. Bilbo eventually found it in a Troll-hoard alongside Glamdring and Orcrist.
Mirroring the opening shot from the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, the filmmakers recreated an eerily similar scene for Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum.
Despite taking some creative liberties, the filmmakers attempted to maintain the same composition of the shot where Bilbo first sees the ring in Gollum’s cave. Naturally, the second shot from the Hobbit trilogy places an emphasis on the ring’s golden allure.
Similarly, the shots of Bilbo finding the Ring are slightly different. Peter Jackson decided to take some creative liberties that would better serve the story he was trying to tell. While the scene served as part of an extended montage the first time around, this time it was crucial that the audience be allowed to linger on the moment which would turn out to be one of Bilbo’s most life-changing encounters.
The filmmakers created an interesting parallel between the first time we see Gollum in The Two Towers and the first time we see him in An Unexpected Journey. The shots are set up to mirror each other, whereas the first film showed Gollum encroaching on the two hobbits from above, the second film shows him hovering over a frightened Bilbo from below.
Both film trilogies showcase the breathtaking scenery and landscapes that the heroes traverse. Once again, New Zealand served as the breathtaking backdrop to these characters’ exciting adventures. Although they followed a similar path initially, their journeys diverge beyond the Misty Mountains as the dwarves travel north and the fellowship continue south.
As a recurring character in both trilogies, Gandalf serves as an emotional anchor for the audience. During his standoff with the Balrog, deep in the caverns of Moria, Gandalf raises his staff toward of the treacherous beast. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf holds a similar pose when confronting the newly unveiled Necromancer.
Although the visual similarities were not made explicit, the slope upon which the fellowship exit from the Misty Mountains is, in fact, the same location as the Battle of Azanulbizar between the dwarves and the orcs. Covered in the remains of fallen soldiers and drenched in dark orc blood, perhaps the lack of a distinguishable feature is understandable.
In Lothlórien, the fellowship is unexpectedly confronted by the Elves, to Gimli’s dismay. In The Desolation of Smaug, a similar scene plays out with Thorin and his company, including Gloin, Gimli’s father. Also returning to the second trilogy is Legolas Greenleaf, flawlessly played by Orlando Bloom, once again. As with Gandalf and the other handful of characters, Legolas’ return offers a familiarity that maintains cinematic consistency across Middle-earth.
Lady Galadriel also makes an appearance in the Hobbit trilogy, both as a member of the White Council at Rivendell, and a worthy adversary to the malevolent Necromancer. The filmmakers attempted to recreate her frightening ulterior persona as the Dark Queen by utilizing the same visual technique they used over decade earlier. Interestingly, the exact method for recreating her menacing voice was not reproducible, and so the filmmakers had to devise a new way to recreate that ominous sound. The appearance of the Nazgul in their ethereal form at Dol Goldur also marks a return for these menacing adversaries.
The sudden death of Boromir is one of the more tragic beats of the first trilogy. Likewise, Kili and Fili’s unexpected deaths at the end of The Battle of the Five Armies end on a similarly somber note. Visually, the filmmakers used a similar camera angle to showcase the fallen heroes’ final moments.
The attack of the Wargs in both film trilogies serves as a unique turning point for the characters. For the second trilogy, the designers opted for a more faithful interpretation of the wolf-like creatures compared to their more hyena-esque counterparts a decade earlier.
In these looming shots of charging warriors, Peter Jackson’s unique visual style cannot be missed. In both cases, the rising sun serves as an offensive tactic to startle the enemy as the heroes charge forth.
As Frodo is held by Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom, little did he know that his Uncle Bilbo once held a dying Thorin Oakenshield in his arms as well. The visual allusion to this moment is unmistakable. Not too far from them, a shaken Thranduil tells his son Legolas to travel North and look for a ranger who goes by the name of Strider. This is a nice nod to the adventures of Aragorn and Legolas before their fateful meeting at the Council of Elrond.
The Red Book of Westmarch makes an appearance more than once across the six films, but none more poignantly than as a bookend to this long cinematic journey. What started with Bilbo, continued with Frodo, and is eventually passed down to Sam. As The Battle of the Five Armies comes to a close, Peter Jackson and his team decided to recreate the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring, albeit from the perspective of Bilbo inside Bag End. This serves as both a fitting epilogue for the film and a worthy segue into the next chapter of Middle-earth.
The font used for the main end credits (as well as the credits at the beginning of the films) were created by artists Alan Lee and Sacha Winter for both trilogies. As with the opening titles, the filmmakers maintain a visual consistency across both trilogies. The Return of the King and The Battle of the Five Armies both end with a series of beautiful sketches by Alan Lee to conclude the cinematic journey.
With the conclusion of Middle-earth’s cinematic journey, the various visual nods and allusions interweaved throughout only strengthen the connections across all six films. The recurring characters, settings, and circumstances help unify the collective experience of journeying through this unique fantasy world. Music composer Howard Shore’s triumphant return to Middle-earth also cements this unification, quoting familiar musical cues throughout the six films. As future audiences continue to dissect and examine all of the little nuances across both trilogies, the visual poetry of Middle-earth will continue to inspire and delight for generations to come.
Mohammad Osman is an Artist, Writer, & Cultural Historian.