The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings Marathon to End All Marathons: A Binge-Watching Guide

How did it come to this?

After 14 years and more than 20 hours of epic fantasy brought to life onscreen, we come to it at last—the great marathon of our time.

The same way nothing was the same when fans walked out of the theater after “Stars Wars” in 1977, “The Lord of the Rings” was the trilogy that changed everything for me. Between ages 10 and 12, I sat mesmerized in theaters each year as LOTR shattered what I thought a movie was capable of depicting and re-forged it on a far grander scale.

It was a touchstone for Hollywood and for the 21st century, too. Special effects never went back.

The premiere of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” brings the film count to six with two complete trilogies, equalling the total of current “Stars Wars” films. (Until next year, that is, when Episodes VII-IX blast the status quo to Alderaan and create a whole new series dynamic to take the binge-watching marathon into uncharted territory.) In the meantime, “Stars Wars” super-fans have their Machete Order, and so too should the noble fellowship of “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” disciples have a selection of creative viewing options when undertaking the bravest of superfan quests: the binge-watching marathon.

I’ve embarked upon and finished many a LOTR marathon. I’ve seen the top of Mount Doom. From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I’ve watched, and I come back to you now at the turn of the tide. This is a chance for the LOTR/Hobbit generation to take the narrative into their own hands. We’re on the precipice of an unprecedented point in the combination of Middle Earth storytelling possibilities. It’s unexplored, treacherous terrain for us all.

Below is your binge-watching guide to some of the marathon possibilities your quest may behold. There are straightforward paths and more ambitious, daring roads, but each viewing order offers the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” fan different themes to focus on and a unique perspective with which to take in and appreciate the fantasy world we’ve come to love.

*It bears mentioning that much of the guide that follows is laden with spoilers from not only the five films already released, but some key plot points from “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” as well. Ye green folk have been forewarned.*

If you need a refresher on the who, what, when, where, and why of J.R.R. Tolkein’s expansive world, I’ll kindly refer you to the CGP Grey YouTube channel. Part One of CGP Grey’s five-minute Lord of the Rings mythology explainer covers Middle Earth races, gods, demigods and celestial forces of good and evil, while Part Two gives a quick rundown of each ring of power and why they’re all important and interconnected.

Now, strangers from distant lands, friends of old, we press onward.

The Hobbit’s Journey

Order: Watch the first two films in “The Hobbit” trilogy, go watch “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” come back and watch “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.”

Like the peaceful lives of the Shirefolk, this is a simple but effective viewing order. If you’re all about seeing Bilbo and Frodo’s life-changing quests in chronological order, capped off by each heroic hobbit beset by a great battle and ending with both ultimately sailing off into the sunset from the Grey Havens, The Hobbit’s Journey may be for you.

The Road Goes Ever On

Order: Watch the full “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, followed by “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” ending in theaters with “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.”

Inspired by Bilbo Baggins’ “Walking Song,” sung by various characters throughout “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” novels, The Road Goes Ever On is for the fan who chooses to binge in exactly the order the films were released. This viewing order is a nostalgic way to relive the complete chronological experience of LOTR/Hobbit fandom over the past decade and a half, culminating in the present day with the final new footage of Middle Earth your eyes will likely glimpse upon. For the purists out there, it’s hard to go wrong with this marathon order.

Chasing the Ring

Order: Watch just Galadriel’s opening “The Fellowship of the Ring” prologue, then just the opening Smeagol and Deagol scene from “The Return of the King,” followed by the entire “Hobbit” trilogy and finished off with the remaining original LOTR trilogy in chronological order.

A more ambitious viewing order for the LOTR/Hobbit fan who wants to change things up a bit, Chasing the Ring is just that: you see the entire life of the ring, starting with its creation and the first great war, and picking up right from where Isildur dies and drops the ring into the lake with Deagol diving in and picking it up. Starting with these two scenes primes you for a marathon viewing fixated on the ring. You follow the journey of the OG horcrux from Mount Doom to Mount Doom, and it becomes almost a main character in doing so. You see all the other storylines fall into place around it, but as the ring is passed from ring-bearer to ring-bearer, you never lose sight of the gleaming golden evil at the center of it all.

The Way of Kings

Order: Watch the first two “Hobbit” films, then the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and cap it off with “The Battle of the Five Armies” in theaters.

Full disclosure, I am in fact lifting the title of this one from the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s “The Stormlight Archive,” which I just started. (Sidenote: I believe could be the next great fantasy series for those like me who’ve picked clean every scrap of existing “A Song of Ice and Fire” material.)

But I like the name and it works here.

Watching in this order is a great way to focus on the internal struggles, ascension and in one case, death, of the two kings in each of these trilogies: Aragorn and Thorin Oakenshield. Of course there are plenty of other characters and themes to hone in on, yet starting out with Thorin’s regal pursuit of his scorched, usurped mountain kingdom in the first two “Hobbit” films, then watching Aragorn’s a wee-bit-too-perfect transformation into benevolent, universally beloved king, provides a telling contrast to some of Thorin’s decision-making in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and his ultimate fate. It’s always fascinating to put a mental spotlight on those with power and how they choose to wield it, and The Way of Kings is certainly a way to key in on that.

The Way of Kings is, in all honestly, the order in which I’ll probably watch. The first two “Hobbit” films, enjoyable as they are, will never quite compare to the majestic wonder of LOTR for me. So for my buddies and I who’ve completed many a marathon before, we’ll ease in with the “Hobbits” followed by appreciating the full, uninterrupted grandeur of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Then finally, with 20+ hours of pure, sweet Middle Earth fresh in our minds, venture to the theater to experience the last new film in J.R.R. Tolkien’s glorious realm we will likely see in our lifetimes.


A few words of wisdom about format

On that note, here’s a case for why your first (of assumedly many) viewings of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” should not be in 3D, IMAX 3D or High Frame Rate 3D. I shouldn’t even have to explain that last one. Jackson took a big swing-and-a-miss with HFR that’ll probably be seen as a landmark innovation down the road, but for now the technology is just not there yet. Sorry, Pete.

Regardless, the ideal way to experience a first viewing of a film like this is with clarity. No shiny, in-your-face distractions, just the sprawling sets and perfectly vivid normal special effects that Eru (the supreme deity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth) intended. IMAX is certainly an acceptable first viewing option for that immersive feeling of epic scale, but take in Middle Earth for the last time in good ‘ol fashioned 2D for starters. You won’t regret it. You can get cute with 3D or HFR on subsequent viewings to compare, but leave the recyclable glasses in their bins on the first run.


The Sauron Shuffle

Order: Finally, this ambitious viewing order is a Choose Your Own Ending. Watch the films in alternating chronological order: one from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy followed by one from “The Hobbit” trilogy, or vice-versa. So if you start with “An Unexpected Journey,” you’ll end with “The Return of the King,” and if you start with “The Fellowship of the Ring” you’ll cap off the marathon with “The Battle of the Five Armies” in theaters.

The Sauron Shuffle is not a marathon order for beginners. It puts you in the middle of two intertwined parallel storylines coming to a head one after the other while at the same time—thanks to “The Hobbit” trilogy’s liberties in incorporating LOTR appendices—serving as a juxtaposition of the rise and fall of Sauron. You move right from a film where the white wizard Saruman denounces the return of Sauron as a farce to one where he betrays Gandalf and raises an orc army in service of his new master. For someone like me who’s always appreciated a well-drawn villain (Team Jafar 4 Life), relishing in the ripple effects of Sauron’s smoldering, omniscient and malevolent power over the course of the entire double-trilogy is immensely appetizing nerd fodder.

Well, here we sit. Only days remain until “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” premieres on Wednesday, Dec. 17, and a binge-watching marathon on this scale is no cake walk through Bree.

Fly, you fools.