January 28, 2015

An Epic Battle Between Style & Substance: Why is 'LOTR' Better Than 'The Hobbit'?

Two trilogies living in the same universe. One is considered a masterpiece, while the other -- not so much. Why did The Hobbit find less success than The Lord of the Rings?

It's nearly impossible not to like The Lord of the Rings. It's a beautiful tale about a bunch of underdogs fighting a war that they don't seem capable of winning, sweeping across the sprawling landscape with epic battles and triumphant victories not only within Middle Earth, but within the characters as well. The Hobbit fights to emulate this in each episode of its trilogy, but really only managed to capture part of the magic. But why? Peter Jackson directed both trilogies; the screenplays were all written by him, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens; so, why did one work while the other didn't?

Film student Sean Hickey put together this engaging video essay for the DBS Film Society that compares the trilogies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to determine why one was so successful while the other wasn't. (Here's a hint: in the epic battle between style and substance, substance always wins.)

The difference between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as well as so many films like it, is a matter of maturity and restraint. What are we exposed to and how? How do the action sequences, love scenes, and expositional moments differ between the two? In LOTR, they're restrained -- Jackson gives you less so you want more in the end. However in The Hobbit, Jackson gives you pretty much whatever you want -- plenty of exposition, insane action, as well as plenty of CGI to pull the latter off. This makes it more difficult for you to make a truly deep connection with the characters or feel any real tension as they're put to the test (because you don't really care about them).

To put it simply: The Hobbit focused more on style, while LOTR focused more on substance. If you're making a film right now, this is an excellent lesson to learn. From the moment you start writing the script to the moment you finish editing, ask yourself which is more apparent in your project: style or substance. (The end goal is to manage both.)

Do you agree with the points made in Hickey's video essay? Let us know in the comments below.     

Your Comment

32 Comments

Very interesting!

January 28, 2015 at 5:01PM, Edited January 28, 5:01PM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1971

Substance vs style. Good point. The hobbit movie is entertaining, but to me it did feel as a copy of the original. LOTR (the original) is cinema at its best, for those who love fantasy or adventure movies. Besides to creating that masterpiece, I have to also praise Peter Jackson for taking the effort to make a great series of behind the scenes documentaries around LOTR (filling 10+ hours) about the actual making of LOTR and all the creative people and processes involved in it. Truly inspiring.

January 28, 2015 at 5:28PM, Edited January 28, 5:28PM

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Erwin Hartsuiker
CineVideo-NL videographer
484

One word: Expectations.

January 28, 2015 at 5:29PM

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LOTR was shot on film. Which is immersive and feels like a window into the story.
The Hobbit was shot on digital. Which is not immersive and is like a simulation.
Digital is easier and requires less human effort which creates less human of an experience for the viewer. In my opinion anyway.
The medium is the message.

January 28, 2015 at 7:38PM

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The medium is never the message. The camera is never what makes or breaks a film. It's all in the writing. ALL in the writing. It's like you're suggesting that if you gave me the 35mm ARRI they used in the Lord of the Rings, I'd come out with an epic; whereas if you loaned me a RED, (or digital ARRI, since that's your message) I'd come out with an unimpressive and flat story.

American Sniper? Filmed on Digital.

I agree - I think the film (The Hobbit) looked... different. But when you look at the incredible work coming from modern-day digital cinema cameras, especially ARRI and RED, you'd have a difficult time telling the two apart. They could have botched the Lord of the Rings with the same look - the cartoon CGI look used in the Hobbit. But they didn't.

January 28, 2015 at 8:15PM

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Brandon Neubert
Color Artist / Writer / Director
641

You can defend all the equipment and RED cameras that you want to defend... But I guarantee you that if Tarantino or Nolan or Paul Thomas Anderson started shooting on digital their films would lose a weight to them. The best of the best know what medium has soul to it. There's a reason they are where they are.

David Fincher has done some great things with the RED cameras but my favorites of his are still Seven and Fight Club. Which were both shot on film. Call it a coincidence or like you said about the writing... how it's about the substance... but I think that after all is said and done there's much to be said of the organic and there always will be.

Everyone on this site will hate my comments because they likely use a 7D, 5D, GH3, GH4, etc... But I stand by my opinion that there's soul in the old tools.

Just call me a record collector in the world of ipods and mp3's I suppose.

January 28, 2015 at 8:39PM

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Perhaps another article will help here: http://nofilmschool.com/2015/01/feature-film-blew-everyone-away-sundance...

Trust me - I love 35mm as much as the next guy. But medium does not a film make. Don't mistake me as defending digital vs analog - understand that I defend storytelling over medium chosen..

January 28, 2015 at 9:10PM

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Brandon Neubert
Color Artist / Writer / Director
641

I don't think the camera had anything to do with how good the trilogy was— the story simply had fundamental structuring issues that wouldn't let me "really" enjoy it. I wanted to love it, I really, really wanted to love it.

That said, the digital look didn't exactly help the story or the film as a whole. I don't like talking bad about RED or any other digital camera, but something just feels strange in most films shot on RED and I can't put my finger on it; just doesn't feel right, least of all for fantasy.

I think 35mm film or at the very least the Alexa might have given it an edge aesthetically speaking, but that would be very low on a long list of major issues with pacing, structuring etc, just... everything else that was wrong with the new films.

January 30, 2015 at 8:40AM

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Felix Klein
DP
84

Yep correct, Alexa is better vs Epic in color , Alexa is a great camera, but now Dragon is better in color vs Alexa..
in the digital world, everything changes in a short time.

January 31, 2015 at 4:12AM

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Alexx
95

I watched the 3 hour edit of the Hobbit trilogy (3:22 actually) and it was MUCH better. I will actually watch that version of the movie again. The original 8+ hour version? Never again.

The editor centered the movie on Bilbo much more, and dumped the ridiculous CGI video game fight sequences (like the barrel fight).

January 28, 2015 at 7:56PM

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Can I get a link to that edit? Sounds pretty good to me!

January 28, 2015 at 8:05PM

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Brandon Neubert
Color Artist / Writer / Director
641

That barrel fight sequence was really one of the worst things I saw...
Can you share a link to the edit?

January 30, 2015 at 12:26PM

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I find it weird how the majority here are saying The Hobbit is fundamentally flawed and the technology behind it isn't the main reason why. But then say CGI ruined the movie. There's less CGI in it than most realize but even then, if you think "excessive" CGI ruined it, that's still part of how the movie looks and feels. Make up your minds.

May 10, 2016 at 11:01AM

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110%. The Hobbit was so lacking in substance - I really didn't care about any of the characters. In Lord of the Rings, I care about ALL the characters. The Hobbit seems like a childish film to me. A fun film, sure. But it's not a good film. There's just so much depth within the Lord of the Rings, I see something new every time I watch it. Each character is dynamic, wheras in the Hobbit, every dwarf seems to carry the same silly, unintelligent, flat character as another. The Lord of the Rings gave me something different to root for in every character. I still grieve for Boromir in the first film. I see a lot of him inside myself. The same as Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, really - all the characters. The same weaknesses, fears and trials I face, I watch them face in the films. I have no connection with the goofy dwarves in the Hobbit.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have an epic to watch for the next 10+ hours.

January 28, 2015 at 8:05PM

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Brandon Neubert
Color Artist / Writer / Director
641

I think this pretty much hits the nail on the head. I've been thinking about this quite a bit after the crushing disappointment that was The Battle of the Five Armies, and I think it's a matter of scope as well. The Lord of the Rings told an epic, timeless, classic tale of ultimate good-versus-evil. It's classic Joseph Campbell stuff and every character's storyline concerns the fate of the entire world they live in.

The Hobbit is and was always a little cousin to Lord of the Rings, a slighter, more light-hearted adventure story set in the same universe. The scale and scope of that story do not even begin to compare to that of Lord of the Rings... but when you start talking about movie studios and big money-making franchises, the pressure to deliver something of the same scope must be insurmountable.

And as a result, Peter Jackson shoehorned in a flood of sub-plots meant to harken back to those in Lord of the Rings (the forbidden love sub-plot, the refusing-the-call-of-duty sub-plot, etc)... except they are so inconsequential compared to the ones in Lord of the Rings that they just never become engaging.

And though I absolutely do not think that camera equipment has anything to do with it (film versus digital), I will say that on a technical level The Hobbit greatly suffered from Jackson's expanding reliance on digital effects and his shying away from the incredible model, miniature and location work that made the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so very palpable and real.

January 28, 2015 at 8:33PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
2078

Hi there, I have not read all the comments so sorry if this was mentioned before. I'd like to make only one comment. As somebody who read both books I can definitely say that while LOTR is a heavy and very serious trilogy with detailed character building and endless descriptions, The Hobbit was almost like a kid's book on a couple of hundred pages. If you expected the same substance and depth from The Hobbit movie as from the LOTR movie that you obviously did not read the books. To me The Hobbit movie represented perfectly that difference between the two stories. A lighter more arcade style book to a lighter more arcade style movie. Not sure what Jackson's intention was but can imagine that he wanted to create a lighter easier movie from a lighter easier book. I actually would have been disappointed if he had made a heavy story out of it. My two cents.

January 28, 2015 at 10:42PM

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I agree, I think any failures of the Hobbit (I personally don't think there are that many) are due to taking a 3-4 hours story and turning it into 7+ hours. There is no way I could sit and watch all three Hobbit movies back to back, but I could easily do this with LOTR.

I think it comes down to the writing of the original books and the stories they tell. LOTR is a better movie because it was a better set of books.

January 29, 2015 at 8:09AM

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Ryan Hargrave
I make things
94

0:00-0:40 So, any film that incorporates giants, battles, swords, crane shots or CGI creatures is essentially a rip off of LOTR???? (DA F%$&! DID I JUST HEAR???? that is literally the DUMBEST thing i have heard all year! By that logic, any film with spy's or secret agents is a rip off of "007", any film that is completely 3d is a ripoff of "Toy story", This video is a rip off of "Every Frame a Painting" no? How is what you have just said in this video any different from the ridiculousness of the examples I have just given, To fully understand how idiotic your statement was i suggest you compare 007 to the borne franchise, Identify what it is that makes them different and then watch your argument collapse into itself.

January 29, 2015 at 12:05AM

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Mick
74

The hobbit had way cartoony action sequences. King Kong had some of the same action, where characters fall, swing on a vine, do a loop around a log, fling through the air, land on a plank of wood, ride it down a mountain side. Enough is enough. I know it's a fake world, but it's like they didn't want me to buy in to any of it.

January 29, 2015 at 1:33AM

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Vincent Gortho
none
443

The hobbit is less than a 100,000 words. LOTR is almost half a million.
The biggest mistake they made was turning it into 3 films and I doubt very much that decision had much to do with Peter Jackson.
So far I've only watched all 3 movies in High Frame Rate 3D. I'll be curious to watch at 24FPS 2D and see if they improve at all. The only 2 films I've really enjoyed in 3D were Avatar and Gravity. I usually just find it a distraction. I think I'd rather watch the 3 hour edit someone mentioned though.

January 29, 2015 at 4:05AM

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Richard Lewis
3D Visualisation Specialist
192

They are the same. The difference is perspective based on order of release. Personally I think the Hobbit is technically well ahead of LOTR and I prefer the story of the Hobbit.

But they come from the same author and brought to life by the same director so the Hobbit released after LOTR was always going to be seen as an add on, franchising etc

January 29, 2015 at 4:43AM

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I agree with several of your comments and declarations that The Hobbit decides to emphasize style over substance. However, I think we should remember the original content that Peter Jackson and his team is pulling from. They aren’t working from source material with hundreds upon hundreds of pages of character driven adventures.

They are working from a children’s book. Because of this, The Hobbit takes on a childish and unpolished form. One that would be much more suited to a younger audience, rather than the intellectual critics who lauded The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Which to me, is some of the best work ever done in cinema.

My purpose in restating the context here is for us not to compare these two trilogies, despite their similar structure and authors. Each one was designed for a different audience and in turn utilized a unique language to reach those audiences. We should be able to enjoy them for what they are, not what they aren’t.

And for the dude who said “The medium is the message”.

Yes, the format is important but it is not any where important enough to be considered the message. It’s as important as the types of lights they used, the sets they designed, or the color of Bilbo’s hair. Just another important element that helps a filmmaker tell a story.

January 29, 2015 at 1:53PM

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Sam Saravolatz
Director/Writer
154

Making do with "less" is one of the major factors....if you call making 3 films for about $250 million "less". Each of the Hobbit films cost more to make than all three LOTR. I call it the "Lucas" syndrome. The first Star Wars film, cheesy though it could be, had a lot of heart in it because they did a LOT with less than they would like. They innovated, as did Peter Jackson's SFX company WETA Digital. Having to work with less forces you to be more creative. As soon as you have a ton of dough behind your production, your choices become less and less limited and you start to focus more on visuals than script....Style over Substance. Look at PJ's "King Kong"....not one, but 3...count'em 3 T-Rex's AND a stampede of brontosauruses being chased by veloci-raptors....and...And....AND! Two words PJ: GROW UP!

January 29, 2015 at 4:00PM

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Drew Staniland
Actor/Videographer/Writer/Director
180

For me, the reason LOTR is better than the Hobbit comes down to the character development and the character arc. In LOTR we see Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and others change from movie to movie. We see how the ring is affecting their characters and those around them. We are presented with a Bilbo who is dark, brooding, and somehow unknown to the audience - there is a seeming urge to feel lack of trust with him. In The Hobbit series, however, we only get minor glimpses in between the often times pointless use of CGI (two mountains fighting with each other). Bilbo doesn't change the way innocent Frodo changes in LOTR. For me, this was made me enjoy the story less in The Hobbit.

January 29, 2015 at 5:54PM, Edited January 29, 5:54PM

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Joe G
Student Filmmaker
74

I'd agree with most of this video essay, and a lot of the comments. To me the Hobbit films were to LOTR what Episodes I-III are to the real Star Wars films: too much CGI, no characters to care about, everything controlled and looking computerised - devoid of human touch and emotion. The real locations of LOTR and the depth of the characters kept us engaged for hours. In The Hobbit I couldn't tell if any of it was actually shot in New Zealand - or outdoors in New Zealand at any rate - nothing looked real. And the book is all about Bilbo's journey of self-discovery and adventure - in these films Bilbo is a side-character, trekking along with some pretty dull Dwarves singing terrible songs, intercut with some of the dreariest table-side exposition from the old guys and some elves. I'd be interested to see the 3 hour come someone mentioned, though I think a 2 hour edit would be possible, and might just hold together.

January 29, 2015 at 6:44PM

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Matt Jamie
Film Maker / Photographer
88

Re: Hobbit -> Goofy, stupid dwarves will mess up any story.

January 29, 2015 at 6:50PM

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Razor
VFX Colorist
495

The Lord of the Rings is the arguably the greatest work of Fantasy literature ever written; codifying and then spawning an entire genre and creative industry, both in print and on film.
It's 1200 pages and took Tolkien 12 years to write, basically from a Bible he created over 20 years previous to that, called the Silmarillion.
That's why LOTR, 2nd to only the King James Bible, is the best-selling book of all time (feel free to dispute, I won't quibble over a few 10's of millions here or there).
It is a mythology fleshed out over decades, from 1917 on, when JR Tolkien was being gassed in the trenches of France in WWI, through the horrors of WWII. Those were the catalysts that formed his sensibility and vision: the coming of Darkness. And thus it stands today.
The Hobbit is a children's book he wrote in 1938 to get a foot in the door with a publisher. His agent said, "Look, dude, no offense, you're a creative guy, but nobody wants to read your Silmarillion. It reads like a Bible. And we already got a bible. It's called THE BIBLE. So just pick a character, based in this other world you've spent 20 years creating, and just write a story! Any story! And when you're done, I'll find you a publisher." And that's why the Hobbit start's out like this: "In a hole in the ground, lived a Hobbit." It's a small story, scarcely 200 pages (and really just a 100 pages when you take out the songs and "and then they went round the bend and there was a tree..." - basically, the Hobbit is a two-toilet read. Two sittings and bam, you're done.
so... LOTR. A story of an entire OTHER WORLD that is beyond, yet parallel to our own. A story of redemption, of unconditional love, of comradery, of unwavering faith in the power of Good over all-consuming Evil, of the coming of the End of the World, of our manifest destiny to triumph over darkness, and of the existential relevance of every breathing soul.
The HOBBIT. a bedtime story. Cute, but to be honest, I only remember Riddles in the Dark and the final battle (which you could read in 20 minutes, versus sitting through 3 hours in a theater- we call that "padding").
Apologies for Comment-sprawl. But the LOTR films were both a labor of love from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who crafted the script over a DECADE, combined with a the once-in-a generation labor of art, and heart, and mind, and science, and inspiration- brilliantly executed by 5000 of the greatest creative craftspeople of our time. And make no mistake: As the film industry dictates, it will be remade one day, to be sure, but it will never be replicated.
The Hobbit is a blatant money grab, pure and simple, and it taints the brand, and sadly, as a result, Peter Jackson is the new George Lucas, stirring a pot of spoiled leftovers while mumbling songs to himself in Elvish.
And being a way-to-early fanboy of RED (which made everything look pink) - (and don't get me started on the 48fps thing) against football stadium green-screens makes it even worse. No amount of colorizing or plug-ins is going to polish a 10-hour turd, or give you back the LOTR look, which is an aesthetic for the ages.
Thanks for your time, and patience. My shoe is off, my foot is cold, and now my story is all told.

January 30, 2015 at 12:21PM

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Darby Powell
filmmaker
187

“In LOTR, they're restrained -- Jackson gives you less so you want more in the end.”

Only compared to The Throbbits could LOTR be considered “restrained”.

January 30, 2015 at 12:31PM

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It's not

January 31, 2015 at 12:03AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1099

The hobbit is and always was a "lesser story" then LOTR.
And that was never the point of the films. It was to give us more from that lovley world that we all love. And they did. The Hobbit was never intended to be as good as the LOTR movies but they are still way more entertaining than most movies out there. Especially in the Fantasy-genre.

January 31, 2015 at 5:25AM

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Johan Salberg
Actor, Writer, Director, Editor
106

Still better than the Star Wars prequels.

February 2, 2015 at 10:03PM

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Henry Barnill
Director of Photography
659

This Anon has cut all 3 Hobbit films into 1 that is much more closely aligned with the book https://tolkieneditor.wordpress.com/

February 4, 2015 at 4:21PM

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Adam Prest
Camera, Edit and Workflow Technician
88

In my opinion, it comes down to one thing... How comfortable the filmmaker is. When you're young and hungry, desperate to prove yourself, that desire fuels your storytelling. When you're worth $100m, no matter how good your intentions and work ethic, that authentic connection to desperation and yearning is just not there. You're no longer in survival mode. LOTR and The Hobbit are good examples of this.

February 5, 2015 at 3:10PM

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David Eberts
Director / Producer
93