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Lord of the Rings VS Star Wars: Best Movie Trilogy

There’s only one Return, okay, and it ain’t of the King. It’s Jedi.” Randal from Clerks II. (Warning: Link NSFW)

Ambiguity is a terrible thing, which is why we get so opinionated about what is actually “the best” in any category. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd cannot possibly share the position of best classic rock band ever; no, there must be a definitive winner. DC and Marvel cannot peaceably co-exist in their paneled pages; there must be a clear victor in their crossover special issue. And the same holds true for the greatest movie trilogy of all times: Lord of the Rings scrapping it out with Star Wars for the top spot.

Joining me to finally put the matter to bed in our first ever (public) discussion, is fellow fantasy author, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen.

Daniel: You already said it yourself in your previous post, which took me by surprise, but also made me want to duke this out with you in public. The Lord of the Rings is the king of trilogies. A sea of Oscars confirms that this is a rare example of entertainment/art enjoyed by both critics and the ordinary viewers. Some might argue that Star Wars, being an original work, is a greater accomplishment, but I think the very fact that LOTR is an adaptation only makes it more impressive. Peter Jackson was given the daunting task of bringing the most detailed fictional universe to life without disappointing millions of fans with their own ideas about how Frodo, Rivendell, Orcs, and Mordor looked.

Is there any arguments to be made to contradict this? However influential or beloved Star Wars has proven to be since 1977, LOTR has it beat with the books since 1954 and the movies since 2001.

Matt: Hey, who said you could use my own words against me? Words that, in hindsight, may have been uttered in error. LOTR is certainly up there in terms of movie trilogies, but I would argue we can remove a few of its accolades for the sheer fact it was never meant as a trilogy.

As I also stated in my previous article, it was meant as one continuous, and very long, story. It was Tolkien’s publishers, not the author himself, that created the trilogy by breaking his book into three. So one might argue, and I will, that it should be disqualified as a trilogy because it is really one story rather than three.

But I would only make that argument if we were discussing the books, rather than the movies. And, as bloated as they are (I mean, seriously, that denouement in King was like 30 minutes!) I would say it was Jackson’s moving of structural bits around while eliminating others extraneous ones (Tom Bombadil, I’m looking your direction) that made it so successful. And even then, I can’t give full credit because the adaptation was originally meant as a duology.

So, in terms of pure trilogy, Star Wars is the clear winner by default. And, since you brought up Oscars and accolades, it wasn’t until Return of the King that those Oscars were handed out to LOTR. Star Wars, well it picked up seven on the first installment. Plus, you know, cool jedis and space battles over a bunch of Hobbits and walking trees. I mean, honestly, wouldn’t you rather want to live in the universe Lucas created over Tolkien’s?

If nothing else, I bet there’s running water in Star Wars. Not really something LOTR can boast.

Daniel: This seems like mincing words to me, a feeble attempt at taking control of a discussion already beyond your grasp. To me, a trilogy is a story in three parts; I do not think the crux is how it was conceived. But since you are forcing us down this rabbit hole, allow me a riposte.

LOTR at least is a story with a clear structure dividing each movie. The first ends with the breaking of the Fellowship, dividing the story forward into two branches. The second finishes with the defeat of Saruman and Frodo and Sam about to enter Mordor; the third concludes with the overthrow of Sauron.

Compared to this, Star Wars is clearly a mess when it comes to story structure. The first movie is a complete standalone, concluding its own story, which is then abruptly restarted by a duology - the cliffhanger at the end of The Empire Strikes Back means storywise, that movie only makes sense together with Return of the Jedi.

By your standards, Star Wars is even less of a trilogy than LOTR; or how do you explain that the first movie is self-contained while the last two are one continuous story? And hey, if the Minoans of ancient Crete had running water, I am sure the Elves could whip something up. Sanitation aside, at least living in Middle-Earth means your planet will not arbitrarily get blown up without warning by some maniac.

Matt: I should really disagree with your structure points in regard to Star Wars. Oh wait, I already did in that previous article in that, while not entirely stand-alone, each story was at least self-contained. And the end of Empire WAS NOT a cliffhanger, if for no other reason than Han did not escape it; that plot point was wrapped up by the end of the movie and a new one involving rescuing him began in Jedi. And yeah, that may be fairly mincing in terms of the definition of a cliffhanger, but what fun is there arguing if not for infuriating mincing?

And as to my running water defense, let me rephrase it from “which world would you rather live in,” to “which protagonist would you rather be?” Because both Luke and Frodo start off from pretty much the same place: Farm boys completely removed from the big events going on around them until each is given a special item and told they’re the chosen one that must save that world(s) from certain doom by going on a quest.

Frodo’s heroic journey was a literal one to Mount Doom, and while I will admit he was nominally changed over the course of his adventure, I’d say he barely has a character arc. His job was simply to endure the presence of the ring, something he could do at the beginning of the story as well as at the end. Aragorn, he had an arc as he had to learn to accept his role at king. Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli, Gollum and Sam; also arcs. Hell, even Boromir had an arc in what had to be 1/10th the screen time as Frodo, who, even when he defeated the big baddie of Sauron didn’t do so by facing him down personally.

Compare that to Luke, who lost his adopted family, two mentors and a hand, discovered his destiny, had some uncomfortable familial revelations, destroyed a Death Star, and also personally faced down not one, but two of the greatest villains of all times in the Emperor and Vader, the latter of which just so happened to have an arc of his own when redeemed by his son’s actions.

So instead of asking which world would you rather live in, I’ll ask who would you rather be: The last of a long line of psychic knights armed with laser swords, or a short furry-footed fellow whose only job is that of glorified trashman as he drops some rubbish in a very far-away bin?

Daniel: I would like to point out that only Frodo is sent on a great quest. Luke just tags along with Obi-Wan and Han Solo doing all the heavy lifting in the first movie. If Frodo is not inspiring enough for you, you mention yourself just a handful of the many other great characters in LOTR. And regardless, I think you underestimate Frodo as a character. He is an example of what simple people can do. He is no wizard or king, not even a great warrior, but the fate of the world ends up being determined by his actions. Also, I acknowledge the movies did not really highlight this, but in defence of Frodo, it should be said. The end of the books describe the toll that bearing the Ring has had on him; victory comes at a price. Frodo was a simple Hobbit who saved the world, but in doing so lost the simple pleasures in life that he preserved for others.

As much as I enjoy warfare in fantasy, battles and warriors, I always admired LOTR’s ending. Frodo carried the Ring as far as he could, and it was destroyed due to Gollum’s interference; a creature spared by Frodo’s mercy (and Bilbo’s before that). This is a far more poignant and resonating ending than A New Hope, which resolves its plot with the caveman method of smash everything until all the bad guys are gone.

I will admit that Star Wars eventually did better with Return of the Jedi, resolving the plot through complex character interactions and developments. So at least it only took Star Wars three tries to make an ending as good as LOTR’s. In the end, Luke didn’t turn out to be a great hero because he was a psychic knight with a laser sword, but because he understood mercy and redemption. Maybe he had a short furry-footed fellow as his role model.

Matt: Oh, I see what you did there; trying to build upon their similarities rather than their differences. And yeah, I will admit that Luke’s arc has its drawbacks in that I swear he bled personality out over the course of the movies until he became no more than the laser-sword wielding psychic knight. I mean, sure he was obnoxious in the first movie. But at least he had some degree of personality back then before going all zen.

It’s interesting that you point out that both protagonists (in addition to being drowned out by more interesting supporting characters) displayed mercy at the end, which is what truly saved the day. I can honestly say, as much as I’ve thought about Star Wars, usually for many hours every day, I’ve never really considered that about Luke. Even though it’s so blatantly obvious to me now that you say it. For me, Luke stayed his hand towards Vader more as a middle finger to the Emperor rather than demonstrating mercy for his father. It was an act of will rather than love.

Which says a lot about me and my caveman ways apparently.

Still, each trilogy carries a certain nobility with it that you don’t see in the many modern, more cynical stories of today. In each one the protagonists rise to take on the impossible challenge not for personal gain, but to actually do the right thing for the betterment of everyone. And perhaps that’s what resonated so much with me as a child, and even to this day as an adult. Also probably why each one has defined their respective genres while inspiring countless fans and imitators for decades upon decades.

But I’d still pick a laser sword over having furry feet all day every day.

Daniel: I guess the furry feet would make your caveman tendencies too obvious.


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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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