Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings books remains a legendary cinematic achievement. Filmed over the course of 18 months in New Zealand, the undertaking required Jackson and his team to get every decision right—or face eternal backlash from fans.
First, he needed to put together a league of actors who’d serve their characters within the epic scale of the story with perfect balance. Second, he had to convince his first-choice stars to accept the project despite its lengthy and grueling production schedule.
In December 2003, when The Return of the King released in cinemas, Jackson was vindicated as his saga was cemented as a masterpiece.
Now, after 20 years, we look at the best characters in the Lord of the Rings films, what made them so great, and which ones stand out as the best of the best.
Sir Christopher Lee was already an avid fan of Tolkien’s work, and when he joined the cast of Lord of the Rings, he wanted to play the part of Gandalf—but Sir Ian McKellen had already secured the role, so Peter Jackson offered him the part of Saruman instead.
Lee accepted and made sure that his performance as the corrupted wizard was worthy of the source material. He brought Saruman across the screen with menace and vitriol, retaining a manner that showed the audience how much he considered himself above all other creatures.
As the ring-bearer and the character who must himself journey into the fires of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, Frodo’s portrayal had to resonate with audiences everywhere.
Fortunately, Elijah Wood’s performance bore the brunt, and he gave Frodo the qualities that showed audiences how much a burden the Ring was. His slow descent into love for the Ring is note-perfect, as Frodo finds himself unable to let it go into the fires once he finally reaches the fiery volcano.
Elrond’s role in the films is to ensure the safe passage of Elves out of Middle-Earth while supporting the quest that gives to the Fellowship: to destroy the One Ring.
Elrond is also conflicted over his daughter Arwen and Aragorn’s relationship, which sees him unsure of the path that must be taken.
Hugo Weaving’s performance in the role feels like a well of strength, as he helps wherever he can and remains committed to the ideals that have sustained his people for centuries.
Arwen is the Elven Lady who chooses a mortal life to spend with the man she loves, and her fate in the film series became bound to that of the Ring—she’s unable to live without Aragorn.
Liv Tyler gave Arwen such vigor, only to have it drained from her by the times they find themselves in, not wanting to live forever if it means the pain of not knowing true love. It’s a character trait that she perfectly brought across the screen to audiences.
As heir to the stewardship of Gondor, Boromir starts as the voice of bombastic hope in wanting to use the Ring against Sauron. However, he eventually realizes the Ring cannot be wielded by any—except Sauron himself—and swears an oath to protect Frodo.
Though he’s driven mad by the Ring, Boromir is kind at heart, even teaching Merry and Pippin how to fight and allowing them time to grieve the loss of Gandalf.
Boromir’s death is one of true heroism, as he desperately tries to protect the Hobbits from the Uruk-Hai, to the point that he takes several arrows for them. As he breathes his last breath, he accepts Aragorn as king.
As the beautiful Elven Queen, Galadriel’s path in the films may only be finite; however, it’s her grace and strength that flows through Frodo and Sam for much of their journey. She’s wise, powerful, and refuses to give into the Ring’s power when Frodo offers it to her.
Cate Blanchett’s ethereal performance gives Galdriel weight in the saga, helping Elrond to see that he must send help to Helm’s Deep and guiding Frodo when his strength fails him.
The rightful King of Gondor, the reluctant heir to the throne, and the one who shows his leadership as the films progress.
Aragorn is one who’s blessed of a true heart and a pure will of good inside of him. He rejects the Ring when Frodo would give it to him, and when looked upon by the Eye of Sauron, he runs steadfast into battle against Sauron’s forces instead of cowering away.
Viggo Mortensen was drafted late to play the character, but he never showed any signs of ill preparation. Instead, he delivered the perfect Aragorn that the films needed, and he provided one of the most compelling performances in the saga.
For all the talk of what could’ve been had Sean Connery or Sir Christopher Lee taken the role of Gandalf, nobody else could have done what Sir Ian McKellen did with the character.
As the character who leads the Fellowship, only to fall in battle with the Balrog, and then return when he was needed most—going from the benevolent Gandalf the Grey to the more stoic and battle-ready Gandalf the White—a deft nuance was needed of whomever played the part.
McKellen garnered an Oscar nomination for Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring, the only actor to get such an honor in the films. That alone should tell you all you need to know about his perfection in the role—one that he admits he’ll be known for long after his passing.
Samwise Gamgee is known by many as the best of the Hobbits. Indeed, his undying loyalty and stalwart strength of heart are what Tolkien wanted to represent in his book series.
He refused to break the promise he made to Gandalf and chose instead to swim after Frodo, even when he didn’t know how to swim and nearly drowned. He saved Frodo from Shelob. He carried Frodo up the slopes of Mount Doom when Frodo couldn’t go any further.
The character’s heart and soul are pure from start to finish, and Sean Astin’s performance as Sam showcases all of Sam’s core qualities without ever being saccharine or over-the-top.
The duality of Gollum’s role in the films (and the original books) represents the Ring’s power over an individual across hundreds of years. When we meet Gollum for the first time, we see a creature broken by his bearing of the Ring—a warning of what Frodo could become.
The most challenging character to translate to the big screen, Gollum’s personalities as both himself and Smeagol dominate the sequences when he, Frodo, and Sam are sneaking into Mordor to complete their mission.
Without Andy Serkis in the role, the saga may not have worked as well as it did—that is the truth of Gollum/Smeagol. His role personified what J. R. R. Tolkien wrote about with Gollum and Smeagol’s duality, and nobody has ever said “precious” as venomously as Serkis.