Everybody likes things that come in threes. Neapolitan ice-cream combines vanilla, strawberry and chocolate; those three-in-one cheeses are always a hit at parties; and film trilogies – audiences eat them up as fast as the Hollywood studios can dish them out.
The only problem – apart from greedy studio executives who make trilogies and then churn out a cynical fourth instalment regardless (a la Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean) – is trying to agree on which trilogy is the one to rule them all.
The three main contenders for the title of the top trilogy in all of moviedom are pretty clear: the original three, Jar Jar Binks-free Star Wars episodes; Christopher Nolan's dark and angry Batman flicks; and the epic fantasy saga that is The Lord of the Rings.
For me, Randall Graves got it wrong in Kevin Smith's Clerks II when he declared "there's only one 'Return' OK, and it ain't 'of the King', it's 'of the Jedi'."
Although they are long, and despite the final film dragging on worse than an episode of Keeping up With The Kardashians, Peter Jackson's spectacular adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth saga makes for grand and gripping viewing. The question now, of course, is whether Jackson's new The Hobbit trilogy, which begins on Wednesday in Australian cinemas with An Unexpected Journey, has what it takes to challenge the original films. Or will it go the way of George Lucas's Star Wars prequels?.
To prepare for The Hobbit, I've gone back through and re-watched the original trilogy. If you have time to watch only one of them before you see the new film, I'd recommend the opening chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring. We get to see Gandalf the Grey, there is a reference to Balin (spoiler alert: even if it is his tomb), and, if you look carefully in the background, you can a see a few trolls in a nice nod to The Hobbit.
Initial reviews for Jackson's new film have been mixed – hardly surprising given The Hobbit has the impossible task of measuring up to all that has gone before it in the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings. Whether stretching Tolkien's smaller volume into a trilogy proves to be a masterstroke or an overreaching remains to be seen. But there's no doubting that Jackson has a keen understanding and an unrivalled passion for his source material.
Without further ado, here's a fan's guide to Lord of the Rings trilogy. We're calling it the "Precious Guide". In honour of the nine members of the fellowship, we have nine categories. And, like Jackson himself, we simply can't stop at one or two favourites per category. There must be three!
It's been almost a decade since The Return of the King so use this shamelessly shallow recap to bone up on your LOTR basics before you join the throng at the cinemas to see The Hobbit.
Or, better still, take this guide with you to the screening. It may come in handy. The Hobbit does run for 169 minutes, you know.
3 MOST PRECIOUS MEMBERS OF THE FELLOWSHIP
1. Aragorn: If this were a Nintendo game, Aragorn would be Mario. Skilled in every area (and able to jump ridiculously long distances like Mario), Aragorn (played by Viggo Mortensen) bats away a throwing knife with his sword after copping a punch that would have knocked out Rocky Balboa. Alas, no Aragorn expected in The Hobbit.
2. Gandalf the Grey: Better when he was the Grey, Gandalf's warmer, grandfatherly self does all the things we expect of a wizard who should be enjoying semi-retirement. He attends hobbit parties, lights fireworks and battles balrogs in the pits of Moria. Sir Ian McKellen returns to the role in The Hobbit.
3. Samwise Gamgee: His relationship with Gollum manages to salvage one whole third of the trilogy that would have otherwise been ruined by Frodo.
Sean Astin is not in the new film.
3 MOST PRECIOUS CHARACTER QUOTES
1. "You shall not pass!": Gandalf's line is so brilliant they used it at the beginning of the second movie as well. Jason Segal also delivers the line quite well in Forget-ting Sarah Marshall, so perhaps they can use him as Gandalf when they reboot the franchise?
2. "That still only counts as one!": After Legolas so elegantly downs a gigantic olyphant, warrior dwarf Gimli (John Rhys Davies) delivers the one-liner that turns out being the only light-hearted moment in The Return of the King.
3. "Not the Beard": Used as comic relief throughout the trilogy, Gimli shows how tough his beard really is.
3 MOST PRECIOUS BATTLE SCENES
1. The Battle in Moria: The main characters in film one slay countless goblins, a cave troll, and battle a balrog and the tentacled creature guarding the front entrance. Samwise uses his saucepan as a weapon, justifying why he lugs it along for the rest of the journey, even though they mostly eat elvish bread.
2. The Battle of Amon-Hen: Aragorn walking defiantly towards a small army of Uruk-Hai soldiers with his sword held in front of him in two hands. Great stuff.
3. The Battle of Pelennor Fields: The highlight of The Return of the King, the Rohirrim charging across the battlefields and crushing orcs before re-forming their line and taking on the Easterlings is the single most epic moment in the entire trilogy. Almost makes up for barely seeing Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn in the final film.
3 MOST PRECIOUS "BLUE STEEL" STARES
1. Aragorn: Arriving at Helms Deep after he is presumed dead, he heaves open both doors, looks deep into the camera and channels his inner Zoolander.
2 + 3 Tie: Legolas. Pretty much every moment Orlando Bloom is on screen during the entire franchise.
3 MOST PRECIOUS BEARDS
1. Gimli: Thick and powerful, Gimli's beard provided not only intimidation factor and warmth in harsher climates, it also was useful for catching his leftover food and beer. Expect to see lots more dwarven beards in The Hobbit.
2. Treebeard: His beard looks like, well, a tree. John Rhys Davies (aka Gimli) also voiced Treebeard and thus proved that he has a voice worthy of a beard.
3. Saruman: These pointy whiskers evoke a pantomime villain; the type that twirl their moustache. Turns out Saruman is just as dastardly and devious. Christopher Lee reprises the character in The Hobbit.
3 MOST PRECIOUS BEAR GRYLLS MOMENTS
1. The Rings films don't have a moment to quite rival Luke Skywalker staying oh-so toasty inside a dead tauntaun. But Aragorn and Samwise show their horticultural know-how when they find the kingsfoil plant to tend Frodo's wound after he's stabbed by one of the nine riders.
2. Gandalf puts his big nose to good use and sniffs out the correct path they should be heading on. Shows why McKellen's prosthetic nose was necessary.
3. Aragorn is able to track a few scuff marks on the ground and effectively re-enact Merry and Pippin's escape from the Orcs.
3 MOST PRECIOUS PLOT HOLES
1. Gandalf the White never uses his magical wizard staff in the most important battle. Performance anxiety perhaps?
2. Aragorn falls off a massive cliff wearing battle armour and sword, but how does he not sink to the bottom of the river?
3. Why don't the eagles just fly Frodo and Co to Mount Doom in the first place? Perhaps because it would have meant the the film would have finished in less than an hour.
3 MOST PRECIOUS WORDS EXTRAVAGANTLY ENUNCIATED BY HUGO WEAVING
1. Mordor: Morrrrrrrdorrrrrrr
2. Mortality: Mooortality
3. Isildur: Isildoooooor.
3 MOST PRECIOUS MENTIONS OF "THE PRECIOUS"
1. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) gives us a fright at Rivendell. We catch a glimpse of what Bilbo may have become had the One Ring taken a hold of him as it did Gollum.
The most effective fright moment in the whole trilogy.
2. Gollum (Andy Serkis) talking to his reflection. The conversation that Gollum has with himself – between Smeagol and Gollum – makes for entertaining viewing, showing the conflict that rages within the characters fractured mind.
3. Samwise's heroics at Mount Doom – "Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can't carry it for you . . . but I can carry you!"
And with that quote and the physical feats that followed, Samwise Gamgee proved beyond doubt that he is the hobbit Rocky Balboa.