Top 10 Villains in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Movies
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Nicholas Roffey
"The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" had some terrific villains! For this list, we're looking at the most memorable, fascinating, and terrifying villains in Peter Jackson's adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's novels. This means we're only focusing on characters who have appeared on-screen. Our countdown includes Smaug, Shelob, Gollum, Azog, and more!
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Villains in The Lord of the Rings & Hobbit Movies. For this list, we’re looking at the most memorable, fascinating, and terrifying villains in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”. While we’ll be referencing Tolkien lore, we’ll be sticking to characters who’ve appeared on-screen. Which of these villains still haunts your imaginations? Tell us in the comments!
This savage Orc-chieftain survived grievous wounds and thirsts for vengeance. In the books, Azog is beheaded by Dáin at the Battle of Azanulbizar, and it’s his son, Bolg, who seeks revenge on the Dwarves. Peter Jackson’s adaptation sees Azog lose his forearm to Thorin instead, which he replaces with a claw and later a blade. Known as the Defiler, and the Pale Orc, he has white skin and rides a white warg. Originally, Azog and Bolg were to be portrayed using practical effects, but motion capture and CG took over. A live-action Azog may have ranked higher, but he does still have enough menace to land him a spot on the list.
The Steward of Gondor’s tragic fall into despair and madness recalls Shakespeare’ King Lear; yet he is at the same time among the most grounded of Tolkien’s villains. In the books, the once wise and proud Denethor II began to lose hope after the death of his wife. Gazing into a palantir, he realized the superior might of the shadow falling across the land. With the death of his favorite son Boromir, he sinks further into grief. Peter Jackson’s version is more concerned with his own power and comfort than the troubles of his people. He sends his son Faramir on a hopeless mission, and when Faramir seems to have perished too, he abandons leadership of Minas Tirith. His evil is all too human - which is what makes him so repugnant.
Lurking in her lair in the western mountains of Mordor, the age-old, abominable Shelob preys on stray Orcs and prisoners sent to her by Sauron. She likes to gloat over her struggling captives before drinking their blood. But she longs for sweeter meats, setting her clustered eyes on Frodo and Sam after Gollum leads them into a trap. Shelob is the offspring of Ungoliant, an evil spirit who, at the dawn of creation, took the shape of a spider. She had her own children, who dwelt in Mirkwood, but none were as steeped in malice and power as their progenitor.
Looming over other Orcs, Lurtz is the first of the Uruk-hai - Saruman’s own wicked creation. Uruks first appeared out of Mordor, and are described as “black orcs of great strength”. Saruman’s experiments bred the Uruk-hai, an offshoot that could endure sunlight. Treebeard speculates that Saruman may have bred Orcs with Men. Created for the films, Lurtz has limited screentime, but he made an impression with fans, especially thanks to his vicious fight with Aragorn. Several other Orc-chieftains have speaking roles, such as the Uruk-hai Uglúk, and Gothmog, a lieutenant named after the Lord of Balrogs. But Lurtz is the real scene-stealer.
#6: Durin's Bane
Delving too deep in the mines of Moria, the Dwarves woke a scourge of fire: a Balrog who slew King Durin VI and became known as Durin’s Bane. This Balrog had survived the War of Wrath in the First Age and taken refuge beneath the Misty Mountains. Balrogs are Maiar, divine spirits like Gandalf and Sauron, who transformed into demons of shadow and terror. As their battle proved, Durin’s Bane matched Gandalf in power. Peter Jackson’s Balrog drew from the design of acclaimed illustrator John Howe. While Tolkien described the Balrog as vaguely “man-shaped”, the horned demon of the movies has become iconic.
#5: The Witch-king of Angmar
A ‘shadow of despair’, the Lord of the Nazgûl fills all who behold him with terror. Beneath his black cloak, he is invisible, a wraith who in the films appears as a pale, malformed figure once Frodo puts on the ring. After losing his horse, he rides a fell beast that gives him command of the skies. Like the Black Riders he leads, the Witch-king was once a mortal Man - possibly one of the three lords of Númenor to whom Sauron gifted rings of power. In battle, he wields a Morgul-blade, a sword (which he can set aflame), and a giant black mace. As Chief of the Nine, he’s one of the creepiest and most dreadful of the story’s villains.
It’s the combination of intelligence and brute strength that makes Smaug so menacing. While Middle-earth has seen mightier winged dragons, such as Ancalagon the Black, Smaug is the greatest dragon of his day, described by Thorin as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm”. After massacring the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, Smaug claims their treasure for himself, only leaving to prey on the folk of Dale - particularly maidens. Cunning and eloquent, Smaug is devious, and difficult to deceive. His wrath devastates towns and kingdoms. Had Smaug survived to join Sauron’s forces, as Gandalf feared, the War of the Ring may have ended very differently …
The head of the White Council and the Order of Wizards, Saruman is considered great among the Wise; but underneath, his heart is black and treacherous. Envious of Gandalf and Sauron, Saruman desires the One Ring for himself. Falling under the Dark Lord’s sway through the palantír in his fortress, Isengard, he breeds his own secret army and sends his agent, Gríma Wormtongue to undermine the kingdom of Rohan. Saruman’s greatest power lies in the persuasive force of his voice - something brought to life by Christopher Lee’s booming voice in the films. In the books, Saruman continues to foment trouble during the Scouring of the Shire; but on both the page and screen, he’s a classic villain corrupted by the lust for power.
Originally a curious-minded Hobbit named Sméagol, Gollum was transformed by the One Ring into a twisted creature with long fingers and luminous eyes, living in lonely darkness beneath the Misty Mountains. It’s Gollum’s tragic backstory, and how close he comes to redemption, that makes him such a fascinating villain. While his murder of his friend Déagol was loathsome, he is in many ways a victim of the ring’s power, with only a small corner of his mind still his own. Frodo’s kindness reminds him of his past, and almost leads him to repent. Gollum might be wretched, but he reminds us of the importance of pity, which in a roundabout way leads to the destruction of the ring.
Faceless and implacable, Sauron seems to symbolize pure evil; but he was once a gifted Maia with a love for order and crafting. Coveting power, he became the lieutenant of the Dark Lord Morgoth, until Morgoth’s defeat in the First Age. As ‘Annatar’ in the Second Age, Sauron had a fair appearance and seduced the Elves into forging the rings of power. By the Third Age however, his form was ‘an image of malice and hatred’. When Frodo has a vision of Sauron’s Eye, it’s yellow and rimmed in fire. The other villains in Middle-earth are just shadows of Sauron, whose overwhelming power is what makes the heroes’ unlikely quest so compelling.