IMO for the hobbit there are two categories, there is no definitive edit, regardless of what people will ever tell you, plus most people are bias and only like the edits they’ve seen so they just stick to what they know.
1: The 3 films to 2 films style (or even, 3 films to just 3 shorter films) is the first category. This includes the Arkenstone edit as you said, the Chris Hartwell edit which came out this year, and a great many others. I haven’t seen any of them so I wouldn’t know much about these, but in summary, these edits focus on just making the story better, with less attention to the original book. They are usually 2 films or 3 films, so still greatly expand upon the book.
But the problem is IMO, even if you say, “well I don’t care about the book, so maybe this 1st category is for me!” the reality is that a lot of sideplots and new characters that people keep in this category of edits can still feel unnecessary, or even distracting, because let’s face it, Tolkien knew how to write a story. It all just depends though, some 3 in 2 edits are better than others depending on what sideplots they keep. I couldn’t be sure on which is the best of this style of edit though. It comes down to personal preference, do you prefer a longer story that takes a lot of creative liberties, or would you like just the essentials in telling Bilbo’s/the Company’s story, which at the same time, is more like the book.
2: The second category is the 3 in 1 edits. First, to get this out of the way - Some people do turn the trilogy into a single 2-3 hour movie, but they’re just too short to be a definitive edit, because they really should cover every plot point of the Hobbit. Like sure there can be near perfect 2-3 hour edits that are fun to watch, but they just can’t be ranked above edits that do cover the entire written story, being short leaves plotholes and can mess with pacing. But, I will say the Spence edit is an exception, it’s 3.5 hours and is really good so definitely consider it, but I personally think that skipping over Beorn and still having Radagast detract from its ability to be at the very top of the list, I mean cmon, you gotta have beorn. So that leaves the 4-4.5 hour sweet spot. It has the same benefits as category 1, being that it’s less silly, less distractions, and a better story, BUT it also is now “book accurate” because 4 hours (more or less) is the runtime required to tell the full story of the Hobbit, as read in the book. Anything longer is unnecessary and just “extra” (not that it’s necessarily bad, but you don’t need it), while anything less just means the story is moving too fast and misses out on key parts from the book. For context, a 4 hour edit is in the same ballpark of length as the LOTR extended edition movies, so this runtime fits perfectly.
Now, I can speak more on category 2 as I’ve worked on my edit which is 4 hours and based of the book for over a year, especially because I’ve researched every other popular book edit. One popular 4 hour edit is the Bilbo edition, which I would consider checking out, but I haven’t seen it in a while so I can’t write much on it, but he does have an entire website with all the details. Now finally, the most popular Hobbit book edit you’ll hear about is the Maple edit which I do enjoy, but unfortunately, like many other edits, I wouldn’t be able to put it as the definitive edit because of the simple fact that it was made 4 years ago and missing out on a ton of new techniques people have discovered since then. Also, some of the technical editing could improved, and there are still fatal flaws, such as, when scenes like this https://youtu.be/D6LDiJK4W-w?t=48 and this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-LTG2LpJDk are still in it, or how you still see Smaug break out of Erebor covered in gold, jump cutting from troll caves to Rivendell, the odd handling of the Azog plot, dumb scenes with Alfrid, stuff like Dain headbutting Orcs with helmets, I just can’t call it the definitive edit with these things, sure there’s arguments for why some of these parts are “needed” but people have removed them/fixed and effectively told the same story, with the same accuracy, and the same emotional impact. Regardless, the Maple edit deserves its respect and props for being an amazing edit no doubt. I would put it in my top 5, even top 3. Another 2 good book edits are JXeditor’s and TheNameLessEditors, but I just think the technical editing still needs to be refined before they could be put near the very top, obviously they follow the book, they do their job, but there’s points where you can tell things have been fan-edited.
So that leads me to the edit I’ve worked on, which I have a trailer for here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vko4eecNkuc which I truly think is the definitive edit of the Hobbit for me. The “for me” part is important. Everyone has a different opinion, the Hobbit trilogy is extremely convoluted and complicated to edit with so many factors. It could be the definitive edit for some people, but for some, maybe they miss stuff like Radagast or the expanded sideplots. Personally, my edit in the 4 hour category is a balance of book accuracy, professional editing, very occasional creative liberties here and there straying from the book for storytelling (but not as much as the 3 in 2 edits), being closer to LOTR, and just aiming to tell Bilbo’s story effectively. I have received plenty of feedback which I have used, all documented in the update log to show how the edit has improved over the year, thanks to the community, so that means at the moment I have no complaints from people who have watched it in full, but anyone is welcome to try to change that if there’s something I mightve missed.
My Favorite Edits
- M4 Edit (I mean cmon, I spent over a year on it how can it not be my favorite 😃 )
- Maple Edit
- Bilbo Edition
- Arkenstone Edition / Chris Hartwell edit / Original 2-film structure edit (These 3 are the longer category 1 edits, and it’s hard for me to rank as I’m no expert but they are all really good)
- Spence Edit
Honorable mention: NameLessEditor’s version, just needed to be more technically refined but it was so ambitious in its book accuracuy, and a huge inspiration.
As for LOTR, the definitive edits… are PJ’s extended edits in my opinion. Yes there’s minor things I might change, and if someone were to make a very careful and conservative edit, it could be better, but LOTR reached an amazing balance of book accuracy + creative liberties, so any edit that aims for “even more book accuracy” might be a little too much, now I could be wrong, I havent seen those edits, maybe they are relatively conservative, but as a huge Middle Earth fan, a 4 hour fan edit of the hobbit + the 3.5-4 hour official extended LOTR movies are my go to in a marathon. I will say I would trust Hal9000 with a revised LOTR edit made in 2020 for slightly more book accuracy and small fixes here and there, I think he had a project like that but it’s really old and unfinished, he should pick it back up though. But both hal’s and kerr’s old projects, as of right now, are pretty much the only LOTR edits worth watching for a full experience of the entire trilogy (I believe there are some fun ones that just follow certain characters but it misses the main story). But I wouldn’t call them definitive, because I’m sure they’d change or improve a ton of their old work if they started again today.