The Hobbit: An Unexpected box office smash with $200 million global opening weekend

Despite weak reviews and a problematical production process, Peter Jackson's first Hobbit instalment looks set to be more successful than the Rings films

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has set a box office record with the biggest December opening ever in the US, beating the three previous Lord Of The Rings films with a haul of $84.8 million (£52.4 million).

Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epic surpassed Will Smith's I Am Legend, which opened with $77.2 million (£47.7 million) in 2007, and Avatar, which opened with $77 million (£47.6 million).

Internationally, The Hobbit also added $138.2 million (£85.4 million) for an impressive debut well north of $200 million.

Despite weak reviews, The Warner Bros adaptation of JRR Tolkien's first novel in the fantasy series was an even bigger draw than the last Lord Of The Rings movie, The Return Of The King. That film opened with $72.6 million (£44.9 million).

The Hobbit is the first of another planned trilogy, with two more films to be squeezed out of Tolkien's book.

While Jackson's Rings movies drew many accolades - The Return Of The King won best picture from the Academy Awards - the path for The Hobbit has been rockier. It received no Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, though all three Rings films were nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for best picture.

Particularly criticised has been the film's 48 frames per second - double the usual rate - which is a hyper-detailed look that some have found jarring. Most moviegoers did not see The Hobbit in that version, though, as the new technology was rolled out in only 461 of the 4,045 cinemas playing the film.

Regardless of any misgivings, the film looks to have been a hit with audiences.

The strong opening culminated a long journey for The Hobbit, which was initially delayed when a lawsuit dragged on between Jackson and Rings producer New Line Cinema over merchandising revenue. At one point, Guillermo del Toro was to direct the film with Jackson producing, but eventually the film-maker opted to direct the movie himself, originally envisioning two Hobbit films. The production also went through the bankruptcy of distribution partner MGM and a labour dispute in New Zealand, where the film was shot.