Posters for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

As the release date approaches for the first movie in The Hobbit triogy, I find myself comparing the circumstances to the Star Wars prequels. Why? In both cases you have…

  • A visionary director returning to…
  • A high-profile trilogy set in a fantastical world…
  • After years away…
  • To tell a prequel set a generation earlier…
  • Including significant events that set up the other story (Vader’s turn to the dark side and the rise of the Empire, Bilbo finding the One Ring and the Necromancer of Mirkwood).
  • Some cast are returning as younger versions of the same characters (Palpatine, C-3PO, Gandalf, Elrond)
  • Other characters have been recast (Obi-Wan, Bilbo).

But of course, Star Wars isn’t Lord of the Rings, and Peter Jackson isn’t George Lucas. Let’s look at four big differences.

1. Time

The Phantom Menace came out 22 years after Star Wars: A New Hope and 14 years after Return of the Jedi. An entire generation of children grew up with the original trilogy and were adults by the time the prequels started. And with 14 years of no Star Wars films, the prequels had to justify the wait.

With Lord of the Rings, it’s only been 10 years since Fellowship of the Ring, and 8 since Return of the King. We’ve spent half the time away from Middle Earth as we did from that galaxy far, far away. Children have become teenagers, and teenagers have become adults, but there isn’t quite the same level of “My childhood is back!” nostalgia that could make or break the films for a large section of the audience.

2. Directorial Experience

According to IMDB, George Lucas stopped directing after the first Star Wars film in 1977. He kept writing and producing, of course, but he hadn’t directed a film in two decades when he picked up The Phantom Menace

Peter Jackson may have slowed down a bit, but between wrapping up the extended edition of Return of the King in 2004 and picking up The Hobbit in 2010, he’s directed King Kong and The Lovely Bones.

3. Source Material

This is a big one. The Star Wars saga was an original story by George Lucas. When he wrote Episodes I-III, he was free to do anything he wanted as long as it didn’t contradict Episodes IV-VI. The Hobbit films are based on Tolkien’s novel, the appendices from Lord of the Rings, and his published notes. The core of the story is a lot more well-established.

4. Executive Meddling Potential

Zillionaire George Lucas wrote, directed and produced the Star Wars prequels, financing them himself. Nobody was in a position to tell him no. On one hand, this is good, because there weren’t any suits with more money than talent to tell him to add an extra car chase here, or add a love triangle there, and does Revenge of the Sith *really* need to be PG-13, can’t we dial down the violence a bit? On the other hand, it also meant no one could say, “George, don’t you think Jar-Jar is a little over the top?” or “This fireplace scene just isn’t working.”

Peter Jackson lucked out with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in being able to mostly do his own thing. But the legal battles and rights-wrangling that have caused The Hobbit to take so long to reach the screen indicate that the studios might be trying to exert their influence to “protect” their investment (which usually seems to involve killing the goose that lays the golden eggs). Certainly the decision to stretch the story out to three movies sounds like the studio trying to multiply their ticket sales, though I can also see Jackson and Weta deciding that this is their last chance to explore Middle Earth, so they might as well make the most of it.

Well, it’s just one week until The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens and we all get to see how it turned out. One thing that’s definitely changed for me: Unlike Episode I, there’s not a chance that I’ll be standing in line for hours to see a midnight (or 2AM) showing. I can wait until Saturday afternoon.

We watched the first disc of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles last night. The series has been reedited from one-hour episodes into two-hour movies*, and while later episodes may work better, the series opener really suffers from it.

Sure, the original airing combined two episodes with an eight-year story gap in them, but the story of 9-year-old Henry Jones, Jr. visiting an archeological dig in Egypt and the story of 16-year-old Indiana Jones getting caught up with Pancho Villa in Mexico are linked thematically. More importantly, the Egypt segment sets up a mystery (a murder and stolen artifact) that is only half-resolved in that segment. The rest is resolved in the Mexico segment.

For the DVDs, George Lucas wanted to tell everything in chronological order, so the Pancho Villa segment has been moved later in the collection (I’m not sure what it’s been paired with), and the opening “movie” instead jumps directly from Egypt to Morocco, telling a completely different story linked only by taking place on the same continent. It doesn’t help that it was filmed several years later, making it look like 9-year-old Indy has gone through one heck of a growth spurt between stops on his father’s lecture tour.

The segments work reasonably well on their own — well, except for the fact that the Egypt story isn’t actually resolved — but the overall presentation is weaker.

* OK, more like 45-minute episodes and 1 1/2-hour movies, but you know the score.

I grew up with Star Wars. It was the key fandom of my childhood. I don’t remember discovering Star Wars because I did so before I could really form long-term memories. I started reading the novels when Heir to the Empire came out, and the Dark Empire and Tales of the Jedi comics. I was thrilled to see the special editions in theaters after nearly 15 years, even though some of the changes, like Greedo firing first and the way that you restored the Jabba scene,* didn’t make sense.

And while I’ve lost some interest over time—the novels and comics have gotten so complex that I wouldn’t have time to keep up with them if I wanted to, and the prequels were less engaging than the original series—I stayed on board for the entire prequel trilogy. Grumbling at times, but enjoying them nonetheless.

When you announced that only the special editions would be available on videotape, I was disappointed, because I liked both versions. When you announced that the films would be changed again for the DVDs, I was disappointed for the same reason. But I bought the DVDs, and (mostly) enjoyed them.

So when you announced that the original versions of the original trilogy would be available on DVD, I was thrilled! Continue reading

Regarding the furor over Revenge of the Sith/Post-9/11 parallels: Get over yourselves.

You know, I could see parallels in Star Wars: Episode II and post-9/11 America. Palpatine’s emergency powers = PATRIOT Act. Militarization in response to the separatist movement = attacking Afghanistan and rattling sabers at Iraq. And there are conspiracy theorists who think that Bush arranged for 9/11 to generate an excuse for a power grab—just as Palpatine/Sidious manufactured his crisis by having Dooku/Tyranus arrange for the clone army under the name of a dead Jedi, then wait for the appropriate time to start fomenting a rebellion. But you know what, Episode II was filmed before 9/11, so Lucas couldn’t possibly have intended all that as commentary on the War on Terror any more than JMS could have been commenting on the same subject with the Nightwatch arc on Babylon 5.

So now, with Episode III, sure, he could mean it as commentary. And he admits seeing parallels. Note: seeing, not writing. But he states that the story grew out of looking at historical democracies’ descent into dictatorship (Los Angeles Times this morning):

Lucas began researching how democracies can turn into dictatorships with full consent of the electorate.

In ancient Rome, “why did the senate, after killing Caesar, turn around and give the government to his nephew?” Lucas said. “Why did France, after they got rid of the king and that whole system, turn around and give it to Napoleon? It’s the same thing with Germany and Hitler.

“You sort of see these recurring themes where a democracy turns itself into a dictatorship, and it always seems to happen kind of in the same way, with the same kinds of issues, and threats from the outside, needing more control. A democratic body, a senate, not being able to function properly because everybody’s squabbling, there’s corruption.”

That’s the model he’s been basing the transformation on. The prologue in the original 1976 novelization of Star Wars refers to the Republic “rotting from within” and describes Palpatine’s rise to power:

Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic.

Lucas originally described Palpatine as becoming a figurehead Emperor, with the Imperial governors behind the Empire’s “reign of terror” (note the French Revolution reference there), but had clearly changed his mind by the time he wrote Return of the Jedi. But the description of how Palpatine gets into power tracks exactly with what we’ve seen him do in the actual films. In fact, throughout the prequel trilogy he uses the same strategy in each film. He creates a crisis as Darth Sidious (the invasion of Naboo, or the Separatist movement), then offers to solve it as Palpatine—as long as people will give him the power to do so.

In other words, Palpatine’s tactics were set in stone back when Bill Clinton was President.

As far as dialogue… Please, if you think a variation on “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a deliberate attack on a statement Bush made, you really need to get out more. How many centuries has that phrase been around?

I’m reminded of Yoda’s words to Luke on Dagobah, when he asked what was in the cave. “Only what you take with you.”

Y’know, something I just can’t understand is the tendency, in rants about how the Star Wars prequels have not measured up to and/or sullied precious memories of the originals, to make sure there’s a dig about them being soulless computer-generated films, often citing the superiority of earlier effects with actual models and the presence of real actors.

Haven’t Pixar and DreamWorks demonstrated that it’s entirely possible to make a well-constructed, entertaining film entirely with CGI? Hasn’t Hollywood’s studio machine demonstrated that it’s entirely possible to make a shallow, soulless film entirely with real actors? Remember the original reviews of Jurassic Park that accused the milestone CGI dinosaurs of being more lifelike than the actors?

It ain’t the CGI, folks.

The effects are top-notch. The visual design, even when referencing other films, is impressive. Acting. Directing. Writing. This is where Episodes I and II have broken down. And if you’ve seen the right movies, you know the leads can act—when they’re given a chance.

No, it’s the dialog and the directing—both primarily Lucas’ work, and both tasks he let others take on or at least polish in earlier films. From what I hear Tom Stoppard has polished the dialog in Episode III. One can only hope that Lucas’ “practice” directing the last two has given him the experience needed to make the final film stand out.