It's nothing short of astounding that, in an online discussion pit where every new release is held up against any vaguely applicable past example, these two immensely similar projects aren't contrasted more often; both were belated prequel returns to a classic franchise by a director once lauded as a visionary that ostensibly told one plot thread hinted at in the originals but were really expanding the whole fabric of the world.
Yet here we are three years on from The Battle of the Five Armies, the limp finale of the Middle-earth Legendarium (unless The Silmarillion is plundered in a bid for brand extension), and The Hobbit still manages to avoid the really intense criticism that met its space opera cousin; few would claim it comes close to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, nor that it's a great work without such a lofty predecessor, yet to negatively pit it against Episodes I-III is often taken with a sense of shock.
That's is more than a little weird; compare The Hobbit to the Star Wars prequels and you have to face that, in addition to those broad conceptual similarities, they really do share many of the same flaws. As anybody who slogged through all three movies knows, the main problem with The Hobbit is that it's a slight fantasy novel stretched to an almost nine-hour epic; there's a tonal disparity between a series of jovial episodes and the world-threat of Sauron, and so much extra content is forced in, from The Return of the King's appendices to decidedly un-Tolkien focus groups. But if you go deeper into the issues that make it such a poor adaptation, you'll notice something oddly familiar.
The Hobbit Is Everything People Say The Star Wars Prequels Are
The major problems with the Star Wars prequels are now so well established in online culture they barely need stating, but here they are for effective comparison: the director surrounded him by yes men who wouldn't challenge his brash creative decisions; an overreliance on CGI created a false-feeling world; there was an obsession with leaning on the previous films rather than presenting a fully-rounded set of new characters and situations; the narrative centered on ill-defined politics, making something both boring and plot hole-filled; and, above all, the entire enterprise was driven by financial concerns outside of the main franchise.
What's so striking about The Hobbit is how every single one of those oft-cited prequel complaints can be directly leveled against Jackson's films with equal-if-not-greater intensity. As writer-producer-director, he too had such a stranglehold on production that saw so much padding added; The Hobbit is so dominated by needless computer effects that Ian McKellen broke down filming his first scene and complex practical orc costumes were overdone with CGI in post; despite the expansion to take in the wider Middle-earth story, no time is actually invested in expanding any of the thirteen dwarves we're stuck with; that wider story is so flippant Gandalf has to keep reminding what's going on, while the list of clashes with canon in The Battle of the Five Armies alone is a separate article; and the entire series only exists because Jackson had invested too much money in a fruitless pre-production period with Guillermo del Toro that the movies simply had to be made - it's not toys, but it's still a highly cynical jumping board for something that needs a filmmaker working at the top of their A-game.
None of this is to say Star Wars doesn't have these problems, but that The Hobbit has them to an equal if not more severe degree; we're dealing with two movie series coming from very similar areas displaying ballpark systemic problems.
The Star Wars Prequels Are At Least Complete
What pushes the prequels above the competition is the differences in storytelling. Whereas The Hobbit is one piecemeal narrative stretched over three movies and divided up seemingly at random (The Desolation of Smaug is a TV show cliffhanger), each of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith tell their own distinct, complete story while also existing as part of a whole. Ignoring the mistakes in realizing that (both series have their fair share of, shall we say, dumb ideas), you have a coherent narrative where characters have fairly defined arcs and develop; something that can barely be said of the full Hobbit enterprise, let alone the individual films. Compare further to The Lord of the Rings, which is a single story yet never makes it so a single movie feels incomplete.
Of course, much of this comes down to personal opinion and how you react to the prevalence of certain issues through the movies (as well as your interest and investment in the respective franchises). But even then, that still begs the question of why only one gets the hate?
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019