Reflecting on the likely response (long as well as short-term) of audiences to the release of The Hobbit my first thought was for what might be expected of the film itself--but there is something to be said, too, of the attitude of the audience seeing it.
The relatively short period between the originals and the prequels registers not just in the look of the movies, but the ways in which viewers will look at the older and newer films. In 2012, fewer grown-ups will have occasion to compare The Hobbit with cherished childhood or early adolescent memories of the originals, while the latter will be less romanticized by the passage of time. By this point, the audience might also have been chastened by earlier disappointments--the reaction to the Star Wars prequels only the most obvious (similar discontent having been expressed about the sequels to The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean and several other recent films).
It also seems to me the case that the cult surrounding the Lord of the Rings is less intense than that which surrounded Star Wars. Enthusiasm for the Lord of the Rings has certainly been a presence in pop culture--but my admittedly unscientific impression is that we see it referenced, quoted, parodied less frequently, the stereotypical "geek" still the Star Wars fan rather than the Lord of the Rings fan.
Part of this may be a matter of when the latter films came along. As George Lucas himself allowed, the Bond films had already established the "adrenaline movie," long before Star Wars appeared. And there had already been major science fiction films which resonated with the audience sufficiently to produce significant cults. (Nineteen sixty-eight alone saw three--2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Barbarella.) However, Star Wars was unprecedented in bringing the two together, creating a crowd-pleasing epic adventure drawing heavily on such elements--indeed, set in a thoroughly detailed fictional world, realized through technically revolutionary special effects. The results were such that, much as some genre historians sniff at the claims made for the films' niche in pop cultural history, the undeniable fact is that Hollywood had never produced anything really comparable before.1
Naturally, the following it attracted was unprecedented (such that the studio lost big, and George Lucas won big, as a result of Lucas's retaining the merchandising rights). By the early 2000s, however, what was once revolutionary was now routine, while the norm has been to have multiple franchises going concerns at once. The Lord of the Rings was a major event--but so was the Matrix trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels that all came out in the same period, and Harry Potter, which were just a part of Hollywood's total output of splashy genre-themed blockbusters, which also included the Pirates of the Caribbean (which did much to make pirates cool again), and a flood of superhero adventures (perhaps the most vigorous single trend of the decade in this kind of movie). Just a couple of years later a series based on the novels of Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis, the Chronicles of Narnia, reached the big screen, as did films based on Eragorn and His Dark Materials.
In other words, the Lord of the Rings films arrived in a scene already crowded with competition for fans than Star Wars did a quarter of a century earlier, when in crucial respects it arrived in an open field. It is noteworthy, too, that Star Wars has had a existence beyond the films--in video games that have significant cults of their own (like Knights of the Old Republic), in tie-in novels (regular bestsellers from Timothy Zahn's trilogy on), in television spin-offs (like the hit The Clone Wars), which have helped to keep up the interest of old adherents, and increase the enthusiasm of new ones, which has gone a long way toward keeping the franchise as big as it has been despite the passage of thirty-five years since it first appeared. By contrast, Tolkien's books continue to be read, but on the whole the Lord of the Rings has had a far more constrained life in these other media.
There is, too, the differences between the films in structure, characterization, imagery. The original Star Wars movies were compact and comparatively simple, and focused on a single protagonist to a much greater degree than the Lord of the Rings films. Episodes IV, V and VI did surround Luke Skywalker with a considerable supporting cast of comrades and antagonists, even minor members of which have acquired their own cults over the years (like Bobba Fett)--but the films are undeniably Luke's story. By contrast, the Lord of the Rings films sprawl. They do so in a lucid, ably structured, well-paced way, but are still larger, far more complex tales which diffuse their heroism more completely among their cast--Gandalf the figure of wisdom and magic, Aragorn the warrior with a sword and a destiny, and Frodo the moral hero bearing the principal spiritual burden, where arguably Luke had become all three by the end.
It might also be significant that the principal characters of the Lord of the Rings saga are all clearly grown-ups, rather than the more youthful protagonists of a coming-of-age tale (even the young-looking Frodo is a middle-aged householder, after all), given that it might be the young most in a position to give such devotion to a series--as older genre fans will have other, prior claims on their affections. (Indeed, that might be one reason why it seems that we hear more about the fandoms of the more thoroughly young adult-oriented Harry Potter and Twilight than we do the Lord of the Rings.)
A reinforcing factor might be the visual impact of the trappings associated with these characters. A light saber is instantly identifiable as the weapon of a Jedi Warrior--while the costume of a Ranger of Middle Earth is less distinctive, less iconic. (A cosplayer would probably have to explain their costume. "No, I'm not Robin Hood.") All that can only make the propensity of viewers toward the kind of identification that makes for the more extreme expressions of fan adulation (like naming their children after him, as How I Met Your Mother's Ted Mosby intends to do) much stronger for Star Wars than LOTR.
The result is that the Lord of the Rings films command their share of devotion, which is considerable. Yet, however the prequels turn out (and many fans are already forming their opinions of the first of the trilogy as this is being written) their response to them, good or bad, will not be clouded by the impossible expectations that awaited The Phantom Menace back in 1999.
1. This is not to deny that Star Wars has a long list of debts to other works, from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, to the long history of space operatic adventure in print - but in fairness, what such creation doesn't? It is, of course, quite proper to point out the fact, but the tedious belaboring of the point so often seen in the criticisms of the series' detractors is essentially resentment talking.
. . . And Next Weekend
My Posts on Star Wars