LOS ANGELES—America's love affair with the J.R.R. Tolkien epic-fantasy saga Lord Of The Rings, a romance which has flowered ever since the 2001 release of the Fellowship Of The Ring film adaptation, has damaged the nation's long-term relationship with George Lucas' Star Wars saga, perhaps irreparably.

Former <i>Star Wars</i> lovers Jim Cross and Peter Boehm get ready for the <i>Two Towers</i> premiere at a New York City theater.

"When I first laid eyes on Star Wars, it was love at first sight," said Los Angeles comic-book-store proprietor Michael Janus, 33, who was just 8 when he encountered the film. "For the rest of that summer of '77, my life was Star Wars."

That love only deepened with the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back.

"Empire took things to the next level," Janus said. "I loved Star Wars, but when Empire came out, things really started to get serious. That's when I moved beyond toys and all the other kid stuff. Suddenly, there were conventions and fan clubs and books and collectibles."

The sequel's many attractive qualities, as well as Lucas' promise of a new film every three years into the next century, cemented America's commitment to the series, and Star Wars became a major part of its pop-cultural life.

For much of the nation, the first sign of trouble arose sometime around the relationship's six-year mark, with the 1983 release of Return Of The Jedi.

"Jedi was when things first started getting a little weird," said Eric DiCillo, 35, a Rockford, IL, graphic designer. "Like, Princess Leia turns out to be Luke's sister? That really came out of left field. And Boba Fett, this cool, mysterious character whose role was so vital in Empire, suddenly dies in a stupid piece of comedy. For the first time, I felt like Lucas wasn't taking me seriously."

"I mean, I still loved Star Wars," DiCillo continued. "Even at that point, there were plenty of good times between us. When Darth Vader pitched the Emperor into the abyss, well, let's just say I'd never experienced a climax like that before. But I'd be lying if I said I was 100 percent happy."

Unsure where the relationship was headed after Return Of The Jedi, the nation took time off from Star Wars, deciding to see other films during a "cooling off" period of 16 years.

"I know George needed to get his head together on where this whole Star Wars thing was going," DiCillo said, "so it was for the best that we went our separate ways for a while. It felt like a betrayal, seeing other sci-fi movies, but I knew that if it was meant to be, we'd eventually find our way back to each other."

A once-cherished R2-D2 toy is reduced to propping open windows.

Even during the trial-separation period, Lucas' evasiveness and erratic behavior threatened to derail the relationship.

"Somewhere along the way, the saga of nine movies mysteriously turned into six," said Chris Cavanagh, 29, an Arlington, TX, insurance agent. "I remember, at one point, it was supposed to be 12. And I'm thinking, does Lucas have a long-term plan for us? I started out determined to see this relationship through to the end, but everything he did made me question it. I even started thinking he was just after my money."

"Through it all, though," Cavanagh continued, "I just kept telling myself, 'He'll change. He's got something truly special planned for the prequels. This can work.'"

The nation's hopes for a reconciliation were dashed in 1999, when, after a seemingly eternal wait, the disappointing Episode I—The Phantom Menace left the nation feeling hollow.

"By that point, the Star Wars films had lost their ability to move me," Janus said. "After seeing Phantom Menace, I started reflecting on the earlier films, and I realized they just weren't as deep and fulfilling as they'd seemed at the time. During that initial infatuation period, from '77 to '83, I guess I was too swept up in the magic of the whole thing to see that there were major problems."

"I stuck it out, I really did," a saddened Janus said. "I tried to make it work. But Star Wars just didn't hold up its end. A relationship is a two-way street. If George had told me he didn't want to do any more Star Wars movies after the original trilogy, yes, that would have hurt. But it would have been better than dragging me along like this. What he ended up doing was just passive-aggressive bullshit."

The flaws in America's relationship with Star Wars became painfully apparent in 2000, when it was introduced to the film version of Fellowship Of The Ring.

"I felt really guilty about it, but I couldn't help but compare this exciting new thing in my life to my longtime relationship," DiCillo said. "And when I did, I found Star Wars coming up short. As much as I tried to deny it, the dialogue, acting, story structure, and special effects in Lord Of The Rings were all undeniably superior. Everything happens for a reason in it, and it all builds toward a thrilling, satisfying series of climaxes. I wish I could say the same for my first love."

Frustrated with the increasingly bloated, self-indulgent Star Wars universe, the nation shifted its affections toward the Peter Jackson films.

"Lord Of The Rings gave me things Star Wars never could," Janus said. "If it hadn't been for Peter Jackson showing me what a fantasy saga can be, I might have settled for [summer 2002's] Attack Of The Clones as the best I could ever hope for."

DiCillo has experienced a similar change of heart.

"I'm not completely shutting Star Wars out of my life," DiCillo said. "I'm sure I'll see Episode III when it comes out, but I'm done waiting in line overnight. When [third Rings installment] Return Of The King comes out, I know it'll be a proper trilogy-ending climax, and not some slapdash retread of the more memorable parts from the first two films."

"Obviously, I'm disappointed that things didn't work out between Star Wars and me," DiCillo added. "But I'm grateful for the time we had. I grew a lot as a person, and I'll always have my beautiful memories of the Battle of Hoth."