The Hobbit Holes That Saved New Zealand
By Bernard LaganJanuary 11, 2013
In the centre of New Zealand’s North Island is a patch of green that remains forever Middle Earth — well, for at least as long as money grows on fake trees.
The aged bus winds up a tight gravel track skirting layers of symmetrical green hilltops that seem sculpted by centuries. A light rain falls, flowers wave, fruit trees beckon and hedgerows duck down the gullies to a still lake. We are being steered through Middle Earth — the world imagined by writer J.R.R. Tolkien for his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — by an elderly farmer, who is concerned that his roaring bus lacks windscreen wipers and the power to cope with the next hill, but who is grateful to have a job in an otherwise dour New Zealand that hovers on the edge of economic standstill.
As we ascend, small structures appear in the distance. Rounded blue and yellow doorways have been built into the hillsides, and are approached by cobblestone paths; ancient wooden fences covered in peeling, green lichen surround bright little cottage gardens.
The site for Middle Earth was discovered 14 years ago by New Zealand film director Peter Jackson. He flew over by helicopter, searching for a landscape that might give the sense of Tolkien’s fictional society; in a land set somewhere in North Western Europe, “North West of the Old World, east of the Sea”, and “equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the North Shores of the Mediterranean”, in the author’s words.
In the years since a scout for Jackson knocked on the farmhouse door, this 500-hectare sheep and cattle farm off Buckland’s Road, in the lonely hill country outside the town of Matamata, in the central North Island, has become one of the most viewed pieces of countryside in the world. It is the setting for all of Jackson’s internationally block-busting hobbit movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which premiered in November and by end of 2012 it had taken a whopping USD500 million internationally. Two more hobbit movies are already in the can.
Owned by the Alexander family, the area that is Middle Earth, about four hectares, is still part of a working farm. On their 500 hectares the Alexanders run about 12,000 sheep and 600 Angus beef cattle, and, for the past 10 years, tens of thousands of transient visitors.
Jackson and the Alexanders — patriarch Ian and his three sons, Russell, Craig and Dean — are now partners in a company that conducts tours of the set. The tour company began without Peter Jackson, after the release of the last of the Lord of the Rings films — and averaged about 22,000 visitors a year. But with Jackson’s return to the Tolkien theme, visitor numbers spiked to almost to 60,000 in 2012, and are set to double this year. Adults pay NZD75 each for the two-hour tours that ramble across the set. Those four hectares are golden.
Jackson now has a half share in the venture.
“There are people coming from all over the world,” says the venture’s spokesman, Ian Brody. “Our biggest tourist markets are Australia, England, the United States and Germany. The Germans, in particular, have a huge love of Lord of the Rings.”
Many foreigners come to New Zealand simply to visit the Tolkien movie set, he says: “New Zealand has been shown to so many people, indelibly stamped as Middle Earth. These landscapes are magical and real to people.”
The tour venture employs more than 70 staff, and the farm now hosts a restaurant, bar and function centre. Amid a lacklustre New Zealand economy beset by unemployment of more than 7 per cent — the highest in 13 years — moribund economic growth and mass outflows of its citizens to jobs in Australia, this tour business is even more notable for its success. It’s a testament to the power of new creative industries in a country reeling from the years of losses of traditional manufacturing jobs, foreign takeovers of its biggest companies, and relentless sales of government assets, intended to prop up the economy.
And it almost didn’t happen. Following the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy more than a decade ago, work began to demolish the set and return it to farmland, in accordance with agreements previously reached with the Alexanders. But during a rain stoppage, the family invited a few neighbours up for a visit. According to our tour guide, the visitors were so taken by the set that the Alexanders decided to pause the demolition and contact New Line Cinemas, producers of the trilogy. Eight months of negotiation later, by December 2002, Russell Alexander was conducting the first tours of Middle Earth.
In late October 2010, after talks between the New Zealand government and Warner Bros film executives, it was announced that the Hobbit films, Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated prequels to his Lord of the Rings triology, would also be shot in New Zealand. The deal required a change to New Zealand’s labor laws, easing restrictions on contract film workers after the country’s Prime Minister, John Key, said the country could not afford to lose this project.
The agreement sparked an urgent rebuild of the film set on the Alexander farm. With money from Jackson, who was now a 50 per cent shareholder in the Alexanders’ set-tour business, the set’s plywood and Styrofoam was replaced by permanent fixtures. The 37 hobbit holes were now reinforced with heavy timbers. Gardens were re-sown, paths relaid and the bridge and the mill (and its large water wheel) rebuilt. Jackson insisted that a large old oak tree was needed to stay true to Tolkien’s stories, so a 26-tonne oak was found on another farm, cut down, reduced to large pieces, put back together and ‘refoliated’, by wiring hundreds of thousands of artificial leaves into place. Fortunately, the roads through the farm, built by New Zealand Army engineers to allow the making of the first movies, remained intact, as did the contours of the village — also formed by the Army engineers.
On Tolkien’s maps the centre of Middle Earth’s The Shire — home of the hobbits — corresponds to the West Midlands region of the United Kingdom. And its story traces a Merry England ideology, a utopian view of English society rooted in the countryside, with a farming lifestyle that resembles the time between the Middle Ages and the beginning of the industrial revolution. The set gives life to the values of such a time, with handcrafted details such as stools, stiles, chopping blocks, old ladders and rambling wooden fences encrusted with faux lichen made out of ingredients such as yoghurt and vinegar.
And there are real, lush vegetable gardens and miniature fruit trees. To honour the detail of Tolkien’s book, Jackson insisted that a miniature plum tree be created, despite the New Zealand government’s ban on such varieties. That ban was overcome by wiring fake plums to a miniature apple tree — a Martha Stewart-like twist on handmade utopia, perhaps?
Even the bricks used in the houses and the chimneys were made on site.
The first of The Hobbit films to be released had its world premiere in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, in November, ahead of its mid-December US release. With two movies yet to come, years of queues are virtually guaranteed at the Alexander farm.
In December 2012, after filming of The Hobbit trilogy had been completed, the Alexanders departed from Jackson’s script and opened The Green Dragon — a rambling pub, with low, hobbit-height ceilings and crafted in an Old-English style. Here visitors will eventually able to buy custom-brewed apple cider, ginger beer or beer, and sit in the snug or the pub’s country garden and gaze out over the sheep farm that, for millions of hobbit fans, actually is Middle Earth.