The Hobbit was one of my favourite children’s books, The Lord of the Rings when I was a little older. My mum and I were obsessed with the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the trilogy, a 13-hour dramatisation from 1981, on cassette tapes and then CDs. It had John Le Mesurier as Bilbo and Ian Holm (who would later play Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s films) as Frodo; oh and, as I’ve just discovered, Bill Nighy as Sam Gamgee! Then the three films came out while I was at university, giving me something to look forward to each of the three years of my studies. I always love finding out about all the behind-the-scenes secrets and I immersed myself in the extra films and interviews. I watched the extended versions with audio commentary by the actors (with anecdotes from the likes of Orlando, Elijah and Billy Boyd) more times than I can remember. All this to say that of course one of the main reasons I came back to New Zealand was to visit the Shire in Middle Earth.
The location that Peter Jackson and his scouting crew selected for the land of the hobbits was the Alexander Farm near Matamata on the North Island, still a working sheep farm today. The national army worked hard to adapt the site to match Tolkien’s description, turning a swamp into a grassy field to house Bilbo’s 111th birthday and transplanting the party tree itself into the right place. Animals were brought in, apple and pear trees turned into plum trees, and an artificial oak tree built atop what would become Bag End. As news of the location spread once the films came out, the Alexander family discovered that people were drawn to the home of Bilbo and Frodo, and they have gradually gone from taking three or four people on the back of a truck to the more official operation that is in place today.
My tour of Middle Earth continued at the Weta Workshop in Miramar just outside Wellington. You can visit the shop and watch a film about the company and all the films the team has worked on for free – but I paid in order to also do a tour of the workshop. This gives you access to quite a small hall with tours run by employees. Our guide wasn’t great, telling not-so-hilarious anecdotes about her colleagues collecting human skulls and animal skeletons, but she did know a lot about the props and the process from concept through to use in the films. For film fans, I do think it’s worth it: the hall is filled with props from The Lord of the Rings films as well as other Weta productions like Prince Caspian and Avatar. Yes, they’ve worked on all sorts of films including also Tintin, Superman, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes… In fact, they finished work on The Lord of the Rings twelve years ago! I. Am. Old.
I particularly enjoyed the life-size Uruk Hai, Lurtz (terrifying!), Aragorn’s sword (which Viggo Mortinsen used to bring along to restaurants in order to really feel one with it, as his character would have done), Eomer’s helmet, and Bilbo’s Sting dagger, as well as the head moulds of Ian Holm, Bernard Hill, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood (who has a beautiful head! He would look good bald…). The full-size armour of Sauron was also impressive; one set was plastic and weighed 8kg, worn by actor Sala Baker in the scenes where he was mobile; the other weighing 68kg was used by ‘Tall Paul’ in close-ups where he didn’t have to move around. Also interesting was the chainmail developed by Weta to be a quarter of the weight of the real thing to allow actors to be more comfortable (though, of course, good old Viggo wore the heavy stuff. A method actor through and through…).
I continued my private Lord of the Rings tour in Wellington city centre, where I had coffee at the Embassy Theatre, in which Peter Jackson held the world premiere of The Return of the Ring in 2003. Sitting there in the renovated art deco theatre, empty on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in November, it was hard to imagine the place buzzing with the cast and crew of the film. The only evidence that remains is in the form of photos of actors like Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan on the walls; a small echo of the huge crowds of more than 100,000 who lined the red carpet down Courtenay Place eleven years ago.
My final connection to the film franchise came in my friends’ tantalising declaration that their flat, where I was staying in Wellington, had been home to a hobbit – or was it an elf? or a dwarf? – during filming. Alas, the details seemed to have been forgotten, but a little Wellywood glamour brushed off on me with this (albeit incomplete) knowledge…
And with that, #16 on my bucket list is DONE!
The practical bit:
Hobbiton Movie Set Tour: An adult ticket is $75; book ahead to ensure that you don’t miss out during high season. There are umbrellas at the entrance to Hobbiton in case of rain! There is also a shop but I have to admit I was disappointed – there is a big jump from the cheap tat at the bottom end of the spectrum up to the very expensive jewellery (the one ring, of course, as well as Arwen’s necklace and the hobbits’ elven brooch). In the end I settled for a fridge magnet (‘No admittance except on party business’).
Weta Workshop: Weta is located in Miramar, a suburb that lies south-east of Wellington city centre. You can visit the shop and watch the film for free, while the 45-minute tour of the workshop is $24 for adults. I did the ‘There and Back Again’ tour for $65, which included pick-up from and drop-off in Wellington, since I didn’t have a car at this point.