JANE: So, Alan, now that you’ve been retired for a few months, have you done anything interesting with your spare time? (Other than writing Tangents, of course. Writing Tangents is always interesting.)
ALAN: Yes – Robin and I went to Hobbiton. It’s been built in a field near a small town called Matamata which is almost exactly in the middle of the North Island. It can’t be exactly in the middle because the exact middle is occupied by a huge volcanic lake…
There are more than 40 hobbit houses in the village along with the Green Dragon pub where visitors can drink specially brewed hobbit ales. And the village green still has the remnants of the decorations that were hung there for Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday party.
JANE: Oh! Neat! I’m going through the pictures you sent us. It looks wonderful. What loving detail! There’s a big tree in one of the shots. Is that a real tree or one constructed to be the Birthday Tree in the movie?
ALAN: That’s a real tree – almost all of them are. But the oak tree growing above Bag End is completely artificial. There is a lovely pine tree growing nearby which was originally intended to be the oak tree, and so the special effects people stripped the pine needles and started painstakingly wiring oak leaves to the branches. But the pine needles grew back faster than they could wire the oak leaves on, so they had to give up on that idea and build the oak tree from scratch.
JANE: That’s just plain crazy. Why not go with the evergreen?
I notice that most of your pictures are exterior shots. Can you go into the houses?
ALAN: No. Except for the Green Dragon pub, the structures are just facades. There isn’t anything behind the round doors except scaffolding and other support structures. All the interior shots in the movies were filmed in studio sets. Visitors to Hobbiton are allowed inside one of the hobbit houses, but it isn’t very interesting. All you can see is a wooden frame.
JANE: Ah… That must be the picture with the modern equipment in it. I’d wondered.
ALAN: The story behind Hobbiton is quite fascinating. Do you want to hear it?
ALAN: When Peter Jackson was first looking for places to film the Lord of the Rings movies, he was a relatively unknown director. He quickly found many places where he wanted to build his movie sets, some on private land and some on council-owned land. All he had to do was get permission to film…
A lot of negotiations took place with the various land owners and eventually contracts were signed. But they all had one thing in common – nobody thought the sets would have any lasting value. Strange fantasy films made by a director best known for his amusingly gory video-nasties? Obviously the whole thing would soon be forgotten. Therefore, all the contracts specified that when Peter Jackson finished filming, the land had to be returned to the same state it had been in when he first found it. So all the film sets were temporary structures made of polystyrene and plaster, and they were all demolished when they were finished with.
JANE: Oh, sorrow… Some of those were lovely.
ALAN: And then something amazing happened. The films became a worldwide sensation and international tourists flocked to New Zealand searching for the authentic Middle-Earth experience. Guide books were published detailing all the places where the movies had been filmed and untold thousands of people came to stare enthusiastically at empty fields full of slightly bewildered cows and sheep.
JANE: “Humans are very odd,” think the cows and sheep. And they’re right! But something must have changed.
ALAN: By now, everybody was kicking themselves – if only we had kept the movie sets in place, they moaned with wise hindsight. Then we could charge the tourists a fortune to see them. If only…
JANE: I’m sure the cows and sheep felt otherwise. So what happened next?
ALAN: When Peter Jackson returned to Middle-Earth to make The Hobbit movies, the attitude had changed completely. When he went back to the farmer on whose land he had built the original Hobbiton, the farmer insisted that this time the set should be built of permanent materials.
Jackson was more than happy to oblige and now Hobbiton is a permanent structure that will last for a century or more. There is a whole infrastructure in place to take care of the tourists. Regular coaches arrive from all over the country. There’s a souvenir shop full of hobbitiana, and a cafe where you can order and eat a second breakfast. It’s all terribly commercial and judging by the prices they charge, somebody must be making a fortune.
But nevertheless, it’s Hobbiton! And it’s real! And it’s throat-catchingly magic. I loved it.
JANE: I really enjoyed it, even just via your snapshots. What really impressed me were the small details. Someone is working very hard to make sure the flowers are fresh, the laundry remains on the line, and paint is bright.
ALAN: They have a large staff who spend their days doing exactly that. The level of detail is quite amazing. There are ornaments in the windows, and the paint is flaking on the doors of the hobbit holes in the poorer parts of the village.
One thing that really stood out for me was just how old and lived in everything looked. Even the fences around the houses looked as if they had been solidly in place for hundreds of years, the wood was well weathered and covered in moss. Apparently, when the fences were built, they were smeared with yoghurt to encourage the growth of bacteria which quickly gave the fences their ancient aspect. I thought that was a really clever trick.
JANE: Nice trick, indeed! There were only two odd things – not seeing any hobbits and seeing visitors in modern dress. I found myself wishing that – like in Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Darklord of Derkholm – the tourists were required to dress appropriately. The setting seemed to demand cloaks and tunics.
ALAN: I agree – that would have been very atmospheric. There was a cloak for sale in the souvenir shop (only one!). It cost $400 so we didn’t buy it. We were hoping that we’d be able to buy hobbit feet slippers, but to our great disappointment, the shop didn’t have any. Somebody missed a great marketing opportunity there. We ended up buying a “No Admittance Except On Party Business” notice which Robin has attached to the door of her office.
JANE: That sounds very suitable. Now that you’re both retired, all business is “party business.”
ALAN: Of course, none of this could ever have happened if the films hadn’t been such a worldwide success, and the films would never have been made at all if it hadn’t been for the enormous effect that Tolkien’s novels had on the reading habits of a generation. Perhaps we can talk about Tolkien’s huge influence next time?
JANE: I’m definitely in favor of that! I warn you… I’ll have some tough questions for you!