Welcome to a model Middle-earth
One of the 44 permanent hobbit holes at Hobbiton.
If our New Zealand cousins are not eating second breakfasts and dreaming about wizard fireworks, it is not for lack of exposure to the hobbit world this week.
Following the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key ventured to Hobbiton yesterday to open what the country hopes will be a new "Middle-earth" tourist attraction.
To shoot the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson's crew built a temporary hobbit village on a sheep and cattle farm at Matamata, 175 kilometres from Auckland.
A location scouting party had spotted a distinctive tree and lush rolling hills from the air and thought the site could work for the Shire.
Even though the set was dismantled after filming, the Alexander family turned the site into a tourist attraction, with tiny plywood and styrofoam Shire homes, that attracted more than 260,000 visitors in a decade.
When Jackson wanted to use the farm again for the Hobbit films, the family had one condition: Hobbiton had to be rebuilt as a permanent village. And so it was in a joint venture between the knighted filmmaker and the Alexanders.
As well as 44 permanent hobbit holes, complete with gardens, orchards, fireplaces that issue atmospheric smoke and washing lines dangling hobbity clothes out back, the filmmakers built a natty replica of the Green Dragon Inn, from the Lord of the Rings films, that serves hobbit beer and cider.
Flanked by nine of the actors who play dwarves in An Unexpected Journey and an emotional farmer Russell Alexander, Key used boltcutters to snip the chain and open the inn. Then he ducked off to open an information centre in town also modelled on the Green Dragon Inn.
Hobbiton also has a new entrance so that visitors approach down the track that Gandalf used at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. The giant party tree from the films has been fenced off to protect it from tree-hugging fans.
The Frodo-scale buildings with round hobbit doors bring out the child in otherwise serious adults, some of whom would have happily curled up in a hobbit hole after a Middle-earth ale or two.
But even Hobbit villages have to comply with building codes. Movie-art-director-turned-Hobbiton-construction-overseer Brian Massey says they had to negotiate with the local council over a bridge with a 90-centimetre stone handrail instead of the required one metre. It was eventually approved on the condition the bridge had a hobbity safety warning about the risk to walkers – no, not trolls. And it was apparently necessary given that two visitors have fallen into the lake despite the sign.
In the upturned world that is this most Tolkienian of weeks, dwarves are not only as tall as everyone else but are considered hot, thatchers and swordmakers are thriving, Peter Jackson is bigger than Michael Jackson, elves who work for websites materialise in forests (See Notes From Middle-earth #3) and visitors drink beer out of what look like high-school art clay mugs.
Ian Alexander, the bluff 72-year-old farmer who is Russell's father, says he was watching a big rugby match – Waikato versus Auckland for the national championship – when a location scout arrived at half-time on a Saturday afternoon in 1998.
It wasn't until after he signed a confidentiality clause that the filmmakers revealed the $NZ350 million project they wanted to shoot at the farm was The Lord of the Rings. He had never heard of either the novel or Peter Jackson, though he pretended to at the silent urging of his wife.
"I told a straight-out lie, I've got to be honest," he says. "I'm more a guy for some of the war films that were actually real things, like Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky and Dambusters."
Says Russell: "He hasn't read too many books." Pause. "I mean novels and fantasy tales. He likes farming books."
Alexander senior says the Hobbiton site used to be the least-productive part of the property until the film crew planted rye grass and clover then went to work with fertiliser. It's not surprising it's green and lush given the farm averages 114 centimetres of rain a year.
There have already been approaches about weddings at the new Hobbiton. But as a tourist attraction, it is a stopover rather than an overnight stay given the lack of accommodation in the area.
"Maybe one day we'll have an accommodation motel set up somewhere," says Ian Alexander, who ranks Jackson up with Edmund Hillary and All Black captain Richie McCaw as great New Zealanders. "But we're a bit away from that yet."
Now all they need is a TV show called The Shire.
Garry Maddox travelled to New Zealand courtesy of Warner Bros and Tourism New Zealand.