Imagine the scene: I’m writing this while taking out manky old hair extensions with a pair of pliers, smoking a vape filled with milk-flavoured nicotine fluid and watching ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ on Netflix (never let it be said I don’t know how to multitask). While waves of CGI freaks hack each other into hyper-realistic surround-sound ribbons on the telly, I’m attempting to conjure up some of the innocence that must have accompanied Peter Jackson’s first aerial tour of North Island, looking for his most iconic of locations: Bilbo Baggins’ grassy bolthole, Bag End.
Peter Jackson picked this farm, near Matamata, for his Hobbiton because it looked like Olde England (presumably Actual England had been rejected on the basis it looks more like the set of a Shane Meadows movie). Well, first impressions prove he wasn’t wrong: it’s snaked with obedient queues – and what could be more English than that? So we don’t have to join them, we’ve booked a ‘Private Tour’ and right off the bat, I’m verily disappointed that our guide for the day isn’t dressed the part: if I’d had free choice, I’d have liked to spend the day with Legolas (or ‘Legoland’ as the kids call him), but at a push I’d have taken Gimli, Son of Gloin or that one who looks like a ginger John Travolta. Instead we have a sort of Safari Surfer mashup. Nice guy though.
His patter is certainly STAT HEAVY. Safari Surfer Dude tells us that the 37 hobbit holes, the mill and a bridge (the one Gandalf drives over in his cart in The Fellowship of the Ring) took 9 months to build and landscape and were only temporary. Filming took 3 months, then the set was dismantled, only to be rebuilt for The Hobbit, taking 2 years and for only a few weeks of filming. Over the 6 movies though, Hobbiton appears for less than 12 minutes. We’re FACTED OUT, surely?
But no, here he comes again: Jackson’s effects company, Weta, created the most expensive movie prop ever built – the oak tree over Bag End – which was made of 376,000 vinyl oak leaves on a metal trunk (you can now buy them at the Weta Workshop in Wellington for $11 a piece… you do the math) only for him to demand that it be resprayed with only days go before filming commenced, because he didn’t quite like the colour. To which I can add my own fact: The Hobbit Trilogy must be the only film adaptation that takes longer to watch than the book does to read. WAY longer. I started in 2017 and there are still about 8000 orcs to decapitate even now.
It turns out John is exactly hobbit-sized. He fits very neatly in the hobbit holes that we’re actually allowed in, not that there’s much to see. There was a hose in one and a couple of Tupperwares in another that looked like they contained the remains of the gardeners’ lunch. But it’s very well kept and cute, and makes for some great pix.
Safari Surfer Dude leads us neatly back to the Green Dragon Inn, built just for the tourists but with interiors that faithfully reproduce the actual set. This is where the imagination has to really kick in though, because a family of Chinese tourists eating scotch eggs doesn’t quite evoke the woodsmoke and firelight cosiness of Bilbo’s first encounter with Gandalf. But the kids get to dress up as hobbits and we get a pint of flat cider so it’s not all bad.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a pile of Russian peasant hair and an empty vape and The Hobbit is reaching it’s orgiastic dénouement, only 474 minutes after it began. “You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in a very, very long movie after all.”