Novelist S.C Skillman had visited Australia several times and even lived there for a period, but in November 2019, she made her first trip to New Zealand.
As writer of paranormal mystery novels and a lover of JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series she was keen to visit the sites used by Peter Jackson in his films of the books. She talks about her experiences.
When you visited New Zealand where much of the movie footage was filmed, were you excited or disappointed by what you saw?
When I visited the North Island, I thought Hobbiton represented a perfect recreation of that bucolic landscape in which the hobbits lived. Based upon Tolkien’s own idealistic view of pre-industrial rural England, it seemed to speak to all our childhood dreams.
Given that Tolkien was born and brought up in Birmingham and the countryside around about, do you think the New Zealand scenery does justice to the images Tolkien had in mind, especially as he was inspired so much by his local scenery? Or do you think it was filmed in New Zealand simply because Peter Jackson, the film-maker, was a native of that country?
I think Peter Jackson chose New Zealand for several good reasons and he was probably greatly influenced by the fact that he lives there! But New Zealand is an excellent choice. First of all, the sublime scenery of the South Island does parallel the grandeur of Tolkien’s vision, providing all the varied settings for Frodo and Sam’s epic journey.
The farmland around Matamata in the North Island is very appropriate as a location for Hobbiton. When I visited the North Island I was enchanted by miles upon miles of velvety green hills, uninterrupted by any of the signs of a modern society such as those you might see in England.
Ironically, Tolkien was indeed inspired by the countryside around Birmingham. But the changes that have taken place since those days are so radical, that region would now be utterly inappropriate as a film set in which to conjure up his vision. The place which he had in mind when he created Hobbiton, Sarehole Mill, is now in the middle of an urban community. When Tolkien played there as a little boy it was a rural village. He drew upon all his feelings as a small child when he created Hobbiton. To represent this on screen, the lovely landscape of New Zealand’s North Island was a brilliant choice.
Describe your reactions to the scenery between Paihia and Matamata.
We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by Tolkien’s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder Peter Jackson settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton. Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design. When we arrived in Matamata. we immediately saw the welcoming sign, and those of us who have loved Middle-earth at once felt a sense of high excitement. Even the local visitor centre has been turned into a nostalgic homestead
Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he was enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’ – the One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.
Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to set off on our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young Englishman called James.
The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.
On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.
And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial England.
Describe the menu at The Redoubt restaurant in Matamata.
The night before we visited Hobbiton, we had dinner at a restaurant called The Redoubt which had, along with the town of Matamata, ‘fully embraced its Middle Earth credentials’! (a phrase borrowed from the Matamata section in the Lonely Planet guide for New Zealand).
The menu and decor were based around characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Gollum’s famous catchphrase “Sneaky little hobbitses” was emblazoned on the wall and all the dishes on the menu bore names such as “Bilbo’s Patch”, “Sauron’s Fury”, “Eowyn’s blessing”, “Theoden’s Last Wish” and “Frodo’s Secret”. Of course, it all represented the shameless commercialisation of Tolkien’s creation, but we accepted it as a fun experience on its own terms. It certainly built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day.
Describe the scenery of Hobbiton.
The scenery of Hobbiton was pure delight. I found it beyond my expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: all the hobbit holes with their different coloured doors and their gardens packed with bright flowers; Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ’No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above his home, Bag End; the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s ’eleventy first’ birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.
Being here was like being transported into Tolkien’s original vision. It is said that he believed the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless, I feel he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!
What were the objections of Tolkien’s family to the films and the way in which Peter Jackson depicted Tolkien’s story?
Tolkien’s son Christopher, the great novelist’s literary executor, sadly objected to Peter Jackson’s films. I think I can see where Christopher was coming from, though I do not agree with him. Tolkien originally sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in the 1960’s, and he did not place any conditions on that sale which would have allowed him or his literary executors to have artistic control over the content of the films.
Christopher felt that the commercialisation of the films had reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of his father’s work. I do understand the beauty and the seriousness of Tolkien’s creation, and do not agree that the films reduced this. In fact I believe that, overall, they respected it. My only caveat would be the extended battle scenes, which I thought unnecessary; and the use of crude horror elements, in for instance the depiction of the Orcs. Christopher made specific reference to the battle scenes as being one source of his unhappiness. He also criticised the over-literal presentation of the Eye of Sauron which he said was intended by his father on a much profounder, spiritual level.
I am aware that Tolkien himself preferred his readers to use their own imagination with his books, and of course the re-telling of a story on screen can to an extent “spoon-feed” people with images of the characters, forever linked in our minds with the actors who play them. It is a complex issue and many writers have had widely varying experiences of their books being turned into films. It is also very probably true, as Christopher pointed out, that many of those who love The Lord of the Rings think first of the films rather than the original books.
Tolkien had a strong Christian faith. How do you think this is depicted in his novels and has Peter Jackson done justice to this faith in the films?
The question of whether readers see the Christian faith shining out of Tolkien’s creation again depends on the background and presumptions with which they come to it. The grand themes are there; spiritual warfare; the fatal lust of humankind for self-determination and power; the paradox of weakness and power spoken of by St Paul ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness’), the vital importance of persistent faith.
More specifically, the events of the Resurrection are paralleled by Gandalf’s self-sacrifice in the Mines of Moria; he confronts the evil force of the Balrog, submitting himself to this most deadly enemy, and falls down into the chasm to his death (we all believe). Thus Gandalf the Grey dies. Later on, Gandalf the White appears; he has fought and conquered the power of evil, and has been reborn. There are also other specific elements in the story which also reflect Tolkien’s Christian faith and worldview.
As to the question of whether Peter Jackson did justice to Tolkien’s Christian faith in the films, I believe all the moral and spiritual parallels are there, within the characters and events and context of the story telling. They will be seen and heard by those who have both eyes and ears to see and hear them.