This Is Not Middle-Earth

New Zealand is exactly the wrong backdrop for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Hobbit
Middle-earth, as misrepresented in film.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Since he began adapting the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, director Peter Jackson has faced numerous complaints from longtime fans of Middle-earth—some spurious, some more substantial. (He has also, of course, earned plenty of praise from that same group.) Tolkien devotees have pointed to various infidelities, deviations from the books that make Jackson’s movies crucially different from the world that the English author imagined.

And yet no one I’m aware of has pointed out one of the more glaring (literally) problems with Jackson’s Tolkien films, a problem that has become more evident to me with each installment. It’s the choice of his own native land, New Zealand, as the backdrop for these British stories. The island nation of swooping hills and glistening peaks isn’t merely an unfortunate choice—it’s one of the worst options I can imagine.

One of Tolkien’s great accomplishments was making Middle-earth seem vividly old. Wherever the reader looks, ruins and crumbling statues poke through the lichen. “Here and there upon heights and ridges they caught glimpses of ancient walls of stone and the ruins of towers,” writes Tolkien in an early chapter of The Lord of the Rings, describing his heroes’ eastward flight from the ghastly Ringwraiths. The towers, he adds, “had an ominous look.”

“Ominous” is a favorite Tolkien adjective, along with “gloomy” and “ancient.” Dreams, water, the sun—all are at least occasionally ominous in Tolkien’s universe. In The Lord of the Rings, especially, Tolkien’s prose veritably creaks with historical resonances; it’s no accident that the pivotal chapter in the first volume of LOTR is called “The Shadow of the Past,” a title that could have served for the entire novel. Here is a rheumy-eyed realm, slouching toward a drearier tomorrow. As Tolkien reminds us over and over, the mystical race of elves is forsaking Middle-earth, taking their magic and their wonder, and leaving glum, brutish mankind in charge.

Watch a Lord of the Rings recap, in running shots:

This sense of a world slowly decoupling from a more glorious past is pervasive. As Tolkien’s ragtag band of hobbits, elves, wizards, and warriors approaches the Misty Mountains in the opening volume of The Lord of the Rings, the reader is struck not by the glorious spectacle of the peaks soaring heavenward, but by the signs of decline that lie all around. “The Moon, now at the full, rose over the mountains, and cast a pale light in which the shadows of stones were black. Many of them looked to have been worked by hands, though now they lay tumbled and ruinous in a bleak, barren land.”

To do justice to Tolkien—to capture the essence of Middle-earth—a filmmaker needs to convey that sensibility. And the problem with New Zealand is that it is decidedly young—both geologically and as a place inhabited by people. It simply does not transmit the requisite aura of decay. The point is well-illustrated in the previous entry in Jackson’s series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As the protagonists—a band of dwarves, with titular hero Bilbo Baggins in tow—travel toward the Lonely Mountain, the kingdom from which the dwarves were usurped a generation previously, they are set upon by orcs and giant wolves (called wargs). In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s description of this region of Middle-earth is very specific: It is dark, dreary, and pockmarked with half-collapsed structures.

“[T]hey had gone on far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left, no inns and the roads grew steadily worse. Not far ahead were dreary hills rising higher had higher, dark with trees. On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people. Everything seemed gloomy.”

Jackson, however, shoots his segment in the sun-glazed grasslands around Twizel on New Zealand’s South Island. The smackdown with orcs and wargs is a departure from the book, presumably intended to add pep to what, on the page, can feel like a grim travelogue. Just as jarring as the insertion of the fight scene, though, is the shift in the landscape and the way it’s depicted. The bright and blue-skied backdrop is utterly at odds with the cheerlessness deliciously conjured by Tolkien. You are at all times aware that you are watching dwarves and giant wolves fight in postcard-gorgeous New Zealand. If Middle-earth can be described as a character in the books, and I would argue that it can, then Jackson has written it out of the story.

Perhaps Jackson could have found a good New Zealand equivalent for the sweeping steppes of Rohan, described in the second volume of The Lord of the Rings as gleaming and verdant—a dreamlike contrast to the mildewed darkness of the Misty Mountains. Tolkien says that “the grass of Rohan … swelled like a green sea.” But Jackson’s Rohan, filmed around Otago in the far south of New Zealand and in the hill country near Canterbury, is yellowed and scraggy, knotted with hills and outcrops. In certain aerial shots, it resembles an arid wasteland.

Something chimes wrongly, too, in the key battle toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, outside the city of Gondor. In The Return of the King, Tolkien paints a scene of murk and shadow: “[O]f the fields of Pelennor,” he writes, “there came no gleam, they were brown and drear.” In the movie, though, once again shot around Twizel, it looks as if the fighting is unfolding in a CGI-saturated desert. The sun gleams through the smoke of battle; so much dust and sand is kicked up that, by the end, viewers could be forgiven for instinctively reaching to rub the grit from their eyes. This isn’t Tolkien, it’s Lawrence of Arabia with orcs.

So where should Jackson have shot his movies? It is instructive to turn to another major fantasy franchise of the hour, HBO’s Game of Thrones series. Lustily adapted from the books by George R.R. Martin, Thrones is gritty without feeling dreary, serious-minded yet never plodding. Tellingly, it is filmed in a flip book of Old World sites: Northern Ireland, Iceland, Malta, Croatia. Speaking to journalists on set near Belfast in 2011, dastardly Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) underlined this. “We’re working in quite a dramatic environment—and it does help,” he said. “There’s something mystical about Celtic environments.”

The specific inspirations for Middle-earth were manifold. Tolkien fought at the Somme, and the mechanized butchery he encountered in the trenches framing the steam-punk dystopia of Mordor—as did the industrial ruination, as Tolkien perceived it, of England’s Black Country, near Birmingham. Hobbit homeland the Shire, most people agree, is a valentine to the leafier reaches of the U.K.’s West Midlands, Tolkien’s childhood home. In other aspects, Middle-earth is a hodgepodge. There is a whiff of the Yorkshire Moors about the lawless territories between the Shire and Rivendell, while Mirkwood channels Northern Europe’s great forests. Lately it has been asserted that Tolkien was also guided by the gloomy strangeness of the Burren in western Ireland, a stony netherworld whose beauty and bleakness can seem one and the same.

If Jackson wished to evoke Tolkien’s Middle-earth, its centuries of accumulated strife and melodrama bleeding into the present, he could have done worse than consult John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a craggy, Arthurian romp that made the fantastical bloody and palpable. Shot in the east and south of Ireland, Excalibur has all a Middle-earth devotee could hope for: clouds hanging low, moody woodlands that radiate menace even on what passes for a bright summer day. Above all, there is a feeling that antiquity is not far away. After some shoots in Ireland, Jackson might have caught a flight to Iceland for the somber splendor between Keflavik and Reykjavik, the Mordor moonscape stretching to the horizon.

The New Zealand that Jackson invites us to fall in a faint over radiates, in contrast, an unblemished freshness. Shooting in some of the remotest corners of the country, Jackson places before the viewer a land of virginal beauty, one that emanates a ruddy and fundamentally un-Tolkien-ish glow. Sitting through those tourist board scenes of hobbits and dwarves skipping stoically across hills and glades, Howard Shore’s score swelling and roiling, the audience is in no doubt that it is watching a tastefully composed rendering of an actual paradise. Your first thought is “Wow, that’s pretty,” and your second may well be “I bet that’s a wonderful place for bungee jumping.”

Jackson ought to have gone to the Old World, to Ireland or Iceland and other places thereabout, where people seldom bungee-jump and the ancient and the modern often appear to live in uneasy alliance.