What Happens When Humans Go a-Hobbiting?

Unlike The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins, who loathes leaving his comfortable home and only undertakes an adventure after being coerced by a very persuasive wizard, J.R.R. Tolkien fans from around the world meticulously planned their own Middle-earth adventure as soon as the films were officially announced. Bilbo’s Unexpected Journey would have to be retitled A Long-Expected Journey for visitors embarking on the Hobbit premiere tour. When the date of the first film’s premiere could be ascertained, they paid a deposit for a November-December 2012 journey throughout New Zealand with Red Carpet Tours, a company providing Lord of the Rings (LotR) tours to former filming locations for more than a decade.

Non-hobbit fans might agree with Bilbo’s kin that such trips, requiring hours of flights and months, if not years, of planning, would be folly. Why would 110 adults with respectable jobs as teachers, writers, sales executives, or social workers, for example, from Asia, North America, or Europe sign up for a “hobbit tour” more than two years before they would fly thousands of miles to meet in Auckland, New Zealand? Why would they spend months and sometimes hundreds of dollars to create the perfect film-related costume? Perhaps the greatest question by the end of the journey was whether all this planning and anticipation could match the reality of life on a tour bus.

Although the Hobbit premiere tour involved a much larger contingent of visitors, tour guides, drivers, and assistants than is typical of a Red Carpet Tour, the number of fans was limited to ensure that each visitor would have the optimal “hobbit” experience, whatever the fan’s motivation for choosing to be in Wellington during the film’s premiere. For some, the journey was an opportunity to tour the country from North (Island) to South in 14 days, traveling by bus or interisland ferry to beautiful, if often remote scenic spots. For others, the trip became a cinematic pilgrimage to visit former filming locations of Peter Jackson’s LotR trilogy and perhaps discover more recent backdrops for the Hobbit films.

A highlight of the premiere tour was a half-day visit to the Shire, the location where Jackson first built, and years later rebuilt, a hobbit community that would provide a wealth of colorful exteriors for scenes like Bilbo’s birthday party or frantic run through the Shire to catch up with Gandalf and the dwarves. Hobbiton, just outside Matamata, has become more of a tourist attraction since its renovation for the latest films and looks remarkably like it does on screen in The Hobbit; since the first (of three) Hobbit film’s world premiere, the Green Dragon pub has been opened to visitors, so guests dressed like Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf the Gray can enjoy a pint at Hobbiton’s local, just like their movie counterparts.

As Red Carpet Tours founder Vic James told television network NZ1, fans invested in Tolkien’s stories are most likely to participate in a tour—or sign up for one years in advance of an event like a world film premiere—because of fellowship. These international travelers begin a tour as fans of author J.R.R. Tolkien, filmmaker Peter Jackson, or the creative cast and crew who turn New Zealand into Tourism NZ’s dream of Middle-earth (or they accompany a family member immersed in this fandom), but they share real-life adventures as they travel from Auckland to Queenstown.

Together they venture past steaming, possibly erupting Mount Tongariro or Ruapehu, help each other climb Mount Sunday, cross the Canterbury plain sharing stories and songs, and re-enact a battle charge on the Pelennor (or at least the hills outside Twizel). They also share a vast collective knowledge of literature, history (real and Tolkienesque), film, costuming, and special effects. They can recite book or film dialogue and explain the histories elaborately developed by Tolkien, but they also have made (and brought with them for special events) intricate costumes that transform them into hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, or, in one memorable case, Treebeard, the venerable Ent. (For those unfamiliar with Tolkien’s or Jackson’s LotR, think of a large talking tree.)

Hobits at Hobbington (photo by Lynnette Porter)

The Power of the Costume

Scoff if you are not a fan, but that Ent costume, worn by David McNabb of Calgary, Alberta, won him two tickets to the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While those of us who were his “yellow bus” tour compatriots risked sunburn from hours of standing next to the red carpet in hopes of snagging the stars’ attention, David and Lori McNabb were hobbit-nobbing with the actors on the red carpet and watching the film.

Television crews often filmed Red Carpet Tour guests in costume during their days in Wellington, but some fans were selected for special media events. The McNabbs, as costume contest winners, talked with reporters during morning news segments on premiere day. Wearing beautifully detailed costumes they had made, “elf” Moana Leong (Mililani, Hawaii) and “hobbit” Mailekalani Lum (Honolulu, Hawaii) were invited to talk with television news anchors from New Zealand and Australia. They and the McNabbs, like other Red Carpet tourists, later learned that their photographs and news videos had traveled the globe as part of the film premiere’s publicity.

The red carpet was far from the only place where these fan-scholars gleefully donned costumes carefully packed for the journey. Hobbiton may have lacked Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), or the dozens of extras inhabiting the Shire on film, but the busloads of hobbit-eared visitors, many dressed as a Baggins, Took, or Brandybuck not only made the former filming set seem real but offered fans the perfect photo op in front of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. So many hobbits in one place also attracted local media, who took their own photos and video for premiere-related features. Being on a world premiere hobbit tour can make a star—at least temporarily—out of a well-dressed hobbit visiting the Shire.

Such media events, especially within the context of the hilly pastureland on which Jackson’s Shire was constructed and lovingly nurtured, help blur the cinematic world and the real world. Certainly no “hobbit” would confuse the two, but events like a film-premiere tour offer fans not only an appropriate venue in which to “play” or re-enact scenes from a favorite film but also create a socially acceptable outlet for fans who share such a passion for a film or character. In fact, without such enthusiastic visitors making Hobbiton lively on a late November afternoon, the exterior set would have seemed eerily quiet, as if the community’s citizens had mysteriously disappeared.

Hobbiton homes are unique, each with details like flowers on a window sill or garden tools waiting to be picked up, and the absence of hobbits at work in the garden or lounging on the stoop seems unnatural. Costumed guests like these fans are necessary to keep the illusion of Hobbiton “real”, and that’s a role visitors gladly undertake.

Although the Wellington premiere and the visit to Hobbiton were prime opportunities for tourists to dress up, the main costume event was a party jointly hosted by Red Carpet Tours and TheOneRing.Net (TORN), a highly-followed website for LotR and Hobbit film fans. Not only did the hosts book bands featuring dwarves William Kircher (Bifur) and Jed Brophy (Nori), who also emceed the party, but they invited the film’s cast and creative team, including Weta founders Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger. Many actors arrived early in the evening and graciously signed autographs or posed for photos, but whether actor or fan, the group enjoyed themselves.

Dancing with Smaug or the Witch King was hardly surprising. However, the partygoers were stunned by the arrival of Peter Jackson and Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), followed by Andy Serkis (Gollum) and scriptwriter Philippa Boyens. “Polite” and “mob” seem incongruous terms, but the fans who surrounded film royalty during the evening patiently waited for their moment with the famous. Wood seemed to be having as good a time as his fans, and he happily chatted and smiled for cameras before slowly working his way to the door. Jackson addressed the crowd from the stage, but he also stayed a very long time to ensure that he met as many fans as possible, despite the fact that he had been hard at work on finishing the film for a premiere only a few days away. Of all events taking place in Wellington during the week of the premiere, this costume party was likely the coolest and definitely the most fan-friendly event.

Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood and Jed Brophy at a Fan Party (photo by Lynnette Porter)

World-Premiere Wellington

Unlike cinematic or national capitals that host film premieres, even global ones, frequently, Wellington almost turns a Jackson world film premiere into a national holiday—or so it seemed to visitors brave enough to venture onto Courtenay Place on 28 November. Intrepid tour guides started lining up at 2AM and marking spaces for tour guests who arrived “late”—about eight hours before the first events were scheduled. By the time Neil Finn sang the “Song of the Lonely Mountain” from the stage next to a recreation of Bag End, the street crowd numbered what media later estimated as 100,000.

Pressed against the barricades about halfway down the blocks-long red carpet, I only glimpsed Martin Freeman as he hurriedly signed a few autographs on his way to yet another interview, which were broadcast on large screens near the Embassy cinema as well as a nearby park. During the red carpet parade of stars, I managed to say a few words to concept artists Alan Lee and John Howe, J.R.R. Tolkien’s great-grandson Royd Tolkien, and actor Mark Hadlow (Dori). Shouts of “Aidan! Aidan!” earned me an over-the-shoulder smile from one of the “hot dwarves,” Aidan Turner (Kili), as he walked the carpet.

Fans who attend a red carpet event only to get an A-lister’s autograph or share a photo are likely to be disappointed. For all the times that a tour group member shared a red-carpet moment with Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Elijah Wood, or Peter Jackson, dozens more fans watched as actors were rushed along or favored the opposite side of the carpet. However, Wellington on red carpet day is more than a place for hopefuls to see the stars. It is an event noteworthy for its energy and volume, like a wave of electricity and noise surging down the road. It also is a rare opportunity to bond with friends or even strangers willing to stand, lean, or sit for hours alongside barriers bracketing the carpet. Waiting by the red carpet, like filmmaking itself, is an odd combination of extreme boredom offset by adrenaline-fueled moments of great activity.

Cate Blanchett with Fans (photo by Lynnette Porter)

A film premiere day also is a marketing coup for New Zealand. Air New Zealand handed out postcards or posters with the image of the Hobbit plane that carried the stars to Wellington and, later, became a featured flight from New Zealand to Los Angeles and London. Shortly before the actors began the red-carpet gauntlet, the Hobbit plane also made a personal appearance by flying over the crowd. Courtenay Place was not the only location emphasizing Air New Zealand’s connection to The Hobbit. A huge replica of Gollum, swimming after a fishy dinner, greeted new arrivals at Wellington’s airport, and travelers’ bags popped through a circular hobbit-home door as luggage rode the conveyor past Bag End. Those waiting for their bags could stare back at Bilbo, looking out the window of Bag End, or perhaps ask Gandalf, also seriously gazing through another window, to help them locate their luggage.

Air New Zealand also took its support of The Hobbit up in the air. Travelers could read about the film in the airline’s glossy magazine with Bilbo on the cover. They could drink coffee or tea from character-emblem cups or, on long-haul flights, watch the LotR films or Jackson’s Hobbit film diaries. Whether in or en route to Wellington, visitors did not have to look far to see a dwarf or hobbit.

Although Weta was most notably represented on the red carpet by Taylor and Rodger, some creatures they created for The Hobbit also took their place amid the festivities. Three trolls had been on display from early morning beside the red carpet route, and fans vied for position to be photographed near them. Even a few weeks later, the trolls attracted attention. A few days after The Hobbit went into general release on 12 December, I watched dozens of visitors to the national museum, Te Papa, take photos of the trolls standing between the Information desk and a gift shop. Te Papa provides the perfect place to showcase movie magic to a wider audience of visitors who otherwise might not have seen the trolls, on film or in person.

Additionally, photo ops with the artists behind such inventive characterizations took place on 16 December, when Daniel Falconer and Richard Taylor met their fans at the Lambton Quay Whitcoull’s bookshop, where they signed copies of a Weta-produced book about art and designs featured in The Hobbit.

Before November’s world premiere through December, when the film went into wider international release, Wellington was dressed in its Middle-earth finery. Tourism NZ’s banners promoting Wellington as the Middle of Middle-earth flew next to Warner Bros.’ character banners of Bilbo, Thorin Oakenshield, and Gollum. Building-sized posters of the 13 dwarves competed for attention with multi-story banners of Bilbo or the massive replica of the Bilbo stamp gracing the side of the post office, a sign so large that it was easily visible from blocks away as well as across the bay.

A line of dwarves, hobbit, and wizard hiked across another side of the post office building. As the postal service had with the LotR films, it issues a series of Hobbit character stamps to commemorate the film’s premiere; the stamp sets were well publicized not only in flyers handed out during the day of the premiere but visually with the elaborate, far-larger-than-life banners. Especially in the wake of An Unexpected Journey, Wellywood made the most of the international spotlight and found multiple ways to promote tourism and local businesses.

Fourteen Days Later

On the last day of the tour, after a final farewell party, the fellowship was broken, but the tour group vowed that these new friendships will not be forgotten. After so many days on the road, and after so much anticipation of what this journey might become, did these fans’ expectations match the reality of touring New Zealand?

Lori McNabb admitted that “part of my bucket list was coming to New Zealand to see where they filmed The Lord of the Rings.” The McNabbs might not have walked the red carpet without a fateful conversation on their wedding anniversary that led to checking with Red Carpet about joining the Hobbit premiere tour. Fortunately, they were able to secure the last two seats on the bus. “It was meant to be,” she said, “and it’s been the most fantastic experience we’ve ever had.”

Mailekalani Lum joked that she came on this tour (her second with Red Carpet Tours) “because I’m crazy and because it’s so much fun.” She returned for the Hobbit premiere because “every day is a highlight. We go to filming locations, and that makes the tour special.” Moana Leong also returned for a second tour “because the first time I came, in 2007, the trip was so memorable, and I wanted to experience the whole thing again. This time I knew the Hobbiton set would be complete and I could see what [the film set] had been like. At every turn, it was ‘Picture! Picture! Picture!’ The attention to detail was incredible. Hobbiton was one of the highlights of this tour. Also, the last time[I went on the tour] we created such a fellowship, and, sure enough, this time the same thing happened again.”

Louise Framst, from Prince George, British Columbia, loves “New Zealand and Lord of the Rings culture, so I got two for one” with this tour. “How could it get any better? There were so many great things, like finding people who all have the same interests. That’s what made us a family; we were all different, but we all have a love of the Lord of the Rings culture.” Would she return for another tour? She smiled. “I’m already figuring out how I can do this.”

With the premiere barely over, Vic James is already looking toward future tours. He knows that when fans who take “hobbit” tours first arrive, “they are in love with the thought of Middle-earth, but when they leave, they are in love with New Zealand and the people.”

Early in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo asks about his return home if he decides to go on an adventure. Gandalf warns him that if/when he returns, he will never be the same. Gandalf’s proclamation also applies to the “hobbits” who traveled to Middle-earth but ended up learning why New Zealand’s landscapes, cultures, and people are far more intriguing, enlightening, and entertaining than even the most beloved movie blockbuster. The hobbit premiere tour is over—but there is always the possibility that Wellington may hold another big party to welcome Bilbo home again in 2014 with the premiere of There and Back Again, a title that may be prophetic for the Fellowship of the Tour.