We may have to wait a full year until September 2022 to see it, but the Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings has finished filming (after the inevitable pandemic-related delays) and news is beginning to spread. For those who consider Peter Jackson’s epic movie series – three parts for The Lord of the Rings itself, followed by three more for The Hobbit – to be the definitive take on JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy world, the most significant point is that this is not a retelling but a prequel. Showrunners John D Payne and Patrick McKay, whose previous work includes script-writing on the rebooted Star Trek movies and a forthcoming Flash Gordon, have headed back to the pre-history of Middle Earth, to a period thousands of years before the era of Frodo and co. So while we can expect hobbits, elves and orcs, the only familiar character we can count on featuring is the representative of ultimate evil, Sauron.
What has also emerged is that this will be the most expensive TV show ever, with the first season alone said to have cost $465 million. And then, of course, there’s the location which, in common with Jackson, borrows the volcanic landscape and endless forests of New Zealand to recreate the ancient kingdoms of Tolkien’s imagination. Payne and McKay announced that they had looked beyond the familiar, but ‘we knew we needed to find somewhere majestic, with pristine coasts, forests and mountains, that also is a home to world-class sets, studios, and highly skilled and experienced craftspeople and other staff.’
They decided that NZ was the answer – though only, it’s recently emerged, for the first season. It’s now been announced that production of the second season will move to the UK. While this is good news for the British TV industry and will be welcome news to Tolkien fans who cherish the books’ roots in the English landscape, it will be quite a departure from the now-established vision of Middle Earth.
ALEXANDER FARM, NORTH ISLAND
Jackson’s choice of location has had a long-term effect on tourism in New Zealand, bringing attention and a new dimension to the country’s singular landscape. Alexander Farm, near Karapiro at the heart of North Island, has held onto its identity in the films as Hobbiton, home to Bilbo and his people. The already ethereal Mount Ngauruhoe in Tongariro National Park is now always appended with the name Mount Doom, home of the ring, after its appearance. And the Putangirua Pinnacles, an otherworldly series of soaring stone spikes to the south-east of Wellington, are now also Dimholt Road, where Legolas and his comrades meet the Army of the Dead in The Return of the King. Other memorable spots from the films include the venue for Rivendell, kingdom of the elves, in Kaitoke Regional Park just north of Wellington, and on South Island the landscape of the Southern Alps, which provided the Misty Mountains, where Gollum hides himself away for centuries, as well as White Mountains, where the battle scenes in The Return of the King take place.
For the Amazon Prime version, filming was based not in Jackson’s choice of Wellington – then fully occupied with filming another fantasy blockbuster series, James Cameron’s Avatar sequels – but Auckland. About two thirds of the series was shot on sound stages at Kumeu Film Studios and Auckland Film Studios, but the remainder was out in the open, in locations across New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Details have emerged slowly, clearly with some intention: fan site theonering.net even claims that the production even went to the lengths of sending out dummy production teams to shoot fake footage to keep watchers confused. Some locations have emerged, however, that suggest the TV Middle Earth will be as spectacular as its big-screen version.
Keeping close to the Auckland base, the first location cited is the Hauraki Gulf and Coromandel Peninsula, just to the east of the city. Known in Maori as Tikapa Moana, or the Mournful Sea, the gulf covers 154 square miles around Auckland, so gives few clues as to what might have been filmed there. More helpful is the mention of Coromandel, which juts into the Pacific on its eastern fringe. With extensive beaches including the volcanic Hot Water Beach, the famous Cathedral Cove (named for its tall, natural arched caves) and acres of rainforest, it provides plenty of spectacular scenery, previously used in both Hunt For The Wilderpeople and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
Directly west from Auckland is another location, Piha. This area is best known for its challenging surfing beaches, including Karekare, the stretch of sand where the titular musical instrument is abandoned in another NZ classic, The Piano. For The Lord of the Rings, however, the area was chosen specifically for its cliffs, which are some of the tallest in the country and ideal for a testing hobbit adventure.
Moving south on North Island, there’s the intriguing inclusion of Denize Bluffs in King Country, on the west coast around 125 miles south of Auckland. This farm has Tolkien history already, having been used in Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for Trollshaw Forest, where Bilbo Baggins encounters a trio of trolls. Until the pandemic struck, it was being run both as a working farm and as a Hobbit-themed visitor attraction. Expect to see the limestone crags that give the farm the Bluffs part of its name. Also featured by Jackson is another revealed location, Rangitikei. This region in the south-west of the North Island is notable for the winding river of the same name, which was used in The Fellowship of the Ring as the Anduin River.
Crossing the Cook Strait to South Island, the series also visits the spectacular Fiordland, including Mount Kidd, in the south-west corner of the country. While nearby Milford Sound is known around the world, not least for its appearances in all three of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, the wild mountains and waterfalls that lie to the south are largely uninhabited and inaccessible, providing the perfect backdrop for a whole new expression of Tolkien’s vision.
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