The Hobbit: Roll Back The Red Carpet

Today The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington – or Wellywood, as Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and former Wellington Mayor Kerry Prendergast wanted us to be known. (I hope you’ll indulge me saying ‘us’ even though I’ve only lived in Wellington for a year. I’ve developed quite an attachment to the city and its people.)

This premiere is quite a big deal, mainly because it is a world premiere and will be attended by the film’s stars. They held the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in Wellington as well, and it was quite an occasion – the culmination of “the single biggest phenomenon ever to hit our humble little shores”, according to one TV news reporter in this clip. That was kind of how I felt at the time, too. The Return of the King premiere seemed like a celebration of our capacity as a small country to do big things in a humble way. A couple of weeks later, I was watching ROTK in Auckland’s Lido cinema and marvelling at what they could put on the screen nowadays, let alone the fact that the visual limits of cinema were being extended right here in little old New Zealand, and by New Zealanders.

So now, almost ten years later, we have another world premiere in Wellington as Jackson returns to the wizards and elves he knows best. After I came out of Killing Them Softly last night, I found Courtenay Place closed and the red carpet being rolled out:

Red Carpet | The Hobbit Premiere | Wellington | Courtenay Place

Exciting, huh?

No, not really. To be honest with you, I’ve written The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey off and almost certainly won’t see it in the cinema. The humility and pride of 2003 has been replaced with the political chest-beating and cynicism of 2012. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

At bottom, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit ought to be evaluated as a Peter Jackson film – because that’s what it is, much more than it is a cultural phenomenon or a Key Government policy. On these grounds, to say that I almost certainly won’t see it is kind of crazy. As much as the Lord of the Rings films were glorified time-pass, I actually quite enjoyed them while I was in the cinema. I forgot them all pretty quickly within days and definitely didn’t watch any of the extended editions, but for those 3+ hours each December, I was entertained and got my money’s worth. That’s all you can really ask for at the movies.

I also expected King Kong to be an awful, bombastic double-rehash of a past classic and the excess of the LOTR, but I actually enjoyed it a great deal. It was as big and loud as suspected but contained unexpected emotional depths. (It also contained a scene in which a giant gorilla pile-drives a dinosaur’s jaw into the ground. I mean, come on. Awesome.) Then there was The Adventures of Tintin, officially directed by Steven Spielberg but unofficially co-directed with producer Jackson, which I loved. Very entertaining and true to the spirit of the books. They even managed to improve the storyline – as I’ve written before, Tintin books are surprisingly full of plot holes.

Going back a bit further, I will also happily watch and re-watch The Frighteners, which I think pulls off the comedy-horror tone far better than a lot of people give it credit for. Heavenly Creatures, meanwhile, is an unforgettable piece of work. I saw it with my mother in Te Awamutu and remember that we hardly said a word to each other for about twenty minutes afterwards. It was probably the first time I was stunned into silence by a film, shocked and moved to a degree that I didn’t know what to say. Jackson’s splatter films aren’t really my thing, but they are certainly admirable for their ingenuity. However, Forgotten Silver, a brilliant one-hour TV film from 1995, is Jackson’s finest hour as a filmmaker and one of my all-time favourites.

So, given Jackson’s pedigree – just don’t mention The Lovely Bones – I should be queuing up for a ticket to The Hobbit with the rest of the country. Why, then, am I casting it aside?

For a start, the manner in which the production was kept here by the Key Government seems very morally suspect. New Zealand now has separate union laws regarding film industry employees, and Warner Bros got a tailor-made tax break not offered to other studios. It was a remarkably political play, led not by our Minister for the Arts, Culture and Heritage but by our Prime Minister (who is also our Minister for Tourism), to keep the production here in New Zealand, rather than see it escape to Eastern Europe or wherever.

And with that, the Key Government was all in. Having made some very specific tax concessions, and having rewritten labour laws for the production’s benefit, they needed The Hobbit to reap some tangible rewards for the country so that the people of New Zealand would accept it. As part of the deal with Warner Bros, NZ was given the right to use The Hobbit as a Middle-earth marketing crutch for the NZ tourism industry – but naturally, the Hollywood studio wore the pants in the relationship, not the small country in the South Pacific. Tourism NZ reportedly had to go to Warner Bros to ask about pretty much anything they wanted to do in their Middle-earth campaign.

This is where things start to get a bit messy, and my head starts to hurt. Tourism NZ has been using a similarly morally suspect marketing strategy for some time, based around the inaccurate slogan ‘100% Pure’. For the release of The Hobbit, particularly the period of months either side of its Wellington world premiere and subsequent global release, that slogan has been transmuted to ‘100% Middle-earth’ (also untrue). In turn, our humility has been buried under the language of advertising, pasted on in slick, shallow layers. (Giovanni Tiso has an excellent post up about all this on his blog Bat, Bean, Beam called Leaving Middle-earth, which I highly recommend reading.)

More than anything else, though, I’m just so tired of the endless Middle-earth advertising. It’s everywhere: on lampposts in the streets, in internet banner ads, on TV, and all over Wellington’s buildings. The film, the city, and the country are all being sold in the same way, an unavoidable triple threat birthed from the one fantastic seed that is The Hobbit. Here I thought The Lord of the Rings was in-your-face with its advertising campaign but I swear it wasn’t as pervasive as The Hobbit has been. Worse still, it’ll happen all over again for the next two Decembers as Jackson stretches a 300-page book into three movies.

It’s like a formerly decent TV show has been renewed for another three seasons after jumping the shark – except as Wellingtonians, the Hobbit show is our lives, and there’s nothing we can do to keep the cameras away.

In the film The Corporation, commodities broker Carlton Brown commented that in our world today, only that which is commodified gains meaning. He said this is in relation to environmental conditions, which are not yet capable of being traded on the open market and therefore of little importance to the richest and most powerful people on the planet. This speaks to the overwhelmingly consumer-driven nature of the society we have constructed: anything and everything can be a product, as long as you can get people to buy it.

I’m no less susceptible to commodifying my surroundings than anyone else, but where that commodification is so excessive as to become blatantly intrusive, I instinctively recoil. And The Hobbit, it seems, is very much a commodity in the eyes of the New Zealand Government, to be bought and sold for as long as it is profitable. When the hype dies down and Tourism NZ/the Key Government move on and The Hobbit stops being a commodity, probably several years from now, maybe I’ll be able to enjoy it.