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.