Return to Middle-earth

middle earth

My family and I spent the first half of 2011 in Middle-earth. We took a bus tour to Rivendell and Hobbiton. We have a family photo of ourselves posed where Frodo and his friends tumbled down that hill before the Dark Riders almost caught them. Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep are gone, but we parked across the street from the industrial park where they’d been built. It turned out Isengard was just a public park. The base of Saruman’s tower had been a blue screen draped in front of a children’s swing set. When Aragorn’s horse finds him washed ashore on a Rohan river bank, they had to angle out the power lines and row of suburban houses.

map_of_wellington

Still, Middle-earth (AKA Aotearoa, AKA New Zealand) is a magical place in my book. I spent most of my time there drafting the first half of a novel (the one that shares its name with this blog) and chauffeuring my wife and kids to their various schools. My wife’s sorcery (AKA Fulbright research grant) flung us to the other side of the planet. But the real magic was my 13-year-old daughter’s transformation after we landed.

Never underestimate the power of changing worlds. Flash Gordon, John Carter, Superman, they all became extraordinary by leaving their homes and adventuring in faraway lands.

superman rocket

That means leaving your old identity behind. My daughter had been haunted by a third grade assignment where everyone wrote descriptions of their classmates. She received the same word over and over: Quiet, Quiet, Quiet, Quiet. Actually, they all misspelled it, “Quite,” but the effect was the same. A spell that bound her.

Until she stepped off that plane in Wellington, NZ. When she walked into a sea of identically uniformed Wellington Girls College students, not one of them knew her. She could be anyone. The spell was broken.

It terrified her, no safety net of friends between her and the abyss, but after a couple of weeks, she cooked up a spell of her own: The Audacious American Girl. She crossed out the word “quiet” and wrote “loud.” She took to the part like a pro, a better method actor than Sir Ian or Viggo Mortensen. Nobody could contradict her. Her laughter drowned them out.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s directorial superhero Peter Jackson was at it again. The Hobbit was in full production. We’d toured the outskirts of his Wellington studio, glimpsed the giant green wall where he conjured universes of possibilities. He flew into a benefit event at a newly refurbished theater dressed as retro-superhero The Rocketeer, before unmasking and posing with his Hobbit cast. It made the front page of the local paper, which I showed my kids over breakfasts of crumpets and muesli.

rocketeer unmasked iwth cast

I ignored the casting call for extras, something I still half-regret. My wife loved me in that elf costume the tour bus driver made me pose in. But I had other spells to complete. I wanted to return to Virginia with most of a novel written.

And what would happen when my Supergirl had to rocket home? All those old friends and their loving shards of kryptonite, would they unmask her refurbished self and destroy the enchantment?

It turns out Middle-earth magic works in our realm too. My quiet thirteen-year-old daughter returned an audaciously loud fourteen-year-old.

Which had some downsides too. Her suddenly flourishing social life meant less family time. She would only watch the occasional Merlin or Sherlock with us now. Family movie outings were taboo.

Until The Hobbit. We didn’t even coerce her. A year and a half away from Middle-earth is long enough. We’d watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy on our Wellington couch. My wife read the series aloud to both kids about a decade ago. I’d claimed the Oz books, and they got Harry Potter from us both. I think they heard The Hobbit twice too.  The family copy is on our son’s bedroom shelves right now.

With the exception of The Cat in the Hat, The Hobbit trilogy promises to be the first book adaptation that takes longer to watch than to read. The first installment runs a little under three hours. Leaving just enough time for my daughter to make her dinner shift at our local pizza place after the matinee.

Much of it is worthwhile. Though the two musical numbers are a bit surreal, in a bad way. And the rock giant battle should win an Oscar for most gratuitous use of CGI. I prefer Martin Freeman as the BBC’s most recent Watson, but he makes a perfectly acceptable Bilbo too. (I didn’t spot him, but I hear Sherlock got one of those no-name elf roles I spurned). It was also a delight to see our favorite vampire from Being Human (explaining why he got staked at the end of season 3). But Gollum’s scene is by far far far the most entertaining fifteen minutes of the film. Which bodes badly for the next two, since he won’t be in them.

But all that New Zealand scenery will be. Shot after breathtaking shot of south island mountain terrain, it’s actually real. I drove it. On the wrong side of the road, white knuckled, with my wife flailing in the passenger seat, Orcs and Goblins gaining in the rear view mirror. It’s a magical place. Too bad we have to wait another year to go back again. The Hobbit 2 release date is December 2013.

Who knows what new spells my daughter will have learned by then.

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