The last time I'll ever write about The Hobbit

22:19, Nov 29 2012

Things seem to have got a little weird in New Zealand this past week, what with the environmental criticisms lobbed against the Government in wake of the Hobbit release and then the backlash against the backlash, and then a separate vein of bubbling frustration popping up at New Zealand's transformation into Middle Earth, as mini-Hobbit homes were constructed on baggage carousels and Hobbit markets cropped up downtown in wait for the premiere.

I don't feel as though anyone is winning at the moment, on any side.

It is amazing to me how typically New Zealand can be relied on to revert to type. We have this idea as a collective that criticism of something homegrown needs to be clamped down on for the good of the team. But what we're really doing is just playing out the role of simpleton and drowning out discourse.

Mike Joy, the Massey environmentalist quoted in the New York Times piece that criticised our "rosy" environmental record, has been labelled a traitor for his comments. In extremely boneheaded pieces on Kiwiblog and in the New Zealand Herald (and I'm sure probably elsewhere), Joy's "accuracy" was rebuked with a few cherry-picked statistics and a hands-over-the-ears-just-don't-want-to-hear-otherwise insistence that he just wasn't right and anyway how dare he.

By the time the palaver with the leaked Mark Unsworth email had come to my attention, accusing Joy of tourism industry "sabotage", I had to hang my head in shame a little.

For a start, the only people I've seen discussing the New York Times story are New Zealanders. 


Somehow, in our national overreaction we built this automatic undertone into Joy's comments, where when he said New Zealand was not as green as it was purported to be we heard "Dear world, please don't come here."

Joy wasn't hijacking the Hobbit release to ruin New Zealand financially. He was using the opportunity to make a point: we're slipping environmentally. If we could remove our collective hands from the backsides of Hollywood and the farming lobby we might be able to realise that Hobbit or no Hobbit, and whether we're in the top half, fifth, back half or last out of all countries in the world environmentally, it's still a point very much worth noting.

Because when John Key starts equating the 100% Pure New Zealand slogan as something to take as seriously as McDonald's "I'm Loving It" ... well, you know something is awry.

What frustrates me from the outside, looking in, is that a lot of things are true about The Hobbit, some good and some bad.

I for one think the following seven things could all be confidently said about these movies:

1) New Zealand is a small, vulnerable country with an economy reliant on tourism and farming. (Within this small pond Peter Jackson is a very big fish.)

2) New Zealand's environment is not as green as people like to think.

3) The Hobbit is a movie that John Key has bet on heavily, even going so far as to rewrite specific laws to ensure it was filmed in New Zealand, which sets a dangerous precedent for lawmaking.

4) The Hobbit should have a huge benefit to New Zealand's tourism industry.

5) People at home are frustrated at New Zealand's being marketed as Middle Earth at the expense of our own rich history and culture.

6) The world loves J.R.R. Tolkien's books and Peter Jackson's adaptations of them. Seriously, I never appreciated being in New Zealand how jazzed people get abroad for these movies. There's a buzz here. It's an event.

7) Internationally, people don't think about New Zealand that much. The Hobbit is an opportunity to put us into the conversation.

It's a national trait that I never entirely picked up on until I left the country: where our own nation is involved, we don't like to hold or even accept the existence of contrary views. We're threatened by even the most constructive criticism.

I have been guilty of dwelling on two, three and five in my list above, because it worries me to see New Zealand so leveraged on a movie and then in the frenzy to capitalise on it ignore any self-examination and forget about our own culture.

But one, four, six and seven are extremely pertinent.

Take a walk through the world and you realise that people could easily just not come to New Zealand. We're pretty and unique, but pretty and unique exists in a lot of places. We don't just come up in conversation every day. The global economy is sluggish and exchange rates are set against us.

On top of that, every small, picturesque country with empty space and a tax code to rewrite is pitching for major Hollywood movies in 2012.

Tourism is a crucial part of our economic survival as a small country. It contributes to around 9 per cent of our GDP and employs as many as one in 10 people.

As much as our Hobbit promotion has led to some of the more severe cultural cringe I have felt as an expat, I can't deny that I've started to see a certain wisdom in John Key's enthusiasm to make sure New Zealand gets it while the getting is good, so to speak (seeing as the tourism boom from the first trilogy eventually did subside).

But thinking this doesn't mean my reluctance about our marketing campaign and the environmental concerns dies. Nor does thinking those things mean I don't think people should visit New Zealand. It's a wonderful place.

One day, maybe, New Zealand will learn to take a little criticism on the chin. It's okay to not be perfect. It's not okay to not want to change and move forward.

(Anyway, I shall now retire Voyages in America from all Hobbit-related ranting.)

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