Prostituting the Hobbit

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Life has truly imitated art in New Zealand.  J.R.R. Tolkien might have well been amused about the idea that the filmic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would take such hold in soil 12,000 miles from England.  It did, and with spectacular success.  So, what of the prequel, The Hobbit?

The production of this movie has been beset by troubles.  For one thing, Warner Brothers has not been too happy with the state of the country’s employment law.  That old hoary chestnut was the bane of contention: Should workers associated with the film be considered either employees or contractors?  Changes made by the Labour government in 2000 gave courts an incentive to focus not on the wording of the agreement so much as the relationship of the contracting parties.  Confusion has, however, surfaced.  Did the company actually demand that, or did the government pre-emptively determine the nature of the case? 

Warner Brothers has claimed that threats of industrial action by the Actors Equity in New Zealand boded ill for the smooth running of the $670 (US500) million project.  Sir Peter Jackson, erstwhile hero in bringing the production to New Zealand in the first place, was none too pleased with the letter sent by The International Federation of Actors to US directors of the production company 3 Foot 7 Ltd on August 17. The contents were simple enough.  Members were not to act in the film until the producers had bargained with the union.  Jackson was more than peeved, claiming that The Hobbit was blacklisted before a single word had been mentioned to him by the disgruntled NZ Actors Equity Union.  Middle-earth, as a consequence, would be moving offshore.

A national panic has ensued.  Even the government (witness the views of Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee) has been considering an increase in subsidies to keep the film’s production in the country.  Furthermore, The Hobbit might well have the potential to wreak havoc on New Zealand’s law of employment, with the Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly calling Warner Brother’s challenge offensive to the country’s ‘concept of sovereignty.’

Professor Paul Roth, an employment law specialist at Otago University, has also joined the ranks of critics, smelling the mephitic wafts of national inferiority.  ‘If that’s what the Government wants, it can do it.’  In so doing, it would demonstrate New Zealand as a country ‘teetering on Third-World status’, prostituting itself ‘to get more employment into this country’ (Oct 23).  The only sequel following on from this prequel will be a legislative storm that might well undermine employment entitlements in any industry the government considers at risk from foreign competitors.

Whoring in the name of financial success in the movies is not a new thing, whatever pure arguments might be made against it.  But it can be regulated.  The economic arguments are valid enough – one should support local film industries and their actors as best as possible.  Keep an eye on those international anti-union bully boys and make sure they don’t muscle in on local industry.  Things have been particularly pressing of late with the economic down turn, so getting money for the shooting of a block buster film was not going to be an easy task, whatever successes had come before. 

These, in New Zealand’s case, have proven to be considerable.  Back in 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that the trilogy – all shot simultaneously – saw the employment of 20,000 locals.  Some $310 million was expended on the project, and the important thing, as the Journal noted, was that most of it was spent in the country.  Then came the tourists, wanting a slice of the Middle-earth experience at the ends of the world.

This shabby debate has now reached such proportions it supposedly induced weaknesses in the New Zealand dollar.  The magic of Middle-earth was evidently working, battering the currency as news of Jackson’s decision to move production overseas came to light.

The film’s impact on the national identity of the country is hard to assess, but probably difficult to exaggerate.  But it is fundamentally perverse.  The idea that ‘Middle-earth’ is a New Zealand nationalist construction is like calling Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle opera Australian because it was staged in Adelaide.  The Bayreuth festival goers might have a thing or two to say about that.  Despite this kafuffle, the concerns regarding employment remain.  Everyone, in short, wants to prostitute themselves for the Hobbit.  The last one to laugh at this affair would surely be Tolkien himself.  And perhaps that wise pimp, Bilbo Baggins.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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