The NZ magazine ‘The Listener’ has come up with one of the best articles on the LOTR-films that I’ve seen anywhere. It’s written by Gordon Campbell, a journalist who’s been reporting on NZ culture and media for a long time; he’s based in Wellington where the films are being made, and I tend to trust that he has sources that are reliable. There is not one piece of fluff in the six pages of the article, which is lavishly illustrated, and it includes a perceptive synopsis of the plot which makes no pretense that this is a cutesy little children’s story. Campbell even quotes author Ursula K. Le Guins’s analysis of good and evil in LOTR:

“…Tolkien’s world is more morally complex than, say, C S Lewis’s Narnia. While Narnia has good people and bad people – and how Lewis exults in the fall of the wicked – Tolkien consistently offers his characters….a chance of repentance. Even the zombie-like Black Riders are not evil men, Le Guin argues, ‘but embodiments of evil IN men…..Similarly the men who do wrong are not complete figures but compliments: Saruman is Gandalf’s dark self, Boromir is Aragorn’s and Wormtongue is, quite literally, the weakness of King Theoden. As for Gollum, compassion is the only possible response. “Gollum is Frodo’s shadow and it is the shadow, not the hero, who completes the quest.”‘

Among the wealth of information in this article are a few things I genuinely haven’t seen before. I’d heard a report of Sauron appearing in a spiked helmet; this article reports ‘…the film Sauron wears armour decorated with a poison ivy motif and a helm shaped like a horse’s skull.’ (Note we don’t know if this is Sauron in the time where LOTR takes place, or Sauron back in earlier history. Also of interest: In the film, when the wounded Frodo flees from the Black Riders, it is Arwen – not the elflord Glorfindel, who saves the day. Thanks to … Sir Ian McKellen, we can rest assured that Arwen neither joins the Fellowship nor fights in major battles.”

The article talks about how Jackson won the right to direct this movie, and further discusses whether Jackson can tell this story. “Moving a narrative fluidly from point A to point B has never been his strong point (But it IS Tolkien’s, so I tend to think that cancels out – Tehanu) and this narrative is trickier than most. Once the fellowship shatters on Amon Hen…this creates three storylines that go ahead in parallel. A challenge. Coppola’s ‘Godfather II’ managed to cross-cut successfully between time and place, but few other films have done it well”

“…..Jackson is also no George Cukor. He prefers self-sufficiency in actors, especially women. Liv Tyler…was initially left all at sea as Arwen, but has since found her feet. Sean Bean as Boromir and Ian Holm (in a cameo as Bilbo) are said to dominate film one, while Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn seems to be accurately pacing his character’s evolution from wary nomad to monarch.

A gifted method actor, Mortensen is said to have travelled to the Waikato set in the horse float, with his horse. He also shunned motel comfort and chose to stay in rundown huts nearby, without electricity. The man IS Aragorn.’

Out of this huge article I’ve extracted the tid-bits most likely to interest LOTR fans worldwide, but the main thrust of the piece is an examination of the tax laws that have made filming LOTR in NZ a viable proposition. The old laws were extended in order to allow LOTR to go ahead, and this meant that a lot of the financial risk could be spread – to the New Zealand taxpayer.

“I cannot tell you the importance placed inside each of these (major studios) on having some of their downside risk covered off,” says Richard Reiner, an LA intermediary that brokered the Rings deal. He claims that the “existence of risk minimisation is prime incentive for entering a particular territory.”

Last year’s outgoing government hated the idea of tax incentives for film companies (or anyone else for that matter) but weren’t prepared to court the unpopularity of stopping the project. “…the previous National Government allowed an exception for LOTR, even though tax incentives were abhorrent to its free market ideologues (Said Finance Minister Michael Cullen:) ‘Yes indeed, the initial inclination from [then Finance Minister Bill] Birch was to cut them in half. But no one wanted to look as if they were taking on the hobbits in the lead-up to the election. No one wants to kill a winner. Hobbits six, National zero, would have been the outcome.

Because the tax laws have been changed, NZ probably won’t support such interest from film companies again, becoming merely a source of cheap labour and nice landscapes. On the one side, Treasury argues that LOTR and Hollywood’s creative accounting have left NZ taxpayers carrying an NZ$225million risk if it fails. “According to Inland Revenue papers obtained under the Official Information Act, successive governments have known since 1996 that film deals were rading our tax base to the tune of $50 million a year.”

However, on the other side, the argument goes that the benefits to our economy and our skills base outweigh this, and the current government’s desire to have a ‘knowledge economy’ should be supported by encouraging activities such as film-making which develp this.