MATAMATA IS A THROWBACK town on New Zealand's North Island of few stoplights and two motels. The road out of town heads west through a farm valley where the onion harvest is underway. Migrants stoop in the late summer heat, heaving bulbs from the ground, laying them in rows, and spiking the dry air with an eye-watering aroma.
Besides onions, the district is home mostly to deer farms. Who could know that New Zealand is the world's largest exporter of farm-raised venison? In fact, only one farm in Waikato district is dedicated solely to sheep: the 1,250-acre tract owned by Ian Alexander and sons Craig, Russell, and Dean. In recent years Mr. Alexander and sons faced some diversification of their own. They and their 4,500 head of sheep had to make way for Hobbiton.
One evening in 1998, Mr. Alexander opened the front door of his white clapboard farmhouse to scouting agents for Peter Jackson, producer of the now-legendary Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The scouts told him they'd traveled the length and breadth of New Zealand by helicopter in search of a proper home for hobbits.
These furry-footed "little people" of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novels live in the Shire, Hobbiton to be precise, a place, according to Tolkien, of "less noise and more green." They inhabit comfy holes in the hillsides with stoked chimneys and colorful round doors until several are called upon to make an epic journey that transforms them into heroes. The Alexander farm, the producer's agents believed, was the perfect Hobbiton.
In addition to its acres of unspoiled rolling pasture lands, the farm's main selling point was a 40-foot pine tree of perfect round shape on the bank of a pond. In all of New Zealand, the scouts explained, they had searched for just such a tree beside just such a pond.
A string of negotiations later, conducted mostly on Mr. Alexander's porch but also between production headquarters in Wellington and New Line Cinema in Los Angeles, Mr. Alexander landed himself in the film industry. His pastureland became Hobbiton; its grassiest and most scenic knoll became Bag End, home to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins; and the pine tree became the Party Tree, a canopy over Bilbo's "eleventy-first" birthday party.
Not every New Zealander knew the Tolkien tales when producer Jackson, a Kiwi himself, decided to make the long-anticipated film trilogy entirely on location here. The country's natural features-alpine peaks, volcanic plateaus, glaciers, fiordlands, and rainforests-provided ample scope for recreating Middle Earth, the ancient world of Lord of the Rings. "There was never any question the film wouldn't be made here," Mr. Jackson has said. Over 100 locations and three years of filming later, hardly a resident is unaware of Middle Earth and its hobbits now. With two of three movies released to international acclaim (and the third due out this December), Lord of the Rings has become New Zealand's national obsession.
Wellington's Te Papa Museum held over its Lord of the Rings exhibition earlier this year due to popular demand. Featuring the production's elaborate costumes, weaponry, sets, and special effects, the exhibition will travel to London, Singapore, Boston, and Sydney. Boston is currently the only scheduled U.S. showing, sometime late 2004.
Air New Zealand wrapped one of its trans-Pacific 747s in a mural of hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. At Dymock's Bookseller in Wellington, store owners provided complete sets of Tolkien's books to each member of the cast. In return, the store keeps a section stocked with commemorative books and artwork autographed by cast and crew.
At Alexander's farm, stardom came on the heels of extensive hard work and preparation. The government agreed to send in army engineers to ready the site. They constructed a one-mile road deep inside grazing land to the film location. Construction crews planted hobbit holes with real brick chimneys that pumped steam for smoke. Landscapers planted hedgerows and dooryard gardens. They found a suitable oak tree for Bag End down the road in Matamata, had it transplanted to the site, then hired college students to wire specially made oak leaves to it by hand. Workers cut rushes from around the farm to make real thatched roofs for the timber-styled pub and mill.
Then Mr. Jackson decreed that the place should sit, for months, to allow the gardens to grow and the hedgerows to thicken and the picket fences to weather into something out of ancient England. "I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable, and feel lived in," he said. "We ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set."
Once filming began in December 1999, it ran nearly round the clock for three months, with sometimes 400 cast and crew members on site.
No one dreamed that the movie buzz would continue after the sets came down. The scenes filmed here dominate the opening segments of the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Mr. Jackson's meticulous attention to detail means that now-three years after the cameras stopped rolling-the site is a humming tourist attraction. Organized tours leave Matamata for the farm three times a day, and ticket prices are steep: $25 for adults and $12.50 for children.
At that price tourists must pack along nonetheless a sizeable imagination. Of 37 hobbit-holes tucked into the hillsides, 18 remain. These are slowly receding into pasture, their doors gone, inhabited now mostly by sheep. Only the outlines remain of the pub, the mill, and a stone bridge built for the production. The contract signed by the Alexander family stipulated that all sets would come down, so that farming could resume.
The New Zealand government agreed to Mr. Jackson turning the country into a movie set only on that condition: All sites would be returned to their natural state once filming was completed. For Lord of the Rings fans, that means the ramparts of Edoras, the terraced pavilions at Rivendell, and the cheery lanes of Hobbiton-for all their exquisite realness-exist only on celluloid now.
Most New Zealanders seem instinctively to know that fame is an unwieldy beast. Hollywood remains 7,000 miles away and that's OK. The Alexander farm is the only site run by a paid guide service with organized tours. Family friends, including a tour guide named Rawa, say Mr. Alexander initially set up the tours not so much to capitalize on success as to protect his other investments: Impromptu pilgrimages by movie fans were disturbing the sheep.
But why not turn a real buck here, sell souvenirs, recreate Hobbiton, hold a Middle Earth festival, and make it a long-term destination? "No," Rawa says simply, "farming is what we do here. Nothing will change that."