[This is an article I wrote for the latest issue of Mutiny (no. 68), an Australian magazine. Thanks to the editors for publishing it.]
The recent release of the first film of The Hobbit trilogy has created an alarming hullabaloo in New Zealand. Happily, we were out of the country when Hobbit fever hit, but, drat it, we didn’t manage to escape it on our return a few weeks later. After getting on the plane, Air New Zealand showed a smug safety video based on the Hobbit. As we left the plane at Wellington airport, we were greeted by a garish, grotesque Hobbit mural down the sides of the airbridge. Arriving in the terminal, a 12 metre sculpture of Gollum menaced us from the roof. Even the top of the conveyer belt at baggage claim was decorated with scenes from Hobbiton.
On the bus home, we passed by a giant Gandalf statue protruding from the theatre where the world premiere of the Hobbit was held a few weeks earlier. Possibly about 100,000 people had lined Courtenay Place for the premiere. This was an extraordinary number, as Wellington only has a population of about 400,000. Both ‘public’ and commercial organisations had gone to extraordinary lengths to offer free advertising for the film. The Wellington City Council – currently imposing austerity cuts – forked out over a million dollars to host the premiere, and to launch a campaign that proclaimed Wellington was ‘the middle of middle earth’ (they even put up banners on streets proclaiming so). An Air New Zealand plane emblazoned with Hobbit advertising performed a low fly-by during the premiere. New Zealand Post issued hobbit stamps, stamped mail destined for overseas with ‘middle earth’ instead of ‘New Zealand’, and even issued Gandalf and Bilbo coins which apparently are legal tender. The list goes on …
It was like we were either having a bad surreal dream, or had entered some tacky tinpot tourist dystopia which had been clumsily and smugly rebranded as Middle Earth (as Tourism New Zealand has actually done – their cringeworthy slogan is that New Zealand is ‘100% Middle Earth, 100% pure New Zealand’ and that the ‘fantasy of Middle Earth is the reality of New Zealand’) In this short piece, I will briefly look at a few events Australians and others outside New Zealand might be unaware of, especially the ugly and tragic saga of the making of the Hobbit.
In the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien – a conservative and a Catholic — offers an idealised, romanticised picture of rural, pre-industrial England (namely, The Shire and the Hobbits) where content little hobbits could live happily ever after. Yet, their peaceful little patch of earth is being threatened by the rise of mysterious forces and creatures from the east. One sturdy and reserved little hobbit is reluctantly drawn into a quest with a wizard and some swarthy dwarves and their dwarf king (in the film, the dwarves are portrayed as Scottish and Irish) to wage a glorious reign of death on the inherently evil, wicked creatures of the east.
(As an aside, many other interpretations of the Hobbit can be offered. For example, it’s remarkable that only one woman appeared in the whole film, and she, Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel, is bizarrely portrayed as glowing and ethereal. Michael Moorcock once slated Tolkien’s work as ‘epic pooh’, that is, it is ‘Winnie the Pooh posing as an epic’. China Mieville cuttingly wrote ‘Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature… there’s a lot to dislike – his cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos, his belief in absolute morality that blurs moral and political complexity.’ Perhaps my favourite interpretation comes from Ishay Landa who argued in Historical Materialism that Middle Earth is Tolkien’s alarmist response to ‘the crisis of capitalist property relations at the beginning of the twentieth century culminating in the First World War’ and the Russian revolution. He sees the goblins/orcs as proles who embody ‘Tolkien’s underlying terror at the prospect of revolution’. As John Molyneux has written, this reading seems ‘forced and unconvincing’ but nonetheless it is somewhat intriguing.)
The Battle of the Hobbit
In Tolkien’s fantasy world, there is no class struggle. Unfortunately for Tolkien, Hollywood, Warner Brothers (the financiers of the film), and ‘Sir’ Peter Jackson, such conflict actually exists. It raised its ugly head during the making of the film, even delaying its production for a month or so.
The saga commenced in late 2010, before the Hobbit had gone into production. Warner Brothers offered contracts to New Zealand actors for working on the Hobbit which undercut many previous industry wide conditions, and did not offer the same benefits as actors outside New Zealand. The NZ Actors’ union, NZ Actors’ Equity, an autonomous union which is part of the broader Australasian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), then attempted to enter negotiations about these contracts, with the aim of attempting to secure a collectively bargained employment agreement, and to win some of the cut back conditions. After Warners refused to talk, the actors union passed a resolution calling on all actors part of the International Federation of Actors to ‘wait before accepting any engagement on the production of The Hobbit until the production has advised whether it will enter into good faith negotiations with NZ Actors’ Equity with respect to the minimum conditions of engagement under which NZ Actors’ Equity will recommend performers work on the production The Hobbit’ (see Kelly).
The response from the film industry was astounding. Accusations flew, emotional pleas were made by Jackson in the media worthy of someone who feared losing his precious, threats were made that the film would not be made in New Zealand (ie. capital flight), public slating of actors who spoke out occurred, as well as a disturbing wave of nationalism. The low point was a couple of anti-union ‘save the Hobbit’ marches in Wellington by hundreds and hundreds of film technicians (drummed up and supported by the owner of Weta Workshops, ‘Sir’ Richard Taylor – Weta workshops are the special effects and prop company for Jackson’s films), in which protesters held signs such as ‘film actors are killing our industry’. The techies even besieged an Actors’ Equity meeting, which was cancelled as a result. Some fans posted photos on the internet that they would ‘work for food’ on the Hobbit.
The result was that Actors’ Equity lifted their international blacking [or greylisting] of the film, and the film went ahead and was shot. What’s worse is that the NZ government, in a classic example of how the state is a fundamental support for capital accumulation (and vice versa), made sure that filming the Hobbit in New Zealand was retained after offering Warners a massive multi-million dollar subsidy, new employment legislation that odiously ensures all film workers are permanently ‘self-employed’ contractors rather than employees (thus individualising film workers, stopping them from collective bargaining, making collective organising difficult, and cutting workers out of holidays, sick days, and accident compensation), and enacting various legislation to enclose the digital commons and stop downloading of copyrighted material.
Despite the overwhelming defeat of the actors, a few minor positive things resulted. For example, the dispute has led to a general questioning of the extremity of the NZ government’s actions, many have become sick of the tacky commodification surrounding the Hobbit, and the hero worship of Peter Jackson has taken a big dint.
What does this all mean? In many respects, it’s not so shocking or sickening, as I have portrayed above. The battle of the Hobbit illustrates the enormous power of the spectacle, which is still an integral part of modern capitalism. Further, it’s standard Hollywood practice internationally to twist governments’ arms to secure subsidies, and reduce working conditions. And the film industry is notorious internationally for being based on the hyper-exploitation of a precarious and often low-paid workforce who work extremely long hours for intense spells, and then are out of work for long periods. It’s sad but not surprising that during an international depression, and in New Zealand at least a very low level of class struggle and solidarity, that many unemployed film techies were desperate for jobs, and many (but not all) went out and actively hobbled the actors’ dispute. And it shows the difficulties of a small bunch of 600 actors taking on a mobile and massively capital intensive industry. However, there is plenty of scope for criticism of the role of unions, too: their overestimation of their power, their lack of attempts to build solidarity with film technicians, and their apparent belief that only an effective PR campaign is needed to win a struggle rather than grassroots activity and self-organisation. Overall, it is fitting that a brutal fantasy which (unsurprisingly) upholds the status quo ended up, by suppressing a nascent actor’s revolt, doing the same thing in reality.
Helen Kelly (2011), ‘The Hobbit Dispute’ http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1104/S00081/helen-kelly-the-hobbit-dispute.htm
Ishay Landa (2002) ‘Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious’, Historical Materialism number 10 volume 4, pp. 113-33.
Michael Moorcock (1978) ‘Epic Pooh’, http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953
John Molyneux (2011) ‘Tolkien’s world: A Marxist analysis’ http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.co.nz/2011/09/tolkiens-world-marxist-analysis.html
Further reading (not included in published article)
There is a fair bit written on the Hobbit and J.R.R. Tolkien from a leftist point of view.
If you are lucky enough to have access to academic databases, these articles are worth checking out:
The 2002 (volume 10, no 4) issue of Historical Materialism contains a few articles analysing the Tolkien from a Marxist point of view.
Ian McAndrew and Martin Risak, ‘Shakedown in the Shaky Isles: Union Bashing in New Zealand’, Labor Studies Journal, vol 20 no 10, 2012, pp. 1-25 contains a very good overview of the dispute, and is quite critical of the union’s strategy.
Bryce Edwards – Liberation blog – ‘We are not for the Hobbit workers, and we are not against them’ (on the Labour Party and the Hobbits)
Carol Jess – Equal Times – The Hobbit vs The Unions
NZ Against the Current blog – That’s all folks!
Bat, Bean, Beam – Leaving Middle Earth
Joe Karaganis – Kill the Hobbit subsidies to save regular earth