Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hobbit mania: where reality and fantasy converge

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 30.)
IN HIS WILDEST imaginings, J R R Tolkien could hardly have envisaged a world stranger than the real one.
The weirdness takes multiple forms. Busloads of overseas tourists descend on a dairy farm near Matamata to gasp in awe at a few holes in the ground; Tolkien obsessives from around the world travel to Wellington so they can they dress up in Hobbit costumes and hairy feet to attend a Hobbit party; and not least, star-struck reporters abandon all semblance of journalistic detachment – not to mention all sense of proportion – in their gushing coverage of the Hobbit premiere.

Somewhere along the line, reality and fantasy have converged to such an extent that it’s hard to know where one stops and the other begins.
Someone should have gently explained to the awe-struck fans pressing in on actor Elijah Woods at Monday night’s party that Woods isn’t really Frodo Baggins. He’s just an unusual-looking bloke pretending to be Frodo Baggins. This point sometimes seems lost on them.

Similarly, you have to wonder whether the tragic tourists gawking at the Hobbiton film set realise that Bilbo Baggins doesn’t actually live there.
It’s all harmless, and a handy boost for a beleaguered economy, but mystifying to anyone not gripped by Hobbit mania.

No doubt the experts can explain the popular obsession with fantasy as evidenced by the popularity of Tolkien, Harry Potter and the infantile comic strips that Hollywood has inflated into big-screen epics.
One theory is that they fill the belief void created by the decline of religion (something of an irony, given that Tolkien was a devout Catholic). Another is that people are so disenchanted with the real world that they seek refuge in an alternative universe.

Whatever the explanation, you have to hand it to Sir Peter Jackson and his associates. They have taken the work of a bookish Oxford don and built it into a billion-dollar franchise – although whether Tolkien would recognise his work, or feel comfortable with what has been done to it, is another matter entirely.
* * *
THE MOST important two hours on television are between 8am and 10am on Sunday mornings. That’s when TV3 screens The Nation and TV One follows it up with Q&A.
No other programmes take the time to illuminate important political and economic issues or expose politicians to in-depth examination.  

Sometimes the result is that you find yourself forced to revise previously held views. A recent interview with John Key on The Nation, for example, may have come as a revelation to anyone who previously dismissed him as a lightweight with limited command of policy detail.
On the other hand, existing prejudices can be reinforced – as when David Cunliffe, ahead of his thinly disguised play for the Labour Party leadership, came across on the same show as smug and evasive.

A diminishing segment of the population can remember when TV channels showed programmes like these in prime time. There was no competitive pressure then; viewers watched because they didn’t have dozens of other channels jostling for their attention with foodie porn, talent quests and home renovation shows.
Virtually everyone in the country saw the famous 1970 Gallery programme in which Brian Edwards mediated in the resolution of a long-running Post Office industrial dispute. Similarly, the exchange between prime minister Robert Muldoon and the fearless young upstart Simon Walker on Tonight in 1976 (“You’re not going to set the rules, my friend”) was a talking point for days.

We were probably a better-informed democracy then. These days, serious current affairs attracts a pitifully small audience. The ratings-driven networks have succeeded in their long-term mission to turn viewers’ brains to mush. Most people probably don’t even know the Sunday morning programmes exist.
Of the two, my preference is TV3’s The Nation. It’s less flashy and production-driven than Q+A, and all the better for it. Presenter Rachel Smalley manages the unusual feat of being a sharp interviewer while also looking elegant and cool.  

The Nation also benefits from its regular media panel consisting of the aforementioned Edwards, who is nearly always witty and insightful, and Bill Ralston – although I’m amused at how Ralston, an absolute bodgie in his heyday, has reinvented himself as some sort of elder statesman of journalism. 
* * *
IN MY last column I feigned indignation at the ageing BBC correspondents reporting on television from world trouble spots, and asked why the illustrious Beeb didn’t follow the example of our own TV networks by employing attractive young women.
I had hoped it would be obvious that I was writing tongue-in-cheek, but no – I have been condemned by some readers as ageist and sexist.

My apologies to anyone whose sensibilities were offended. Clearly such items should come with a warning that they are not to be taken seriously.

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