The tree above Bag End is a fake.
Ralph Bakshi, who directed “The Lord of the Rings” in 1978, suggested that it didn’t matter what Hobbits look like as everyone has an idea of what they look like. Well, fans of “The Shire” might beg to differ. Tolkien had very clear ideas about their stature, their features and their personalities and Jackson’s later ‘epic’ retelling sought to stay as faithful as possible to the author’s vision. Those who have read, and therefore viewed the reproductions of Tolkien’s drawings, would be able to discern a hobbit, dwarf or fairy from the Green Dragon Inn to the outer edges of West Farthing.
Bakshi’s filmic interpretation, whilst supposedly a financial success in box office terms, had severe budgetary issues in the making and failed to raise enough capital to complete the story, no such bad luck for Jackson. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was financed to the tune of $250M and “The Hobbit” trilogy, a tad under $1bn and the viewer can readily tell that the longer book story suffers from ambition over resource in several areas, perhaps most notably in the “Flight to the Ford” scene. Never mind Jackson’s version will become, if not already, the de facto “public edition” of both books, ensuring our view of those characters, those scenes, those panoramas will tend towards the Jackson perspective.
“The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour” is a two hour guided walk around the set developed for “The Hobbit”. The original set for “The Lord of the Rings” soon became dilapidated as it was built as a “movie set” i.e. a facade for the camera lens, an impermanent construction to provide spectacle. The later incarnation, which now attracts around 50,000 visitors a year, and constructed a year before filming of “The Hobbit” began, is built to last as part of a deal with the owner of the land – Alexander Farming Genetics, and Jackson, who between them pocket the profits.
One of the key ingredients to help decide this particular site was, apparently, the “rolling countryside”, a small lake or pond and a large circular tree. The tree would be cast as the “party tree” and which appears in both books in a supporting role. On my tour the guide was keen to mention that the tree he was standing in front of was indeed “the party tree”. And I couldn’t help but agree with him, the tree that I looked at was entirely similar to the vision I have of “the party tree”. It is an entirely consistent simulacrum of what I now know as “the party tree”, and it is so because the vision I have of it now is that which Jackson provided. The resolution of “The Hobbit”, filmed at 48fps providing more “real”, as Jackson declares: “Now, in the digital age, there’s no reason whatsoever to stick to 24 fps. […] Science tells us that the human eye stops seeing individual pictures at about 55 fps. Therefore, shooting at 48 fps gives you much more of an illusion of real life.” The spectacle becoming more “real”, more Baudrillard perhaps, replacing the simulacrum with its filmic version of itself, becoming the referrant.
Above “Bag End” is a construction of a tree that, in the subsequent film “The Hobbit”, telling a tale some sixty years or so before “The Lord of the Rings”, needs therefore to look like a tree that is sixty years younger. The tree was made by the film studio’s art department from a range of synthetic materials. The 200,000 or so leaves apparently having to be repainted a few days before shooting because Jackson decided that they were the wrong shade of green – back to the verisimilitude of 48fps again – and then all placed, by hand we are comforted to be told, before filming could begin.
I wanted to beg to differ with the guide. I wanted to suggest to him that the tree he defined as “The Party Tree” was in fact a common or garden tree, though beautifully endowed as it was with ageing limbs. It was impersonating something it could only ever aspire to. It was a spectacle of a spectacle of Tolkien’s imagination. It cannot be “The Party Tree” as no such thing ever existed, no matter that Tolkien drew it and referred to it. The “Party Tree” was, and is, a work of fiction. The whole film set is a spectacle, is a facsimile and beautifully rendered it is too.
The tree above Bag End is a fake, however it might be the only real thing on the set.