What to Read and Watch Before Going to New Zealand

A list of books and movies to help you get the most out of your trip to New Zealand

The ring of power, and a free pint in The Green Dragon at the Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata, New Zealand.

I’ve found that if I’ve read a story that takes place here, or if I’ve seen a movie that was filmed here, it makes the place come a bit more alive for me. It just adds an extra layer of meaning.

Like, yes, the Coliseum is cool, but if I watch “Gladiator” and then see it, I’m now picturing an actual story (albeit fiction) that took place here. And yes, the Liberty Bell is cool, but if I take a photo of myself “licking” it (get the reference?), that just makes the vacation that much more memorable.

So without further ado, here is my list of ideas (feel free to add to it) of stories that will inspire your visit to New Zealand.

Books First:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

The Hobbiton movie set, in Matamata, New Zealand.

I know the books are a lot more detailed than the movies (not that the movies aren’t detailed!), but if you have the time and the patience to sit down and read The Lord of the Rings, they really are amazing.

There may be a few times where you read through the page, get to the bottom, turn the page, and then say…wait! What did I just read? And you might get confused between all the names…but all the important ones are in the movies, so that should help you keep it straight!

While Tolkien didn’t exactly have New Zealand in mind when he wrote the books, its landscape is perfectly suited to imagining LOTR taking place there. Plus they were filmed there, sooo that definitely helps with the imagining.

The Hobbit

Like Lord of the Rings, but shorter. And it takes place before LOTR. So read The Hobbit first!

The Fall of Gondolin

(so… basically anything by Tolkien)

Just before entering the tunnel into the mountains.

Really anything by Tolkien is a good read before traveling to the perfect backdrop for Middle Earth (New Zealand). But I am especially pointing out The Fall of Gondolin because the descriptions of the area surrounding Gondolin remind me of Milford Sound.

As I read the descriptions of the mountains encircling and surrounding the hidden elven city, I was reminded of our drive into Milford Sound. At one point we stopped at a one-way tunnel (similar… but a little less dangerous than the one in the story!) that led us into the heart of the mountains.

Protected from civilization, here was a magical place quite unlike any other. Read Tolkien’s drafts of the story of Gondolin, and you’ll be even more filled with awe at your surroundings as you travel to Milford Sound.

You might even be on the look out for the mythical city.

The Fire of Heaven Trilogy

The Fire of Heaven trilogy does not take place in New Zealand at all (but neither does LOTR!). However, I found it at the secondhand bookstore in Dunedin, and the author is from New Zealand, so I associate it with the country.

It’s a lot like LOTR in its epic scale and descriptive landscapes. And the author is also a passionate cartographer, which I think is quite plain in his ability to imagine such accurate landscapes and fantasy worlds. There are plenty of maps included to help you understand the country, and the story.

So, while not necessary for visiting New Zealand, I think it’s just a great read in general. But the epic fantasy journey certainly doesn’t hurt to get you in the mood for exploring the islands.

And Movies:

Basically any fantasy movie ever. SO many of them were filmed in New Zealand’s amazing fantasy world landscape. Here are a few to get you started:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (duh!)

The Remarkable Mountain range overlooking Queenstown, where the crew shot scenes for “The Lord of the Rings.”

I mean, I think this one goes without saying. If you’re going to visit Hobbiton, you definitely want to watch LOTR first!

The LOTR movies just do such an amazing job showing off the vast landscapes of New Zealand, from the golden grassy fields to the towering mountains and everything in between.

Depending on where you’re looking, the number of tourists who visit New Zealand because of LOTR varies. Some say tourism increased by 40% after the movies premiered, others say 50! Some say 16% of tourists visit because of LOTR, some say 19% and some say 1% (really??).

Whatever the actual count is, New Zealand tourism has definitely been affected by LOTR. And I can guarantee that at least one person (me!) decided to visit New Zealand just because of watching LOTR.

Yes, the movies are long (have you tried the extended versions?!?). But if you are planning on going to New Zealand, and you haven’t seen them yet, do yourself a favor and take some time to watch the original trilogy before you head over there.

It would be so much better to see the Remarkable Mountains above Queenstown and think, “That’s where they filmed the pass of Caradhras!” than to come home and watch them later and think, “Oh! I saw that! If only I had known what it was when I saw it, I would have appreciated it so much more!”

The Hobbit Trilogy

Although they’re clearly not as good as the original LOTR movies, if it weren’t for The Hobbit trilogy, Hobbiton wouldn’t actually exist in New Zealand. Because after they filmed LOTR, they deconstructed that adorable little Hobbit village.

Luckily, they had to reconstruct it when they made the Hobbit movies. And this time, they left it (clearly someone realized how much money people would pay to come see this)!

Obviously, if you’re doing a marathon, watch The Hobbit movies first, and then LOTR.

  • And if you really want to do the marathon right, make some food from this Hobbit themed cookbook to enjoy while you watch!

Any Other Fantasy Movie (basically)

  • The Chronicles of Narnia

  • The Bridge to Terabithia

  • The Shannara Chronicles

Certainly looks like a place to have an epic adventure.

These are all fantasy movies and shows that are filmed in New Zealand.

If riding a horse across the beach into the sunset while wearing the whole leather armor, full-length sword and fancy crown get-up is your dream, let these stories inspire you for your upcoming trip to the land of surreal landscapes.

I know there are more, but these are just ones that I have personally seen. So be sure to add your favorites in the comments below!

Whale Rider

A Maori temple in New Zealand.

This is the movie we watched on the bus ride back to Queenstown from Milford Sound. And I really wasn’t paying that much attention to it, so I don’t know how great it is, but I know it made some of my travel buddies cry!

If you’re interested in the Maori culture, this is a good one to watch, for just a fun movie that teaches you about the local culture.

Surf’s Up

My postcard from our blackwater rafting trip in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

Mostly I love this movie because it’s about penguins. It’s a little different to get used to, because it’s presented like a documentary, but personally I think it’s hilarious, and the graphics are beautiful.

I’m not totally sure where the island of “Pengu” (natives known as “pengu-ins”) is supposed to be, but it certainly has a lot in common with New Zealand. Penguins, totally chill surfer dudes, and glowworm caves!

This is just a fun movie to get you in the mood for some surfing (if you’re into that), penguin watching, and most especially, glowworm cave exploring!


No, Moana does not take place in New Zealand. But the legend of Maui does extend throughout Oceania. There was a story of Maui in the seat pocket of our airplane (Air New Zealand).

Plus Moana was still new when we traveled to New Zealand, so the songs were playing everywhere.

Plus, who doesn’t love a good island vibe to get you in the mood to travel to an island?

Plus, it’s just a great movie.

Willy Wonka/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


I’m really not sure which one is which, but watch at least one (or both!) if you plan on visiting Dunedin during your trip to New Zealand.

Surprised to find these on this list?

We were surprised too, when we found the Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Dunedin! We were only there for the penguins, but luckily the chocolate factory was just a few blocks from our hotel.

It definitely had a “Willy Wonka-esque” feel to it, and while there may not have been a chocolate river, there was a chocolate waterfall. And FREE CHOCOLATE.

  • Unfortunately, the Cadbury factory in Dunedin closed down. But you can still watch these movies anyway. And you can visit the replacement chocolate factory, Otago Chocolate Company.

Top Gear: The New Zealand Race

Season 20, Episode 1

I was reminded of this British TV show because our cab driver on the way to Pukerangi watched it while we waited for the train to show up. I was thinking maybe I should add it to my What to Read and Watch Before Going to England list, but then I remembered there was definitely one episode that everyone should watch before going to New Zealand!

This episodes showcases some of New Zealand’s grandest scenery as the hosts race each other across the scenic highways and up the coast. It will definitely put you in the mood for some epic coastal drives.

Plus it’s hilarious.


These are my personal picks for what to watch before coming to New Zealand. But there are honestly SO many great movies that have been filmed there!

Got any suggestions?

I’m sure there are a lot more out there, so be sure to leave your suggestions of what to read and watch before going to New Zealand in the comments below!

Planning a trip?

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