New Zealanders Go Wild for Rings

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In a war of the wizards on New Zealand's silver screens, old-timer Gandalf looks like he will take a broomstick to young pretender Harry Potter.

New Zealanders are eagerly awaiting the release of the first Harry Potter film, which doesn't open here until Nov. 29. But it's the premiere of the first film in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy that has really cast a spell over the nation.

New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson directed the films and used the scenery of his home country as a backdrop, helping to spark the enormous local interest.

The first, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, hits New Zealand's movie theaters on Dec. 20.

Cinema operators predict The Fellowship of the Ring will outsell Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by 2-to-1 -- $5.2 million versus $2.6 million.

All three Ring movies were shot together. Editing work on the second, The Two Towers, will begin shortly with an eye toward release in December 2002; the third, The Return of the King, is set to come out a year later.

For fans who can't wait another month to get a look at Jackson's interpretation of Middle Earth, the mythical location of Tolkien's books, there is already plenty to read.

Special limited editions of the trilogy have been released to tie in with the film as have Middle Earth "guide books," photograph collections and movie guides.

The latest three-volume set of The Lord of the Rings, originally published in 1954, has rocketed to No. 3 on the nation's fiction Top 10 list. And pricey models of Tolkien's characters also are flying out of shops.

Hoping to cash in on the movie's popularity, the government is spending $1.8 million to promote New Zealand as "Middle Earth."