The Hobbit's Epic Journey from Middle Earth to World Premiere; BILBO: IT'S BETTER THAN LORD OF THE RINGS

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FANTASY yesterday became fact at the world premiere of a classic book the movie industry had, for 75 years, believed was impossible to film. Stars of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey flew into Wellington and gazed in amazement as fans, many dressed as characters from JRR Tolkien's novel, transformed New Zealand's capital into Middle Earth.

Ever since its publication in 1937, producers have dreamed of turning the tale into a movie. But the epic nature of the story - about hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a band of dwarves setting out to steal a dragon's treasure - has been matched by the struggle to achieve that.

The book's vast scale and cast-list of monsters and fairytale creatures posed insurmountable technical difficulties to generations of film-makers.

Then director Peter Jackson adapted Tolkien's follow-up trilogy The Lord Of The Rings and the way was clear for him to do the same with The Hobbit, released on December 13.

But the journey ahead was still as fraught as Bilbo's - and it has taken six years, two directors, strikes, protests, lawsuits and a [euro]310million budget to bring it to the big screen.

Yesterday its stars, including James Nesbitt, Martin Freeman, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood, emerged from the hobbit's burrow to walk on the 500-yard red carpet that snaked through Wellington, which was brought to a standstill by the throng.

Sherlock star Freeman, set for world fame as Bilbo, thinks Jackson has created another masterpiece. "He's done it again," said the actor. "It's probably even better than The Lord Of The Rings. I think he's surpassed it."

New Zealander Jackson said: "This is a humbling experience. It's the first time I'll be seeing the movie with an audience. I only just finished it, so I'm very nervous."

Yet his involvement with it was beset by difficulties. The Lord Of The Rings movies made about [euro]2billion, a huge pay-day for studio New Line Cinema.

But in 2006, three years after the final film was released, Jackson - worth [euro]350million - began a lawsuit against New Line over money from merchandising, videos and games.

He vowed never to work with the studio again till it was resolved. …