Neverlands: The Enchanting Destinations of 11 Fantasy Epics
If your film is set in a world out of fairytales and is peopled with wizards and elves, it may be tempting to film the whole thing on a soundstage. But some filmmakers managed to find fantastical scenery in the real world when making their epics.
Here are 11 stunning real-world locations of fantasy films.
LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
New Zealand, aka Middle Earth (photograph by Matt Chan)
Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Lord Of The Rings not only brought the beloved novels to the screen, it put his New Zealand home on the moviemaking map. All the Middle-Earth locations were filmed in and around New Zealand; even the soundstage work took place in Jackson’s Weta studio in Wellington (which also offers tours to guests).
“Mordor” by Jeff Pang (via fotopedia)
North of Wellington, the Tongariro National Park stands in for the forbidding land of Mordor, where Frodo must travel to destroy the cursed “Ring Of Power” by throwing it into the volcano “Mount Doom.” Tongariro Park boasts three volcanoes — one of which is still active. Jackson filmed most of the Mordor scenes around the inactive Tongariro volcano, and also on the ski slopes of Whakapapa Ski Field.
A bit closer to Wellington, you’ll find Harcourt Park, where Jackson placed Isengard, home to the evil wizard Sauroman (Christopher Lee). In reality, the site is host to a more guest-friendly campground, the Wellington Kiwi Holiday Park, which boasts proximity to “Isengard” and a number of other film locations: the Hutt River on the park’s western edge is where Frodo and his companions set off by canoe after meeting with the Elf-Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and a 15-minute walk up river you’ll find where Aragorn (Viggo Morgenson) washes ashore after a battle with Orcs in the second movie. Kaitoke Regional Park, where Jackson filmed the scenes in the elvish kingdom Rivendell, is about 13 kilometers away. Finally, on the grounds of Wellington Park, you’ll find a portion of a tree trunk the owners claim to have been salvaged from the movie set.
Upper Hutt River (photograph by Jeff Hitchcock)
Harcourt Park, aka Isengard (photograph by Jessica Spengler)
Kaitoke Regional Park, aka Rivendell (photograph by Yortw/Flickr user)
The Fiordland region on the western coast of the South Island is another hub of locations. Near Te Anau, at the edge of the Fiordland National Park, is where Frodo is stabbed in the shoulder by one of the Nazgul riders. Parts of the Arrowtown Recreational Reserve to the north of Te Anau became the “Misty Mountains,” where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) tried to lead the Fellowship over the mountains rather than pass through the underground dwarf realms.
Shotover River, Mat Cross (via Wikimedia)
Elsewhere in Arrowtown is the Shotover River, where the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), carrying Frodo on her horse, lures a team of Nazgul into the path of a flash flood by taunting “If you want Frodo, come and claim him!”
Further north still is Mount Sunday, a rocky hill in the center of a glacier-carved plain. Jackson built the set for Edoras, the royal residence in the kingdom of Rohan, on its peak. The set is gone, but film fans will definitely recognize the surrounding landscape.
Mt. Sunday (FlickreviewR, via Wikimedia)
Back on the north island, Jackson filmed scenes in the elf kingdom of Lothlorien on the grounds of Fernside Lodge, a historic estate 40 miles east of Wellington. Fernside is also used for the flashback scene in Return of the King which reveals how Gollum – then known as “Smeagol” — first got the Ring of Power.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA (2005-2008)
New Zealand, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland
Cathedral Cove, filming site of “Prince Caspian” (photograph by Robert Engberg)
J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Lord Of The Rings, was a close friend of C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. So it’s fitting that the movie adaptations of their fantasy epics both claim New Zealand as a filmic home.
The first Narnia film concerns the four Pevensie children, who are evacuated from London for safety during World War II to stay with Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent), a family friend with a house in the country. Scenes of the Pevensies’ arrival at Professor Kirke’s house were filmed at the Monte Cecilia Park at Pah Homestead, a historic mansion just outside Auckland. However, the existing building was digitally altered for the film.
Monte Cecilia Park (via Wikimedia)
The Pevensies discover an old wardrobe inside one of the spare rooms — a wardrobe which is a portal to Narnia, a magic land in the grip of a perpetual winter thanks to a witch’s curse. New Zealand wasn’t quite wintry enough, so production moved for this setting to the Czech Republic. Youngest sister Lucy (Georgie Henley) is first to explore Narnia, picking through a cluster of wintry cliffs and rock forms. She’s actually at Tiské Steny, a series of cliffs near the village of Tisá north of Prague. Much of the other “winter” scenes took place at Adrspach National Park near the Polish border.
Tiské Steny (photograph by Thomas Schaffhirt)
Elephant Rocks (Pseudopanax, via Wikimedia)
The rest of the first film returns to New Zealand. Pevensie brother Edmond (Skandar Keynes) is a captive of the White Witch in Woodhill Forest north of Auckland, while the other Pevensies have teamed up with the lion Aslan (Liam Neeson, voice) to rescue him. They train for combat at Elephant Rocks, a series of limestone rock formations south of Duntroon on the South Island.
Filming for Prince Caspian, the second film, once again jumps between Eastern Europe and New Zealand. The Pevensies learn that this time, they’ve been summoned to Narnia by Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), rightful heir to the Narnian throne, to help him during a war against the invading Telmarine people. On the shores of the tiny Moeraki River, the Pevensies rescue the dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) from a pair of Telmarines.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
Cornwall, United Kingdom
Not surprisingly, the bulk of Tim Burton’s 3D take on this classic tale was filmed in a studio. But there are a pair of real-world spots you can visit, both located on the south coast of Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
Antony House (Brian, via Wikimedia)
First is Antony House, an 18th-century mansion just outside Plymouth. The entire estate once belonged to the Carew family — a noble clan long associated with the British military. But in 1961, family head Sir John Carew Pole turned the grounds of the estate over to the public, provided his family could still live in the house itself. In the film, Antony House becomes “Lord Ascot’s Estate,” where a grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is dragged to a rather dull garden party where she spots her old friend the White Rabbit.
Charlestown Harbour (photograph by Robert Pittman)
After a sojourn in Wonderland, Alice returns to in time to turn down a marriage proposal from Lord Ascot’s son Hamish (Leo Bill). Impressed by her pluck, Lord Ascot (Tim Pigott-Smith) takes her in as an apprentice for his shipping business, and the film ends at Charlestown Harbour, about 25 miles west of Plymouth, where a delighted Alice is on board a clipper ship preparing to sail to China.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
Hongcun (photograph by Mulligan Stu)
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is set in China in the 1770s, but it’s in a more fantastical China, with magic swords, nomadic desert bandits, and men who can walk on trees.
Houses in Hongcun (photograph by Mulligan Stu)
The film’s action opens in the village of Hongcun, a World Heritage Site near the Huangshan Yellow Mountain. Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a Wudan martial arts master, has come to Hongcun to retire. He asks Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), a warrior woman he is close to, to deliver his sword “the Green Destiny” to their mutual friend near Beijing, Sir Te (Sihung Lung). Sir Te’s estate is the Chengde Summer Palace in Hebei Province.
Chengde was built in the 1700s as a summer residence for Qing Dynasty noble families seeking to escape Beijing’s summer heat. In the film, the local governor is at Sir Te’s home with his family, doing precisely that. The governor’s niece Jen (Zhang Ziyi) befriends Yu Shu at the estate. Jen is facing an arranged marriage and is fascinated by Yu Shu’s rough-and-tumble lifestyle.
Chengde (photograph by Malcolm Brown)
But Jen is more familiar with a rough life than she lets on. In an extended flashback, the film reveals that Jen once ran away to join a team of outlaws in the Gobi desert after one of them, Lo (Chen Chang), stole her hair comb.
The scenes where she hides out with Lo in the desert, and the two ultimately become lovers, are at Ghost City, a windswept 120-square-kilometer region filled with oddly-shaped rock formations. The winds moaning through the rocks give the region its eerie name.
The final eye-popping battles between Yu Shu, Jen (who’s stolen the Green Destiny), and Li all take place in or near Hongcun Zhen. First Jen fights Yu Shu in Hongcun Zhen proper, then escapes with the Green Destiny after hurting Yu Shu’s arm. Li chases her across Hongun Zhen’s Moon Pool – the two of them literally running across its surface – then take to the trees in the Anhui Bamboo Forest, to the east of the village. Anhui Forest is the largest such forest in China, and even sports a Bamboo Museum, devoted to the history of its cultivation.
Bamboo Sea (photograph by cnneil/Flickr user)
Cangyan Shan (photograph by Jeff/Flickr user)
The film’s final tragic scenes take place on “Mount Wudang,” the temple where a repentant Jen joins Lo after both her governess and Li have been killed. The actual temple used in the film is Cangyan Shan, a Buddhist monastery an hour southwest of Beijing by train. At the center of Cangyan Shan is the stone bridge where Jen reminds Lo of a story he told her about a man who made a wish and then dove off a mountain, but lived because he was “pure of heart.” She tells him to close his eyes and make a wish, and as he does, she dives off the bridge.
WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
Munich power plant (photograph by LateralusAD/Wikimedia)
The first adaptation of this Roald Dahl classic was filmed entirely in Germany. Director Mel Stuart felt that the city of Munich was just unfamiliar enough to audiences that it could be a generic “anywhere.” Plus, it was cheaper.
Most scenes were on sound stages, but for the scene outside Willie Wonka’s factory — where Wonka (Gene Wilder) first hobbles out with a cane — were filmed at the main entrance to the gasworks of Stadtwerke München, the power plant supplying the bulk of Munich’s electricity and natural gas. For the final scene, where Wonka takes Charlie (Peter Ostrum) on a tour in his glass elevator, filmmakers used aerial footage of the tiny Bavarian town of Nördlingen.
Noerdlingen (photograph by Vid Pogacnik)
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS (2009)
London, England, and Vancouver, Canada
Blackfriars Bridge (Duffman, via Wikimedia)
Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this film set in a real-world location is very much a fantasy. The wizard Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs a traveling broken-down stage show with a few companions in London, in a bid to win a long-standing magic war with “Mr. Nick,” the Devil (Tom Waits), with Parnassus’ own daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) as the prize.
Their luck turns when they encounter Tony (Heath Ledger), a con man who appears to have hanged himself under Blackfriars Bridge, one of the traverses of the Thames. Blackfriars Bridge sits just west of the Tate Modern Museum and the Globe Theater. The troupe rescues Tony and invites him to join their show, in which audience members are lured into stepping through a magic mirror into a fantastical otherworld. Tony not only agrees, he rewrites the show altogether.
The troupe debuts the new show to great success at Leadenhall Market, a covered market established in the 14th century which has become one of London’s most fashionable shopping centers.
Leadenhall Market (Diliff, via Wikimedia Commons)
Scenes in the latter half of the film were shot in Vancouver, Canada. Most are glimpses of the through-the-mirror world, which were for the large part shot on sound stages at Vancouver’s Bridge Studios. But one fantasy sequence featuring Tony (who at this point is played by Colin Farrell) was filmed at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theater, a lavish movie theater from 1927 which has been revamped as a concert venue. In the film, it’s where Tony’s fantasy about hosting a charity ball turns ugly.
In the course of the climactic magic battle, Mr. Nick traps Dr. Parnassus inside the magic mirror, and he fears Valentina lost forever. When Parnassus finally comes to, he is alone, begging outside a glass-walled shopping mall. The scene is actually at the central branch of Vancouver’s Public Library. The library’s entry foyer was used as the mall’s food court. Towards the film’s end, Parnassus peeps through the window to see Valentina having lunch with a husband and two children, safe and happy.
Vancouver’s Orpheum Theater (photograph by Kevin Jaako)
TIME BANDITS (1981)
United Kingdom and Kasbah Aït Benhaddou, Morrocco
Dungeness (photograph by Simon Huguet)
This 1981 film was, like Dr. Parnassus, a Terry Gilliam production, but it’s a bit more kid-friendly. A young English boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock), is swept up in the adventure when a troupe of little people crash through his closet one night. They’ve been working with “the Supreme Being,” they explain, and stole his map of the universe showing where “rips in the fabric of time” could allow them to time-travel. The history-loving Kevin joins them, and is soon off on a jaunt through history, meeting everyone from Napoleon (Ian Holm) to Robin Hood (John Cleese) to Greek King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) with the Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson) in pursuit.
A shaky budget kept Gilliam locked to England for most of his film locations. Napoleon’s castle is Raglan Castle in southeast Wales, where he holds court to a star-struck Kevin while the others raid his treasure hold, only to lose it all to Robin Hood in the next scene. Epping Forest, on the fringes of Greater London, stands in for Sherwood Forest. Even the forbidding “Time of Legends,” a fantastical realm of ogres and giants, is in England. It’s the Dungeness Headland on the coast of Kent, England’s only desert.
The film’s big location splurge came for scenes with King Agamemnon. Here, the Kasbah Aït Benhaddou in Morocco stands in for Agamemnon’s kingdom of Mycenae.
Kasbah Aït Benhaddou (Donar Reiskoffer, via Wikimedia)
Kasbah Aït Benhaddou is an ancient fortified city and former trading post on the old caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara. While most residents now live in a more modern development across the Ounila River, a few families still live in the older city.
GAME OF THRONES (2011)
Although Game of Thrones — based on author George R.R. Martin’s ongoing book series — has visited Iceland, Croatia, and Morocco, the bulk is filmed on a soundstage in Belfast, and in the nearby Northern Ireland countryside.
Most of the first season concerned the noble Stark family, lords of a region called Winterfell in the land of Westros. Winterfell’s castle is on the grounds of Castle Ward, an 18th century mansion in County Down. The show filmed at the ruins of the old castle, which dates to the 16th century.
Inch Abbey (Ardfern, via Wikimedia)
Several other scenes use Inch Abbey, the ruins of a monastery built in the County Down in the 800s. In the show, it’s where Mistress of Winterfell, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) learns of her husband’s death while on a visit to her son Robb (Richard Madden).
About 50 miles northwest of Belfast is the “Dark Hedges,” a stretch of road lined with overgrown beech trees.
Dark Hedges (Horslips5, via Flickr)
The trees were originally planted to grace the path leading to a mansion owned by the noble Stuart family, but as they grew, the trees twisted and interlaced as they arched over the road, leading to a spooky, rather than serene, path.
In Game of Thrones, the Dark Hedges become “Kingsroad,” a major thoroughfare in Westros, and is the path one of the Stark daughters, Arya (Maisie Williams), uses to make her escape after her father is killed.
Elsewhere in Westros, pampered noblewoman Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is forced to marry the king of the nomadic Dothraki people, and becomes one of their fiercest leaders. An early scene among the Dothraki took place in County Antrim’s Shillanavogy Valley, near the site where tradition holds St. Patrick was first brought to Ireland as a slave and set to work herding sheep.
Cushendun Caves (Ardfern, via Wikimedia)
Also just nearby are the Cushendun Caves, used for a scene where the priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) gives birth to a hideous “Shadow Baby” that she then sends to assassinate the men in a nearby camp.
Finally, Ballintoy Harbour in County Atrim is where Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), after a long stint in service to the Starks, makes his return home to “the Iron Islands.” The residents of Ballintoy were so proud to host filming that they erected a monument at the site once filming wrapped.
Ballintoy Harbour (photograph by William Marnoch)
THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)
Especially beloved by its fans, this tale is the dramatization of a story read by a grandfather (Peter Falk) to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). Their scenes are confined to the boy’s bedroom — most likely a soundstage — but the world of the story is a bit more dazzling.
Haddon Hall (Rob Bendall, via Wikimedia)
The story mostly takes place in the imaginary Kingdom of Florin, ruled over by Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). The bride of the title, Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn), is a young peasant woman grieving over the disappearance of her true love Westley (Cary Elwes). Assuming Westley is dead, Buttercup agrees to marry Humperdink, moving into his castle during the wedding preparations. Humperdink’s castle is in reality Haddon Hall, a medieval manor house in Derbyshire, England. Humperdink presents Buttercup to the court in Haddon Hall’s courtyard. Later scenes in Humperdink’s chamber were set in Haddon’s Banqueting Hall.
Before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by a band of three mercenaries while on a horseback ride through the woods. The woods themselves are the Burnham Beeches, a protected ancient woodland reserve near Buckinghamshire just outside London.
The kidnappers — Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), and strongman Fezzig (Andre the Giant) — flee with Buttercup by boat to the “Cliffs of Insanity,” noticing that a mysterious man in black has followed them.
Cliffs of Insanity (Colin D. Young, used with permission)
The cliffs are actually the Irish Cliffs of Moher, just south of Galway. Harry Potter film fans may also recognize Moher as the spot where Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) look for one of the horocruxes in The Half-Blood Prince.
After scaling the Cliffs, the Man in Black rescues Buttercup from the kidnappers and reveals that he is her beloved Westley. Before Buttercup and Westley can run off together, Humperdink catches up with them and compels Buttercup to carry on with the wedding. Westley teams back up with Fezzig and Inigo to rescue her. Inigo also hopes to meet Humperdink’s advisor Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), and exact revenge upon Rugen for killing his father.
Much of the rescue scenes are back in Haddon Hall, but Inigo’s final sword fight with Rugen is in the Baron’s Hall at Penshurst Place, a 14th-century manor house in Kent.
Penshurst Place (via Wikimedia)
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Lutz, Florida, USA
Director Tim Burton first considered setting this film in the Burbank suburbia where he grew up, but it had become a bit too hip. So instead, he chose the town of Lutz, near Tampa, Florida. The exact street where Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) comes to live with the family of Avon lady Peg (Dianne Wiest) is Tinsmith Circle in Lutz. Today Tinsmith Circle looks nothing like the pastel-painted suburban street from the film, as Burton helped residents restore their homes after temporarily repainting them for the film.
Southgate Shopping Center (Wes Bryant, via Flickr)
However, the Southgate Shopping Mall — where Edward Scissorhands finds himself uniquely suited to work in a beauty salon — is just as eye-catchingly kitschy as it was in the film. Southgate is in Lakeland, about 30 miles east of Lutz.
The 1981 adaptation of the Arthurian legend, possibly the most English of fantasy tales, was actually filmed in Ireland. An early scene when Arthur (Nigel Terry) pulls the sword Excalibur out of the stone, proving himself to be future king, takes place in Childers Wood, near the town of Roundwood in County Wicklow. A bit further east — the easternmost point in Ireland, in fact — is Wicklow Head, where director John Boorman set an early scene involving Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne). Arthur’s first battle, after which he demands the knight Sir Uryens (Keith Buckley) knight him, was at Cahir Castle in County Tipperary.
Cahir Castle (Valdoria, via Wikimedia)
Back in Wicklow, a waterfall on the grounds of the Powerscourt Estate is the spot where Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) first meets King Arthur, challenging him to single combat to test his might as a King. Finally, the film that begins at Ireland’s easternmost point ends at its westernmost — the coast of Kerry, from which a dying Arthur sets sail for the land of Avalon.
HARRY POTTER (2001 - 2011)
United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland
London’s King’s Cross Station is the main station for the Hogwarts Express, from “Platform 9 ¾.” The exact spot from the film where Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) first shows Harry how to run into the wall is actually between platforms 4 and 5, and is no longer accessible to casual visitors — you need to have a valid train ticket.
“Platform 9 3/4”, Tom McIntyre (Used with Permission)
However, Kings’ Cross has set up a mock “Platform 9 ¾” inside the station near the entrance to the real platform 9, with a Potter-themed gift shop and a mock luggage trolley “disappearing” into the wall.
Gloucester Cathedral Cloisters (Jinxsi1960, via Flickr)
As for Hogwarts itself, seven different cathedrals, universities, and libraries make up the bulk of its filming locations. The cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral stand in for the various corridors of Hogwarts in most of the films, including the spot where Harry sees the message “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened” written in blood in the second film.
Hogwarts’ quad is at Durham Cathedral, further north. Many classroom scenes were at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire — the Abbey’s Sacristy hosts Professor Snape’s (Alan Rickman) potions class in the first film, and the “Warming Room” is where Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart) gives the first Defense Against The Dark Arts class. The Abbey’s Chapter House is where Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised in the first film, and in the second, it’s where Harry suddenly shocks his classmates by slipping into speaking Parseltongue.
Oxford’s Divinity School (photograph by Freddie Phillips)
Oxford University loans Hogwarts the Duke Humphrey’s Library, the oldest reading room at Oxford’s Bodleian library. It’s where Hermione (Emma Watson) first looks up the instructions for polyjuice potion. Elsewhere in the Bodleian library is Oxford’s Divinity School, which was used as Hogwarts’ infirmary. The Divinity School is also where Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) tries to teach Ron to waltz in The Goblet Of Fire.
Scenes outside Hogwarts are similarly far-flung. The lake where Harry first sees Buckbeak and fights off Dementors in Prisoner of Azkaban is Virginia Water in Surrey. In The Half-Blood Prince, the Weasley’s home is set on the grounds of The Abbotsbury Swannery, a wildlife sanctuary for Mute Swans near Weymouth in Dorset. The Swannery is a fascinating trip in its own right. Its swans are the descendants of a domesticated flock raised to feed the monks of a nearby monastery in the 11th Century. The monastery closed in the 1600s, and today the swans are protected wildlife.
Abbotsbury Swannery (photograph by Trisha/Flickr user)
The two Deathly Hallows films are even more of a cross-country tour as Harry, Ron, and Hermione race to find and destroy all of the “Horocruxes” – a set of talismans that will let them defeat the evil Voldemort once and for all.
For a while they hide in the Burnham Beeches (see Princess Bride, above). After a quarrel, Ron temporarily abandons Harry and Hermione, who relocate to a rock bluff in North Yorkshire — the Limestone Pavement formation at Malham Cove.
Limestone Pavement, Yorkshire (Gordon Hatton, via Geograph.org.uk)
Finally, fans should visit the Warner Brothers Leavesden Studio just northwest of London, where most of the soundstage scenes took place. Set in a former aircraft factory, Leavesden also has also hosted films in the Star Wars and James Bond franchises, but the Harry Potter films have been its biggest tenant. In 2012 the studio built two extra sound stages to create a permanent home for their entire Potter collection, including the set from Hogwarts’ Great Hall and from Diagon Alley, a scale model of Hogwarts, displays of production design sketches, costumes, and props, and a café offering butterbeer.
Leavesden Studio (photograph by Karen Roe)
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