Popular TV shows that are based on series of books are often favourite sources for “literary tourism”, but when fans go to the places where events took place in their favourite novels, there may well be a disconnect. There is the place the author created on paper, and then there is the real thing, often not quite where, or looking like, or with the atmosphere of the book. What these tourists want is for their favourite book, film or TV show (especially detective novels and cold climate mysteries) to become more real, by walking in the footsteps of the detective, policeman or brave warrior they are crazy about, or more revealing, by seeing for themselves where the action took place. In which instances has this been really successful, with no disconnect?

Midsomer Murders and other series with familiar settings

One TV series which caused a spike in literary tourism is Midsomer Murders, based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby detective series. It has been going since 1997, for 19 seasons, and is still being produced. How the writers find ways of killing off so many middle-class Brits never ceases to amaze me. At a minimum of two deaths per episode (usually more, they tend to die in batches), it means some 230 characters have been killed off, making fictional, bucolic “Midsomer” country and the town of “Causton” hotbeds of vice, intrigue and murder. Come on, won’t you like to live there?

On the set of “The Christmas Haunting” episode of Midsomer Murders, shot in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, July 2013. (Photo: GT Milton filming for Brian Smith)

Many of the villages and small towns of the fictional county of this series have the word “Midsomer” in their name. This is inspired in part by the real county of Somerset, and specifically the town of Midsomer Norton. In one of the episodes, when “Mrs Barnaby” [wife of “DCI John Barnaby”] proposes that they move out of Causton, her husband countered with recollections of particularly grisly murders that occurred in each “Midsomer” community. Likewise, when new “Sgt. Dan Scott” asks if the body count was, “always this high around here, sir?”; Barnaby replies, “It has been remarked upon.” (Source: Midsomer Murders, Wikipedia). As a result, people who want more of Midsomer Murders, and to whom the show is somehow real, plod their way around Wallingford, Bracknell, and other villages around Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire counties, perhaps hoping to glimpse a bloodied corpse in a hedgerow. 

  • People also do this in Oxford, where the detective series Inspector Morsebased on a series of novels by Colin Dexter, and starring John Thaw as “Chief Inspector Morse” and Kevin Whately as Sergeant Lewis, was set. While the town of Oxford and the two most mentioned colleges are fictional, the settings are clearly recognizable. The series ran between 1987 and 2000, and after 2000 and the death of John Thaw, Kevin Whately took the lead role in the sequel, called Lewis, and that series ran from 2006 to 2015.
  • In the same vein, people also traipse through Edinburgh, Scotland, where most of the murders in the Inspector Rebus books by the Scottish author Ian Rankin, take place.
  • Ystad, Sweden, where Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels and the films of the novels are set, brought new life to the small town, and it continues to benefit from the associations with Mankell and Wallander.
  • So has the owner of Highclere Castle in north Hampshire, UK, which was used for exterior shots of the series Downton Abbey and most of the interior filming. The website of the castle is now dominated by images of the Downton Abbey cast and scenes, and visitors can get a “behind the scenes” tour.
  • Doc Martin (2004 to 2018), starring Martin Clunes as the doctor, forever changed the fortunes of the picturesque village of Port Isaac, Cornwall, known in the long-running, immensely popular series as “Portwenn”.
    One visitor complained, more than ten years ago;

“We have had the golden egg from the filming and we have had enough visitors now. Surely they have enough footage of Port Isaac on file so they don’t need to come back?”

Alas for the beleaguered residents, the visitors and the film crews kept coming.

Countries as identifiable settings

Visitors to the Hobbiton movie set at Matamata, New Zealand (promotional image).

The best known examples of this kind of tourism, but on a larger scale, involving entire countries, is of course New Zealand, which was the main setting for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Hobbit Trilogy, and Iceland, where parts of Game of Thrones was filmed.

The town of Matamata, New Zealand, a.k.a. “Hobbiton”, is where the set of the hobbit village from the films has been preserved. Having passed through there, I confess that we fled from the jam-packed streets and the frankly kitsch decorations. The fantasy of the films did not translate to the actual location, but New Zealand continues to punt its association with the film franchises.

Game of Thrones, created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and adapted from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, is actually filmed in many different places, including Iceland. Other locations are Belfast and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Canada, Croatia, Malta, Morocco, Spain, and the USA. (Here’s a list.)

In Iceland, HBO filmed scenes that were set in “Winterfell”, “The Wall” and the “Riverlands of Westeros” early each year to ensure good snow cover. Some years they filmed only background shots, other years, full scenes. Shooting took place at Skaftafell, Þingvellir, Grundarfjörður, Hvalfjörður, and Höfðabrekka near Vík, and the Vatnajökull Glacier was the setting for North of the Wall, where the “White Walkers” are.

Kit Harington, who plays the role of “Jon Snow” in Game of Thrones, on set in Iceland in 2011.

However, many TV series and films have used locations in Iceland due to its dramatic scenery. These include the superb Fortitude, a 2015 – 2017 detective series, which was filmed in both the UK and in Reyðarfjörður, Iceland, and The Lava Field (Hraunið is the original title), a 2014 TV mini-series which is totally realistic and awfully grim. Fortitude is said to be set in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, but it was filmed in Iceland.

Dennis Quaid as “Michael Lennox” prepares for a scene in the TV show Fortitude, series 2, episode 7, for Sky Atlantic.

Prometheus, the 2012 instalment of the Alien franchise, is another film that was shot in part in Iceland. The stunningly beautiful opening shots in Prometheus are all of Iceland – except, of course, the spaceship. (Here is a spot-by-spot tour.) Unlike Hobbiton, Iceland really does look in real life like it does on screen. It is a mindbogglingly alien-looking place.


Looking for Game of Thrones in Iceland

So, one of the reasons that Iceland has been overrun with tourists in the past few years is that Game of Thrones, in particular, elevated the image of the island from a remote volcanic rock in the cold Norwegian Sea, to a beautiful, mysterious and dramatic place, possibly hiding noble warriors, princesses, White Walkers and dragons.

“Game of Thrones has been attributed as a significant factor in the boom of tourism in Iceland that had a strong impact on its economy. Tourist numbers increased by 30% in 2015, followed by another 40% in 2016, with a final figure of 2.4 million visitors expected for 2016, which is around seven times the population of the country.”

(Source: Game of Thrones, Wikipedia, rtrvd. 2017-09-09) 

The appeal of compelling settings

These locations have become tourist attractions because of authors’ brilliant use of settings – one of the three most important elements in a story, along with characters and plot – to create atmosphere, tone, motivations for characters and even conflict and drama. Some writers do this so well that the setting becomes as convincing and as fully fleshed-out as a character in the novel. This has been part of the magic of really good authors throughout the centuries.

Modern authors are continuing with what Emily Brontë did for the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights, Margaret Mitchell did for Atlanta, Georgia in Gone with the Wind, and Paul Bowles did for Tangier, Morocco in The Sheltering Sky, namely, write so well about those places that they become famous in themselves and inextricably linked with that specific novel. (Here’s some more settings.) Writers are limited by the geographical features, structure, and culture of the places, and the time or historical period that they select, but Science Fiction and Fantasy authors can create settings that are only limited by the scope of their imaginations.

Header image: Inside Thrihnukagigur Volcano, Iceland (Photo by M.F. O’Brien, Aug. 2017)
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