New Zealand Travel Guide

What to Read and Watch Before You Go to New Zealand

PHOTO: See-Saw Films

The books, movies, and television shows that are sure to inspire and inform your trip.

There’s no denying New Zealand’s green mountains, glassy lakes, and wild coastlines spark a yearning for exploration and self-discovery, which has resulted in some incredible art. The landscape here appeals to a wide range of writers and creators, including history buffs, nature enthusiasts, and fantasy junkies. In particular, artists of Māori descent, connected to the land through a long history of legends and rituals, create many of the best works about New Zealand. Here are 12 of the most essential books and movies that were inspired by or created in this beautiful, awe-inspiring place.

Granta Publications

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Young author Eleanor Catton penned this ambitious, 800-page novel that went on to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Organized into astrologically inspired sections, the book’s intriguing characters meet each other during an 1860s gold rush on the South Island’s West Coast, when many Europeans flocked to the area after word spread that two Māori men had struck gold.

Top of the Lake

This eerie television show about sordid crimes in a gorgeous region of New Zealand (shot mostly in Queenstown and Glenorchy on the South Island) was a BBC Original that’s also currently available on Netflix. Its binge-worthy, cliffhanger episodes and creepy plot are responsible for many lost nights of sleep. In a stunning performance (but with a questionable New Zealand accent), Elisabeth Moss plays a troubled detective with mysterious issues around returning home for the first time. The show takes place in a remote mountain town and centers on the mysterious pregnancy of a 12-year-old girl.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The story of a Māori preteen and his unlikely foster father’s adventure in the Bush is a feel-good, laugh-out-loud choice for anyone looking to venture to New Zealand. The heartwarming film takes you on a trek through the Central Plateau and Waitakere Ranges of the Auckland region. Director Taika Waititi’s other film Boy, a coming-of-age story in Waihau Bay, is worth seeing as well.

Courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers

The Lord of the Rings Series

You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy book series were filmed exclusively throughout New Zealand. Today Lord of the Rings superfans visit New Zealand just to experience the real-life Middle Earth that surrounds them, even inspiring guided tours and other LOTR-specific tourism to pop up in recent years. Even if you aren’t obsessed, the six movies (the three in the original trilogy and the three in The Hobbit trilogy that came after) are a fun way to get psyched about a trip to the only land that could re-create such a fantasy world.

To the Is-land by Janet Frame

Perhaps New Zealand’s most celebrated and prolific female writer, Janet Frame wrote dozens of novels, short story collections, poems, and autobiographies. Her autobiographies (To The Is-Land, followed by An Angel at My Table) tell the story of Frame’s life, starting with her childhood in 1920s New Zealand. Her fascinating, somewhat volatile life is marked by poverty, psychiatric (mis)treatment and hospitalizations, and eventual outstanding literary achievement.

Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera’s short stories are about the Māori people living on the east coast of New Zealand, both in traditional rural communities living traditional ways of life and in their transitions to urban environments. Ihimaera and others started a wider trend for Māori art and literature, helping the Māori as a whole to become better recognized and celebrated by mainstream (European) New Zealand and international cultures.

Penguin Books

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

In her novel that won the Man Booker prize in 1984, Keri Hulme creates a moving mystery full of complex characters and themes of love, loss, isolation, and grief. With her mixed cast of characters, outsiders, and recluses of both European and Māori identities, Hulme tells a larger story of New Zealand’s historical relations.

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

First a novel by Māori writer Witi Ihimaera and then a 2003 film, The Whale Rider is a glimpse into the Māori community and its heritage, and how it has evolved in the modern era. It tells the story of a 12-year-old Māori girl who wants to follow in the tradition of her ancestor (the “Whale Rider”) and become a warrior and leader but is prohibited by her elders because of her gender. True to the book’s specific setting, the movie version was filmed in the community of Whangara, on the northeast coast of the North Island.

Island of the Lost by Joan Druett

A book of nonfiction pieced together from memoirs and historical accounts, Island of the Lost tells the stories of two shipwrecks on New Zealand’s Auckland Island, occurring months apart from each other in 1864. Through these survival tales (both the successes and failures), the reader discovers the harsh environment, rare flora and fauna, and all elements of life on this unique island.

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

In Catherine Lacey’s raw and emotional novel, a young American woman—haunted by her past and confused about her present—escapes life by hopping on a plane to New Zealand, planning to traverse a country she knows little about. The beauty of the prose is enough to get lost in itself, but it’s also fun to discover New Zealand alongside the narrator as she hitchhikes across the country, treks the cities and wilderness, and meets local personalities along the way.

The Chronicles of Narnia Series

Tourism of New Zealand

Director and New Zealand native Andrew Adamson took filming back to his home country when creating the movie versions of author C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, the beloved children’s fantasy series. The story begins with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005) when a family of children in post–World War II London escape to a faraway, enchanted land and adventure ensues. A grand scope of New Zealand serves as a backdrop (with a lot of special effects in the foreground), including scenes in Flock Hill, Woodhill Forest, Waitaki District, and Purakaunui Bay.

The Piano

A bleak and unruly 19th-century New Zealand sets the background for this eerie love story that went on to win multiple Oscars, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Holly Hunter and a young Anna Paquin. Director Jane Campion explores ideas of class barriers, British imperialism, and challenges to antiquated British ideals on the “wild” island, and received critical acclaim for the movie’s artsy strangeness and talented dramatic performances.