Kōrero: New Zealand culture overseas

Whārangi 4. Literature, theatre and film

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

New Zealand’s stories have reached international audiences through a range of media.


In the 19th century accounts of New Zealand, collections of Māori oral traditions and fiction were published in London. Local publishers soon emerged, and books were exported, but overseas sales did not grow significantly until the 1970s. The internet and e-books contributed to the wider reach of New Zealand writing.

The Old World’s watching

The most famous New Zealand writer overseas is Katherine Mansfield, whose works have been translated into more than 25 languages. While she spent most of her writing career in England and France, her New Zealand stories are her best-known. Her impetus for writing them was ‘to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World’.1


Some New Zealand authors gained a following in other countries via overseas publication or translation. For many foreign readers, New Zealand settings were the main attraction. Romance writer Essie Summers boosted tourism and sold over 19 million copies worldwide with titles such as Moon over the alps (1960). Booker Prize-winning novels the bone people (1983) by Keri Hulme and The luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton described New Zealand’s landscapes and people.

From the later 20th century some writers chose settings other than New Zealand for their works. New Zealand plays in particular were successful overseas if their subject matter was widely recognisable. Roger Hall’s Middle age spread (1978) had a successful London season and his Conjugal rites (1990) was made into a British TV sitcom.

Royal review

Not just words but pictures have enchanted overseas readers. Much-loved illustrated children’s book Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s dairy (1983) by Lynley Dodd was a local and international publishing sensation, leading to a hugely popular series of books. In 2012 the Duchess of Cornwall declared it to be one of her favourite books for children.

Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair, held in October each year, is traditionally a place to showcase and sell New Zealand literature. In 2012 New Zealand was the guest of honour for a year leading up to the fair, and used the opportunity to feature not just New Zealand books and writers, but visual arts, film, dance, theatre and Māori culture, as well as food and wine.

Edinburgh festivals

Other festivals, notably the Edinburgh festivals, have provided a stage for aspiring playwrights and performing artists. Award winners include playwright Gary Henderson for his play Skin tight at the 1998 Fringe and actor Jacob Rajan for his solo show Krishnan’s dairy in 1999. Comedy duo Flight of the Conchords were a hit in the early 2000s, later achieving success on US television.

Selling Middle Earth

The question of whether Peter Jackson’s award winning Lord of the rings trilogy and Hobbit series are truly New Zealand films is debatable. It seems clear, however, that their mythical setting is brilliantly evoked by diverse New Zealand landscapes. This was undoubtedly one reason that in 2001 Prime Minister Helen Clark asserted, ‘The Lord of the Rings has the potential to expose New Zealand to the world on an unprecedented scale.’2

Film and television

Though promotional documentaries had been shown at international exhibitions from the 1920s, films revealing New Zealand’s landscapes and culture began to find world audiences from the 1970s with the nature documentary series Wild south and children’s drama series like Hunter’s gold (1976), set in 1860s in the Otago goldfields. By the late 1980s exportability was as important as serving local TV audiences, and productions as various as period court drama Hanlon (1985), soap opera Shortland Street (from 1992) and Māori ‘supernatural’ series Mataku (2002–4) sold well overseas.

In the 1970s international co-production of feature films began, as did state support through the New Zealand Film Commission. From 1980 New Zealand features began screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and at others such as the Sundance and Berlin festivals.

Jane Campion’s The piano (1993) was the first New Zealand feature to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as Academy Awards. Since then, winners of other major awards include Niki Caro’s Whale rider (2002), which was acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival and the Rotterdam Film Festival; Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), which took the Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prize at the Berlin Film Festival; and Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland’s Shopping (2013), which won the Berlin Film Festival’s Grand Prix that year.

Globally successful documentaries include Merata Mita’s Patu! (1981), Sandor Lau’s Squeegee bandit (2007), and Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: untouchable girls (2009).

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, January 1916. http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-MurJour-t1-body-d1-d4-d1.html (last accessed 8 July 2014). Back
  2. Quoted in Trisha Dunleavy and Hester Joyce, New Zealand film and television: institution, industry and cultural change. Bristol; Chicago: Intellect, 2011, p. 222. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'New Zealand culture overseas - Literature, theatre and film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/new-zealand-culture-overseas/page-4 (accessed 16 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014