Destroy All Monsters: Why We Ship
While watching Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had a moment of total clarity regarding why the people who don't really "get it" with these movies don't get it. A dwarf was talking to an elf in a dungeon under a palace carved out of a tree. Stacked vertically like that, the corner of balder and dash upon which high fantasy makes its mark feels about as lunatic as all the naysayers have been describing to me for years.
The key to scenes like the one I've described, and indeed to its entire genre, is commitment. When Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel the Elf turns away from Aidan Turner as Kili the Dwarf, and speaks from a precipice of rock about her journeys beyond the forest into a realm of pure starlight, there is a vivid, staring-into-the-sun wildness about Lilly/Tauriel that suggests, as far as I'm concerned anyway, the magic and brilliance of a made-up world like Tolkien's.
Except, of course, that this isn't Tolkien's world, not really; I think we can now formally forego any intimation that Jackson's Hobbit trilogy is an adaptation of Tolkien's The Hobbit. This film series is merely The Lord of the Rings: The Prequel Trilogy, for better or worse; take it or leave it.
But more to the point, this isn't Tolkien's elf, either. Tauriel, as has been covered extensively in the media, is an invented character, conjured up by Jackson, Boyens, Walsh (and maybe Del Toro) to throw a modicum of estrogen (or its Elvish equivalent) into The Desolation of Smaug, which is otherwise bereft even of Cate Blanchett's balancing presence from An Unexpected Journey.
Tauriel is fine with a blade and even better with a bow; and further, she takes a principled stance regarding her social responsibilities in the land of Middle-Earth that puts her at odds with both her king and her princely suitor, Legolas. This endears her to me, and lets me move past the fact that as the story's only representative female, she's also fated to be the apex of this trilogy's love triangle. Frankly, given her apparent status as the only girl in Mirkwood, it's sort of astonishing that things have merely worked out to be triangular - one could imagine every elf, dwarf and hobbit within three hundred leagues beating a line to her door.
But no, dwarves have no use for Elvish dance partners, or so we're told, which makes the third departure from Tolkien's world all the more remarkable: the little dance of attraction between Kili the Dwarf and Tauriel the Elf. We might have known something was afoot when, in the lengthy introduction to the Dwarves at Bilbo's house in the first movie, and surrounded by protuberous probosces and frequent fat suits, one kid showed up with hipster stubble and no facial prosthetics to speak of. Dreamy Dwarf, they called him, and now we know why: Kili's here to pitch some woo.
Moreover, Kili's status as the Dwarvish equivalent of a sexual deviant was established in the extended cut of An Unexpected Journey, where he was shamed by his peers for not only admitting his attraction to an elf, but to - wuh-oh - a boy elf. I hate to think what this says about Tauriel, but on the whole, we've been angling Kili towards some kind of taboo romance for a while now. As soon as the pretty Elvish captain of the guards shows up, things proceed pretty much as you'd expect.
Jackson, Boyens and Walsh have a taste for the forbidden, cross-species romances in Middle-Earth. Observe their amplification of the love story between Aragorn and Arwen for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In that case, Aragorn - as with Tauriel - has a romantic option from his own race (Eowyn), but instead favours the more complicated, even doomed, relationship with the creature from another world.
Here, in The Desolation of Smaug, Tauriel is chastened against giving Legolas false hope by no less an authority than Legolas' father, the king of the Elves himself. To an even greater degree than Aragorn/Arwen, Tauriel's chances in terms of interlocking boy-and-girl parts would certainly have improved by taking up with Orlando Bloom. But no such luck. And here, of course, is the point: this relationship wouldn't even be here if it wasn't forbidden.
A fair few people have pointed out that The Hobbit trilogy is equal parts Tolkien and fan fiction, and in this regard, they're absolutely correct. Now, with the creation of the verboten Tauriel/Kili romance (surely, Tumblr has a portmanteau for these two by now - Taurili? Kilauriel?), we take the fan fiction element to its furthest natural extension, with the introduction of shipping.
Of course, the Tauriel/Kili romance is taking place in an actually-licensed Warner Brothers property, so it's hardly an act of anti-textual subversion. Fanfic tends to be more fun when you shove characters together, either slash or hetero, whose obvious chemistry lies unacknowledged in the text; if Bilbo took up with Thorin, we'd really be getting somewhere. Or Gandalf and Galadriel, if you'd rather go hetero - there, at least, the portmanteau (Galadriandalf) writes itself.
But with Tauriel/Kili, the Hobbit filmmakers are just on this side of the line of creating an outright cosplay spank fantasy on the big screen. They're exercising and exploring a forbidden, taboo relationship within the rule set of the world they're adapting; it's the sexualized version of the Legolas/Gimli relationship, with the pesky slash elements taken out. In other words, it's a fantasy - not the high fantasy genre in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings make their bread, but the other kind. A personal fantasy.
We have a strange relationship with this latter kind of fantasy in the Western world, in that literally every single one of us has plenty of them (to greater and lesser degrees of expression), but we're so generally freaked out about what our fantasies say about us that we don't muck around with them very much. This, I think, is where fanfic - and particularly, supernatural fanfic in the magical realms of Harry Potter, Twilight or The Lord of the Rings - comes in particularly handy.
There's nothing inherently unusual about a relationship like Tauriel/Kili in The Desolation of Smaug in movie terms; it's a pretty girl and a pretty boy making eyes at each other. But because of the aforementioned rule set of the world in which the relationship is being written, it's also an articulation of uphill, star-crossed romance, and thereby a dandy metaphor for any romantic or sexual yearning that is struggling for expression against our real world's various definitions of normal, reasonable, or even possible.
One can see why these sorts of One True Pairings catch fire, particularly in the online world: they franchise the disenfranchised, and give language to the unexpressable. Multiple modes of fantasy speak together as one.
As ever, the richest and most resilient core texts generate the richest and most expansive peripheral expressions. Fanfic in the world of The Lord of the Rings is possible because The Lord of the Rings is, itself, so viable; The Hobbit Trilogy as a film project remains viable to me, not because it's a particularly great adaptation of a book I read when I was eleven (it isn't), but because it's such unabashed fanfic. As a mega-marketplace commodity, The Hobbit is steering the once-underground landscape of fan fiction and shipping into the mainstream. This, in turn, is giving a whole new grammar to the basic desire at the heart of shipping: to write text around the text, carving it closer to the unarticulated yearnings of our romantic, social, and sexual selves.
Fanfic is taking over the world - if 50 Shades of Grey doesn't convince you, check out the fan fiction universe that is going to be the next ten years of Star Wars - and down at its core, it retains its original value proposition: to remodel the world of fantasy to describe our fantasies, from the epic to the personal and the generic to the personalized. That can't be a bad thing for any man, Elf, or Dwarf.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.