There probably is no fantasy author who has done more for the fantasy genre over the last 40 years than Terry Brooks, which is why I remember being pretty intrigued when I heard they were turning his #Shannara books into a TV show, and then being pretty apprehensive when I heard MTV was behind it. The same network that graced us with #JerseyShore had gotten their hands on Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels? I was cautiously optimistic. The only thing that kept me from running away in terror was the fact that Mr. Brooks himself was involved.
A Little History
The original Shannara novel, The Sword Of Shannara, was released in 1977. For almost 40 years, Terry Brooks has been one of the standard-bearers of #JRRTolkien’s legacy, writing his own brand of swords and sorcery fantasy that draws on Tolkien, but with its own ideas, flavor, and brand of storytelling. Every fantasy author owes a debt to Tolkien, but Brooks never seemed interested in being the “next Tolkien,” despite the constant comparisons. His unique style of prose, with a heavy emphasis on story and less on lore and history, put distance between he and Tolkien, and won him a devoted fan base. His sequel to The Sword Of Shannara, The Elfstones Of Shannara, is a masterpiece and is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. This is the novel #TheShannaraChronicles is based on.
I’ve been reading Terry Brooks’s novels since 1992, and I had the privilege of meeting him in person just last year at the Jet City Comic-Con in Tacoma, Washington. It was my first comic book convention, and I had a ton of fun talking to and meeting people and seeing all the cosplay. Meeting Mr. Brooks and his protege Shawn Speakman made it even better. I got to chat with them, get my books signed, attend some panels to ask them questions, and listen to them talk about their passion for writing and stories.
At one of the panels, Brooks explained that the reason he decided to work with MTV on a Shannara TV show is because they made the best pitch. He said they seemed genuinely interested in making a quality show that would do justice to the spirit of his books. However, I still wasn’t sold on it. This was MTV he was talking about, after all. And after seeing the first season of The Shannara Chronicles, my doubts were not misplaced.
There are elements of The Shannara Chronicles that are done very well. The production value is fantastic. It looks and feels like a show based off a Shannara novel should. You can tell they put effort into giving everything the aesthetic that the books have as far as visuals. The flyover cinematography shots are impressive.
Casting John Rhys-Davies to play King Eventine was an excellent choice. He adds weight and presence to the role. Manu Bennett delivers a solid performance as the druid Allanon — he’s mysterious, quiet, and brooding, as Allanon should be. The music delivers as well. At times, it almost feels like a fairy tale, and was reminiscent to me of #RidleyScott's Legend in parts.
However, when you start scratching beneath the surface of The Shannara Chronicles, things start to fall apart.
Story And Writing
The story and writing is what does The Shannara Chronicles in. It starts off as promising, but gets more and more suspect as the story progresses.
Light spoilers ahead:
The Elfstones Of Shannara is a story of survival. Wil Ohmsford and Amberle Elessedil are literally running for their lives, trying to fulfill a quest they seem completely inadequate to carry out, all the while being pursued by a demon called the Reaper. Meanwhile, the elves are trying to survive the Ellcrys dying, and the Forbidding crumbling as a result, which will allow an army of demons to come through and slaughter everything in their path. Wil and Amberle are not lovers, there isn’t any talk of attraction between them, and there is no silly love triangle between them and a bi-sexual Rover girl (I wish I were joking, this is in Shannara Chronicles).
They understand that the only chance for survival for them and the elves is fulfilling their quest. The only way they will fulfill their quest is Wil’s elfstones and his emerging ability to use them. Then you also have Allanon trying to stay one step ahead of everything. There is a sense of urgency and immediacy to the book that is absent in The Shannara Chronicles as the characters argue, flirt with each other (many times, both), or even decide to have a quick make-out or lovemaking session while the world is ending.
The first season of The Shannara Chronicles is only 10 episodes, but it only took them about half that to start getting carried away with the story. Somewhere in Episode 8, they have something that is very close to a rave scene (yes, a rave scene in a fantasy story), which, to me, is a "jump the shark" moment. They're not even to Season 2 yet. That is a really bad sign.
I understand the show wasn’t written to follow the book exactly, but at times there is almost no talk of the Forbidding and the consequences as the Ellcrys slowly dies, which is the absolute driving force in the novel. The farther I got into The Shannara Chronicles, the more the writing went off the rails, with less and less regard for the source material they’re supposed to be drawing from. The story started to feel like it was being made up as they went along. MTV spent a lot of money on special effects and production value (and it shows), but it doesn’t seem they spent much on quality writing. If they had, they could have had something special on their hands. It’s not too late. I’m hoping they can make this correction in Season 2.
You're not going to find Sean Bean or Ian McKellen-caliber acting in The Shannara Chronicles. Nor are you going to see many characters that look like they belong in a fantasy world that is as dangerous as the characters in The Shannara Chronicles keep claiming the world of the Four Lands is. Almost everyone is very attractive and looks like a model. The women all look like they've just gotten a makeover, with their makeup perpetually perfect no matter what happens around them.
Many of the male characters are wearing leather jackets for some reason — not exactly the kind of garb you expect to see in a fantasy world. And don't forget about Wil Ohmsford's perfectly chiseled abs (yes, he does take his shirt off, ladies — more than once)!
Given that most of the characters in The Shannara Chronicles are elves, the soft, fair, and attractive look can be somewhat excused. It wouldn't be an issue at all if the acting and writing were better. Unfortunately it isn't, and the characters are pretty paper-thin and boring. I found myself chuckling during a dramatic scene when one of the characters double-crosses our heroes and sends them plunging down a giant crevasse. Not just because I didn't care about what happened to the characters, but because I knew they would live (spoilers: which they did).
I found enough to like about The Shannara Chronicles to soldier through the 10 episodes. The show has potential, but they must fix the writing and the acting. I'm willing to give Season 2 a chance, but I can't see myself sticking with it if these issues aren't addressed immediately and dramatically.
From what I understand, Terry Brooks himself played an executive producer role in the making of The Shannara Chronicles. Sadly, the show doesn't feel like it was made for fans of his venerated book series, but for the MTV audience, most of whom are likely oblivious to who Terry Brooks is or what his Shannara novels have done for the fantasy genre. The Shannara novels deserve better. Its fans should demand better. Hopefully, MTV can make something for Shannara fans as the show moves forward into its second season.
Are you a fan of the Shannara novels? What was your impression of The Shannara Chronicles? Drop a comment in the section below!