Special Guest Author Jeremy Webster gives his take on the first four episodes of The Shannara Chronicles
MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles is a curious beast. Based on Terry Brooks’s long-running series of Shannara novels – The Elfstones of Shannara in particular, though elements from other books are integrated here and there, as well – the series seems a natural choice for a milder cable network given the runaway success of, say, HBO’s Game of Thrones. The audience is there, and Shannara would seem a natural property to appease the market segment that may be looking for a good fantasy series without the heavy dollops of sex, gore, and profanity.
As far as that goes, Shannara does, in fact, mostly succeed. What it doesn’t particularly do well, though, is bring Brooks’s work to the small screen.
At its most broad, the underpinnings of the plot for this first season is the same as Elfstones. The Ellcrys, a magic, sentient tree created by the elves before the dawn of humanity and serves as a sort of interdimensional lock that holds hordes upon hordes of ghastly demonic entities in an otherworldly prison, is dying. As it dies its power weakens, releasing more and more demons into the world. Lead by a particularly powerful and scheming demon known as the Dagda Mor, the demons seek to wage war on the elves as vengeance for their millennia of imprisonment.
The fate of the world largely lies in the hands of a young, human/elf hybrid healer named Wil Ohmsford, a royal elf runaway named Amberle, and a gypsy-ish rover girl named Eretria, all of whom are motivated – and sometimes manipulated – into action by the mysterious and intense druid warrior mystic known as Allanon.
As far as the television adaptation goes, the production is beautifully realized. Brooks positioned his epic fantasy world not in some unnamed ancient past, but in a dim, distant future following an apocalypse modern humanity suffered. Rotting, rusting old world machinery litters the lush countrysides. An early shot reveals Seattle’s famous Space Needle toppled and twisted with time. The Elf city of Arborlon is particularly awesome to behold, all beautiful, gleaming silver and flower petal shapes.
The cast is talented and capable in their roles for the most part, with Austin Butler (Wil), Poppy Drayton (Amberle), and Ivana Baquero (Eretria) doing well with what they’ve been given. Manu Bennett’s Allanon is a brawny slab of action hero beefcake who brings a gritty intensity the series could desperately use more of. As Elf King Evantine Elessadil, genre stalwart John Rhys-Davies (Gimli from The Lord of the Rings) effortlessly steals every scene he’s in just by showing up, always a warm, enjoyable presence onscreen.
The forces of evil our heroes find themselves opposing are fantastic, visually realized with the sort of physical grotesqueness one would expect from a massively budgeted Hollywood spectacular, and, while it’s certainly nowhere nearly as gory or violent as HBO’s Thrones, it certainly has its shocks along the way.
Visually, Shannara’s first four episodes are going to a lot of work to invest its viewers in this world and story. Yet, as a Shannara incarnation, it has a pop sensibility and hyperactivity that is tonally at odds with the epic fantasy setting around it.
A property like Brooks’s Shannara universe should be a natural home run for a couple of reasons. Since Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings became an explosive success in the early 2000s, the genre has been at its most successful when it’s managed to both attract the loyal fanbase of the original material while adjusting the material enough to appeal to new audiences not familiar with the property. The technique has been profoundly successful with Game of Thrones, where the audiences for the books and the show have intertwined upon each other. And, despite changes, the Martin adaptation has been a pretty accurate translation of the book series.
As of the first four episodes, the same can’t really be said for Shannara. The basic issues of the dying Ellcrys, the demon invasion, and the Bloodfire Quest are there. Wil, Amberle, Eretria, and Allanon are there. But little, if any, of Brook’s actual story remains intact and unscathed.
The series presents itself with a near-hyperactive edginess and desire to be cool and hip that Brooks’s novel didn’t – and doesn’t – need to function as an enjoyable work of fantasy literature. It goes out of its way to be action packed, even when the action may, ultimately, prove irrelevant or nonsensical.
In the opening of the first episode, Amberle – granddaughter of King Elessedil – is the only female competing in a race through a forest in which those who finish achieve the coveted position of “Chosen,” caretakers of the Ellcrys. There’s a lot of ballyhoo about how that’s no sort of thing for a girl to do from smirky male model lookalikes with pointy ears who must have found functional trimmers from the pre-cataclysm days as they have perfect five o’clock shadow stubble beards.
Oh, and they have to run through it blindfolded.
About now, anyone who’s read the book is thinking, “Wait, this whole gender thing is silly, the Ellcrys is female itself.” Get used to that unsettled feeling of adaptation conflict, series readers, because if you keep watching this, you’re going to experience it quite often. In the TV series Shea was Wil’s father who was an epic hero and died in a tragic alcoholic stupor, Paranor has ceased to be a castle and now appears to be a cavern in the side of a mountain, and Flick, now Wil’s uncle instead of great uncle, has basically sort of become a high fantasy version of Uncle Owen from Star Wars. As of episode four, the Dagda Mor hasn’t torched him, but hey, there’re six episodes left in the season yet. Considering that, at one point, one of King Elessedil’s sons delivers the “you wish my brother had survived and I had died” bit in construction that immediately brings Faramir in The Return of the King to mind – and does it with no sense of self-awareness whatsoever – nothing would surprise me.
The series is also quite hamfisted and ramrodding when it comes to Brooks’s overarcing themes. In the books, Brooks has used magic as a sort of more immediately dangerous stand in representing the moral and ethical dangers of technology. Magic might be used for good or for ill, but the very power of its use is addictive and usage of it will inevitably bring changes to those who use it. Allanon and Walker Boh are both empowered and alienated because of it, Wil’s usage of it causes havoc in his offspring for generations, and unbridled greed for its power devoured the souls and very humanity of the Warlock Lord and the Shadowen.
In the television adaptation, Allanon uses magic to rip open a stone wall which somehow leaves a hideous burn across one of his hands. Wil shoots a demon out of the sky with the elfstones and is left with his palm scorched from the heat. You’d think that, if it’s that bad to use magic, no one would be able to use it for very long, else they’d all look like Freddy Krueger in Medieval garb. But hey, “Magic has a price,” gotta make that obvious.
One element that makes it into the series is the rivalry between King Elessedil’s surviving sons, the older one the uppity authoritarian, the younger one wiser but more reserved. Even that is scarred to a degree by overzealous character writing. The older brother carries on and on about not believing in magic… despite the fact there’s a hundred foot tall sentient magical tree basically in his back yard.
Fans of the book are going to find other, more bizarre things to rail against and about. The Dagda Mor is revealed to be a rebel druid corrupted by magic, the origin of the Warlock Lord grafted onto him. Considering the fact that the production is kinda sorta trying to tell Elfstones with bits of the other books grafted in that isn’t such a bad notion, but the timeline is nonsensical. If the Ellcrys is still the demon prison from before humanity, that would put it before the druids, so how did the Dagda Mor, a rebel druid, end up imprisoned by it?
The series is also infested with attempts at edgy, contemporary sexual awareness that can often feel out of place given the setting. There are characters sleeping together as early as episode 4, and, in a particularly grievous moment in the two hour debut, Eretria verbally spars with Amberle, suggesting she ran away from Arborlon because she was “knocked up.” The phrase “Knocked up” used in that way doesn’t belong in this series anywhere, in any context. In this universe such a phrase is the scraping of fingernails on a chalk board, or grabbing a microphone during a beautiful symphony and blowing fart noises as loud as humanly possible.
I’ve been pretty critical of the series throughout this piece, and I will admit that I have greatly enjoyed Brooks’s Shannara works and consider Elfstones one of the best. Adaptations like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have, perhaps, spoiled some of us by clinging relatively tenaciously to their source materials. Sure, there are changes – sometimes pretty major ones – but the basic plot beats are usually still mostly intact.
The Shannara Chronicles is something different, verging far more toward being something unrecognizable when compared with its source material. That, of course, doesn’t make it a bad show, necessarily, but it has resulted in a fantasy series with a perplexing proclivity toward alienating the series’ own already existing core audience.
The production is beautiful, the cast capable and charismatic, and the action fast and furious. It’s also hip, occasionally witty and funny, and it’s likely to attract the exact youth demographic MTV’s hoping to attract.
But, after four episodes, I find myself asking myself, “Is this Shannara?”
And at this point, I’m honestly not sure.