When I first heard about The Shannara Chronicles, I was over the moon. The Elfstones of Shannara has been on my comfort-book shelf for half of forever, and it has some incredibly visual moments, scenes that are just aching to be put on screen. I posted trailers, posters, and rumors, and started reading the whole series in sheer enthusiasm. I loved the trailers, and the title sequence was–and is–fantastic. In other words: I really, really wanted to love this show.
Then I watched the first three episodes and…I didn’t hate it. Trailers and episode summaries made it quickly evident that The Shannara Chronicles was not an adaptation that stuck closely to the book. So I gave myself time and space, figuring I’d get used to the idea and then watch and appreciate the show for what it is.
There’s a big flaw in that plan. Two big flaws, actually. In the first place, while borrowing as little of the book as it possibly can while keeping Shannara in the title, the Chronicles still has enough of the book to make watching it on its own merits difficult. The second, bigger, problem is that what the show is is…not very good.
I ended up finishing The Shannara Chronicles because there were a couple of scenes near the end of the book that I really, really wanted to see on screen, because it was only ten episodes long, and because by the fifth episode, I was too fascinated by the train wreck to turn away.
I attempt to keep some distance and sense of fairness when I write reviews.
This is not a review.
The Elfstones of Shannara has two people struggling to make it through a hostile wilderness while being hunted by an implacable killing machine. There are lesser demons, the poisoned and twisted land, and remnants of old magic to battle. Meanwhile, the Elven people are getting ready to face a Demon hoard that they know they cannot defeat, even with help they are sent from other peoples of the Four Lands. Their only chance of survival lies in holding out until their Chosen returns with the Ellcrys seed and that involves an endless war of attrition. That’s plenty of excitement right there. The Shannara Chronicles tosses most of that out the window in favor of adding additional elements, usually involving tired tropes and often making very little sense.
Too, our heroes have the survival instincts of lemmings. The Ellcrys stages a special test to see if her one remaining Chosen is “worthy” to receive the seed. If Amberle is not worthy, she’ll be killed. Let’s repeat: She is the One. Remaining. Chosen. The only person who can carry the thing. If she dies, everyone dies. Did the the tree not read the memo? She wrote the memo. Let’s skip the whole “worthiness” thing and get her out there! Nothing improves after Amberle is actually on the road. The Elves know the Demons are coming and spend their time arguing over who will be the heir, having haunted love-scenes, and staging palace coups rather than setting out defenses or making much of an effort to gain allies. When they finally face the Demons in the last episode, there is one teeny, tiny shallow ditch between the two armies. The travelling group loses a member when Elven scout rides straight into a yellow, gaseous cloud and dies a horrible death (as he deserves, under the circumstances). The party splits up more than once in order to search more quickly (1). And the list goes on.
This lack of survival instinct is partly because every single character has lost IQ points in the move from book to screen. Wil of the book doesn’t refuse the call because he’s a muddled, easily distracted young idiot, he refuses the call because he’s in med school. He has spent his whole life training to be a healer and has persuaded the best healers in the Four Lands to train him. He doesn’t need Allanon to come give him a purpose; he has one. Amberle in the book is afraid of the Ellcrys and has run–to establish herself as a respected teacher in a village. She may not be fulfilling her “destiny,” but she’s found a place for herself. Prince Ander isn’t a drunken wastrel, he’s studious and used to being in the background. Arion is brash, impulsive, and sometimes rude, but he’s also charismatic and well-trained in ruling, his father’s right-hand man. King Eventine is not the sort of fool who tells people magic has come to an end when it hasn’t, nor is he thecareless sort who leaves a stray torturer unaccounted for somewhere out in the wilderness. He doesn’t actually keep torturers, stray or otherwise. He is a genuinely good king who has the good sense to send for help when he learns his world is about to come to an end. And so on. They are all smart people. Brooks manages to provide plenty of suspense and excitement all the same, proving that, no, drama does not require the idiot ball.
Most of the added elements are nonsensical and often cliched. To confine myself to one example: in one of many (many) added episodes, the party ends up in Utopia, a not-at-all misleadingly named idyllic town that is in the middle of hostile territory. Somehow these people have electricity. Somehow they have clothes exactly like ours, and they think carefully mowed lawns and picnics are an important part of life. Also inexplicably, these anachronistic townsfolk have settled smack in the middle of troll territory rather than in any of the vast tracts of open land available. Then they reveal (to no viewer’s surprise) that things are not what they seem; their “peace” with the trolls involves sacrificing victims. Why did the trolls bother with peace in the first place? We’re told early on that they killed “half the village” the first time they met. Even allowing for exaggeration, this means the trolls have no motive to keep the village around and the villagers have every motive to get out of there now–no matter how charismatic their leader is. To make matters more interesting, the village evidently lets their prisoners change clothes before tying them out as troll bait, since once Amberle and Wil are at the stake, they are in their own clothes rather than the briefly-borrowed modern attire (though the shirt Wil wears–when he wears a shirt–still looks rather like a t-shirt to me). None of this makes any sense or furthers the plot in any way. But hey, never mind all that! They throw a party! Everyone loves a party!
While most of the changes left me shaking my head in bemusement, there is one that made me actively angry. There are no rape threats in The Elfstones of Shannara. None. Zero. Brooks seems to have thought–quite rightly–that the end of the world and relentless enemies were sufficient threat. MTV? Apparently assumed that a woman could not be a hero without an extra helping of danger and added some in for us. Nasty ones. And then asked viewers to believe that one of the rapists was really more of a lovable rogue than anything else. First Amberle, Wil, and company are captured by the Rovers. Cephalo, the Rover leader, promptly informs Amberle that he’ll be selling her to a brothel, after trying her out himself. He tells her that her screams are “music to me” and has her on the ground before she’s rescued; there’s every indication this is something he is in the habit of doing; we already know he’s a slaver. Later, the party encounters a (not in the book) mad elf who decides to torture the party. One of the men is evidently tortured off-screen (we see him being hauled back), but it is his voyeuristic view of her in the bath, and his long, lingering preparations to torture Amberle that are shown onscreen, and she is the one he gleefully plans to lobotomize and take as his “wife.” He gets killed–eventually the party is really inept at this business of making sure their enemies are actually dead–but Cephalo, the slaver and serial rapist, actually travels with the party and eventually “sacrifices” himself to save them, getting sorrowful music and a sad-camera pan at his death (At least, I hope he’s really dead). In fact, he gets more of a death scene than Commander Tilton or King Eventine, both of whom are genuinely heroic and actually doing something useful when they are killed. Then there is the weirdness between Catania and Bandon; for no special reason, she’s in love with him and keeps returning to be choked, bitten, and thrown against the wall–and then she blames herself for failing him? And Allanon agrees? (“We both” failed him. Um, no. That one’s yours, Druid). The entire situation is infuriating and entirely unnecessary.
Last, and most surprisingly, The Shannara Chronicles was visually disappointing. Based on the book and then on the trailer, I was expecting a visual feast, not budget monsters. Yes, I know demon armies aren’t cheap, and magic has to be added later with CGI. But I thought MTV knew that, too. I assumed that whoever wanted to make the show was aware of this and had budgeted for it, earmarking some money for some of the book’s more spectacular scenes. Instead, all of the best scenes are in the trailer. Otherwise, the show’s makers appear to have spent the majority of their money on getting to New Zealand. The Shannara Chronicles does show us the Furies a couple of times, and I admit, they make pretty good monsters. But for the rest?
The miniseries’ primary monster is the Changeling, who spends all of its time looking like one of the already-hired actors. It is never shown actually transforming. The second monster is the Reaper, which barely shows up, looks like a cut-rate Sauron, and is kept in mists and darkness. The Demon army? They are all bipedal and wear armor and helmets that hide their faces completely. Look, here’s what makes that so disappointing:
It took the Dagda Mor several moments longer to locate the Reaper. He found it finally, not more than ten feet away, perfectly motionless, little more than a shadow in the pale light of early dawn, another bit of fading light hunched down against the grey of the Flats. Cloaked head to foot in robes the color of damp ashes, the Reaper was almost invisible, its face carefully concealed within the shadow of a broad hood. No one ever looked upon that face more than once. The Reaper permitted only its victims to see that much of it, and its victims were all dead.
If the Changeling were to be judged dangerous, then the Reaper was ten times more so. The Reaper was a killer. Killing was the sole function of its existence. It was a massive creature, heavily muscled, almost seven feet tall when it rose to its full height. Yet its size was misleading, for it was by no means ponderous. It moved the ease and grace of the best Elven hunter—smooth, fluid, quick, and noiseless. Once it had begun to hunt, it never gave up. Nothing it went after ever escaped. Even the Dagda Mor was wary of the Reaper, though it did not possess his power. He was wary because the Reaper served him out of whim…The Reaper feared nothing.
The show gives us:
The Demons were of all shapes and sizes, bent and twisted by the blackness that had encased them. There were teeth and claws and razor-sharp spines, hair and scales and bristled fur; they slouched and crawled, burrowed and flew, leaped and sliethered; all were things of legend and nightmare. Every creature of horror was there; were-creatures, half human, half animal, fleet gray shadows that the eye could barely follow; massive, shambling Ogres with hideously distorted features; Gremlins that flitted about as if blown upon the wind; Imps and Goblins, black with muck and slime; serpent forms that hissed their venom and twisted in frenzy; Furies and Demon-wolves; Ghouls and other things that ate of human flesh and drank human blood; Harpies and bat-things that blackened the sky as they lifted their bodies from the unwieldy bodies of their brethren. Surging through the mist, they ripped and tore at one another in their eagerness to break free.
The show gives us:
We should be getting the shivers and the heebie-jeebies. These things should an overwhelming, writhing mass. They should be revolting as well as terrifying. Instead, they are a standard-issue faceless foe, straight out of the catalog.
To list just a few of the other cinematically written but not shown scenes: Allanon fights a dragon in the hills and brings an entire cliffside down on it, closing the pass. The Dagda Mor and Allanon have a spectacular battle while riding their flying mounts. Amberle doesn’t walk into a door in the tree (who keeps a door in a tree?), she becomes the tree. Mallenroh and Morag are two intimidating, beautiful witch-twins who have their own bizarre dwellings and an army of twig-men as servants. The Elves (who do have the sense to plan ahead) have one of the bridges to the city set to collapse when they trigger it–taking a swarm of demons down with it. Not one of these scenes is in the show, and nothing that is there comes anywhere close to replacing them. Was I truly expecting all of them to make it on screen? Not really. But I was expecting some of them to be there.
So. Now I have watched The Shannara Chronicles.
Anyone got any suggestions for what I might watch next?
(1)“You must gather your party before venturing forth.”
In the event that you still wish to watch The Shannara Chronicles, it is currently available on Netflix, or you can buy it on Amazon.