I read my first Shannara novel in sixth grade, or thereabouts. I know this because, for an eleven-year-old who could quote LotR passages verbatim, those early- to mid-2000s were rough. Anxiously suspended between Eragon and an as-yet-unreleased Eldest, between The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, I needed a fantasy stopgap. My dad, mercifully, supplied one.
It took me two days to finish The Sword of Shannara. In a matter of weeks I had buried myself in author Terry Brooks’s blessedly formidable oeuvre.
I start my review of MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles here to stress the following point: I, like many others, like my dad himself, who was also eleven when The Sword (1977) exploded onto the fantasy scene, grew up on Terry Brooks. I like Terry Brooks. Consequently, when the trailer for a ten-episode adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara (1982) dropped at Comic-Con last year, I was over the moon—brazenly optimistic and inclined above all else to be charitable. Finally, I thought, after years of will-they-won’t-they—finally Brooks is getting the Hollywood treatment.
Three episodes in, and The Shannara Chronicles is testing my optimism.
Set in a distant future where nuclear war has knocked civilization as we know it back into quasi-medievalism, Shannara imagines a world, the Four Lands, populated by humans, elves, trolls, and the like—a world that has lately come under threat by hordes of once-banished demons. In classic fantasy fashion, only one person, a young elven woman named Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), can prevent the world’s annihilation and re-imprison the demons, but she need not venture out on her own. Assisting her in this quest are the incorrigibly naive Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), the cynically minded Eretria (Ivana Bquero), and—for now, at least—the brooding last druid, Allanon (Manu Bennett).
If the contours of the story sound familiar, they should. Much as I love it, Terry Brooks’s first novel, The Sword of Shannara, is a notorious rip-off of The Lord of the Rings, and the quest narrative itself, its plot beats and characters, are hardly unfamiliar. Just ask Joseph Campbell.
Yet narrative precedent is not in itself a stroke against Shannara, and it bears mentioning that the show does occasionally deviate from its literary forebears, and even from its source material. Take its post-apocalyptic setting. In contrast with The Elfstones—a novel that, aside from a few oblique allusions to old-world artifacts, could easily take place in your run-of-the-mill Tolkienian Europe—The Shannara Chronicles leaves viewers with no questions concerning its setting’s heritage. The upshot? Some spectacular shots of the toppled Space Needle and of collapsed overpasses set against every fantasist’s favorite countryside: New Zealand. And, because deviation begets deviation, this visual reminder of the fantasy world’s history allows for increased flexibility in costuming and speech—a breath of fresh air, relative to fantasy’s stereotypically stuffy, medieval rusticness.
So, no, the derivativeness/originality of the story should not constitute the basis for gauging Shannara’s merits. How effectively the show executes that story, however, is another matter, and here I find my major complaints.
Chief among these is the question of pacing. Despite the ponderous tome from which it was adapted, The Shannara Chronicles proceeds with whipcrack-speed, characters and bits of worldbuilding flitting past with nary a pause to catch your breath—or to register a complaint. The result is a cheaply-bought minimum of engagement and excitement that often serves to obscure faulty characterization and thin plotting, as when Bandon (Marcus Vanco), a character of mysterious and possibly dangerous origin, inexplicably turns into Wil’s trusted adviser.
Relatedly (and this coming from a genre that makes coincidence its bread and butter), Shannara relies far too often upon chance encounters in forests—a kind of uncanny return, time and again, to the story’s protagonists. And the effect of these returns is one that runs exactly counter to the sense of space and possibility that epic fantasy ought properly to evoke: it constricts the world. In the Four Lands, it seems that no one but Amberle, Wil, Eretria, and Allanon go a-roaming.
And all of this is compounded, finally, by frequently stilted dialogue and cringe-worthy acting.
Arion Elessedil: “I have had enough of this wizard’s cryptic pronouncements!”
We might speculate, of course, about MTV’s role in all this. Certainly, relative to its unapologetically adult cousin Game of Thrones, Shannara feels tailored to a younger demographic—that is, to precisely the demographic MTV courts. But when does YA-friendly cross the line into dumbing down? Might, in this case, the two have been confused? In an entertaining interview between Stephen Colbert and Maurice Sendak, Sendak says, “I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book”—an assertion that implies, to my mind at least, a lack of distinction between good children’s stories and good stories. Maybe there’s a lesson here.
I hope so. And I hope that Shannara improves, that these first three episodes merely constitute a rocky start to an otherwise engaging series. Till then, though, I’ll have to answer this 80s throwback with another: where Shannara-adaptations are concerned, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
The fourth episode of The Shannara Chronicles airs Tuesday at 10/9c on MTV. The first four episodes may be streamed for free at MTV.com.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.