When people discuss Terry Brook’s Shannara books, they mostly talk about how it’s a blatant rip off of the The Lord of the Rings. Which it is , to be fair, if you just read the first entry, The Sword of Shannara. Even at 14ish, I recognized that Sword was drawing heavily on LotR, but since I was 14ish and looking for another LotR, that was a selling point for me. Thing is, after Sword, Brooks took what was good in Shannara and ran with it in his own unique direction. Shannara is a lot like LotR in that it carries a strong emotional resonance for me. LotR is a bittersweet tale mourning the passing of elves and magic; Shannara is a tale about trying to survive in a world where magic is wild and fae and at least partially responsible for the destruction of the ancients. (Read: our world.) It’s been twenty years since I last read a Shannara book, and I only remember vague bits and broad story strokes, but the first seven or so Shannara books are among my fond memories of my teenage years. I was rather excited when I heard it had been picked up for TV. I was less excited when I found out it had been picked up by MTV.
I’m about to type words that I can’t imagine have been uttered before: MTV made a wise choice with this show. In making The Shannara Chronicles, they opted to skip the derivative Sword of Shannara and went straight for the second book in the original trilogy, The Elfstones of Shannara. Instead of making a show that would be dismissed as a knock of of LotR, the previous book hangs over the narrative with a nice weight. Elfstones— and The Shannara Chronicles— follows Will Ohmsford, the son (grandson in the book) of Shea Ohmsford, the hero of Sword. The Ohmsfords are half-elves, descendants of the famed Elven High King, Jerle Shannara, and closely bound with various magical talismans that belonged to the Shannara family. Among these are the eponymous Sword and Elfstones of Shannara, Decades after Shea used the Sword of Shannara to slay
Sauron the Warlock King, magic is again threatening the Four Lands. In the Elven capital, there is a tree, the Ellcrys, responsible for sealing away the demons that once ravaged the world, and after centuries or millennia of this, it is weakening. Should it die, the demons will be released, and, well. That’s bad news.
What’s also bad news is the approach MTV has brought to The Shannara Chronicles. The first forty-five minutes of the show are a series of Smoldering Looks traded between Pretty Young Things. Look. I’m married to the most beautiful woman on the planet, but I’m a man, and I appreciate the sight of pretty young women as much as the next guy. But at times it seems like these people just waltzed in off the set of one of MTV’s high school dramas and don’t realize that they’re now wearing elf ears and carrying swords. I don’t object to young, I don’t object to pretty, but I object to making a high fantasy feel like a high school drama. I actually stopped watching half an hour in because of it. I thought I was done, but maybe I just had to process it. Maybe several folks telling me to give it a shot again swayed me. Maybe I just didn’t want to get to work this afternoon and put it off by watching the next hour. Eventually, though, I put my finger on it: They took a high fantasy with an interesting background setting (Our future instead the past) and made it into Divergent. Once I wrapped my skull around that, I was able to roll with it. It’s still kind of annoying, but I can deal with it for an hour at a shot.
Most of my complaints come from the taint of MTV. There are cracks about getting knocked up on more than one occasion. The Smoldering Looks and Pretty Young Things. The music is either bland, or eerily similar to the emo garbage they play during Teen Mom 2’s emotional scenes. (My wife watches it sometimes. I don’t know. I read an article once about why smart people watch dumb things, and I still don’t understand.) Will Ohmsford is currently reminding me of Jax Teller filtered through Pajama Boy, but, admittedly, I don’t remember if he was like that in the books, and, at the very least, it gives room for growth.
But there’s also actually a decent chunk of good here. John Rhys-Davies has traded his axe in for elf ears and does a fantastic job as the aging king Eventine, one of the heroes in the war against the Warlock King decades before. The dude who plays the Druid, Allanon, nails it more often than not, and his sword (Which I suspect is the Sword of Shannara, but memory is stubbornly refusing to confirm) is pretty bad ass. They can and frequently do go a little heavy handed with the relics of a by-gone age; in the books, at least, it’s been thousands of years, and the old world is as much a legend as anything else, occasional ruin or cyborg monster not withstanding. In The Shannara Chronicles, though, we see lots of the old world, with rusting cars and helicopters laying around, the odd troll wearing a gas mask, and a rusting superfreighter just stuck in the mountains for no good reason. But then, you get a glimpse of some lovely mountains, reminiscent of the picturesque Chinese mountains featured in Avatar and Chinese ink wash paintings, and then you realize… Oh. Those are skyscrapers.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about this. If the show keeps going in the vein of the last half of the pilot, it’ll be a decent diversion when I’m not watching The Expanse. Episodes 1-4 are available online over at MTV.com. I’ve watched the first two, because I’d rather watch them from the comfort of my couch than a computer chair and the broadcast is behind, but there you go.