Like many kids (and probably many adults), I first picked up Terry Brooks’ Shannara series because of one of the book covers. Being a huge fan of the Brothers Hildebrandt, their distinct illustration on the front of The Sword Of Shannara (not to mention their pencil drawings within) were adventurous yet somehow comforting—the perfectly curled parchments, the pockets of shadow offset by glowing fairytale faces, the warmth that radiated from every image, no matter how horrific the monster. Under the Hildebrandts’ brushes, the novel looked like high fantasy by way of an old-school Christmas card.
The siblings didn’t return to illustrate Sword’s successor, The Elfstones Of Shannara—also the source material for MTV’s first season of The Shannara Chronicles. But it didn’t matter. Regardless of who took over the covers—and in the case of the first two sequels, the illustrations—the visuals had the same lived-in folksiness about them, a used look that lent commonality to the otherwise unbelievable world of the Four Lands. The funny thing is, like his primary influence J.R.R. Tolkien, Brooks never got all that descriptive with his characters and settings in the early novels, thus leaving the covers to do a lot of the world-building in readers’ heads.
Given this lack of textual reference points, I shouldn’t be irked that The Shannara Chronicles looks so—I feel slimier than dragon’s scales just saying it—sexy. After all, this is MTV circa 2015. Of course the producers (Jon Favreau, Jonathan Liebesman, and Brooks himself among them) are going to cater more to the YA crowd than the 31-year-old-men-who-grew-up-collecting-all-of-the-Hildebrandts’-Tolkien-calendars crowd (hangs head in shame). Of course they’re going to depict elves as pointy-eared hunks and babes straight out of the Twilight series—not hardscrabble beings whose environs are more pastoral than palatial.
Here’s the thing with teen-baiting sexiness though: it’s an aesthetic that becomes grating when the story surrounding it is so serious, if only because teen-baiting sexiness is so serious in itself. And that makes it doubly hard to take anything seriously on The Shannara Chronicles. Had the creators been a bit more playful; had they clad the elves in the looser, more rustic clothing from the illustrations instead of form-fitting body suits cribbed from The Hunger Games, then maybe the premiere episode would be more fun. Yes, the flaws go far beyond costuming, but you get the idea.
At least Liebesman (who directs) and writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar maintain a brisk, light touch when handling the plot, which goes a little something like this: at the center of the elves’ capital city of Arbolon is the Ellcrys, an autumnal tree that supposedly keeps all Demons (yes, it’s a capital “D”) at bay from invading the Four Lands. Each leaf represents one of the evil beings, and when a leaf falls, a Demon is able to reenter the physical world. But in the tradition of A Game Of Thrones (actually, reverse that since the Shannara series came first), magic has gone into a state of hibernation, leading all of the elves—save for John Rhys-Davies’ King Eventine Elessedil—to view the Ellcrys as nothing more than superstition.
Naturally, the tree’s mythology is indeed real, as King Eventine’s granddaughter, Amberle (Poppy Drayton)—who, along with the other “Chosen” elves, has been tasked with guarding the Ellcrys—starts to see in her prophetic visions. Her fever dreams also tell her that she’ll be responsible for slaughtering all of The Chosen, so she flees into the wilderness to prevent any bloodshed. But like most predictions in fantasy literature, the prophecy is self-fulfilling, and her friends all end up dead anyway when the tree starts shedding its leaves and a corrupted Druid named Dagda Mor sends his army to destroy The Chosen. Only when the last leaf falls will he be able to burst out of his protective black-henge fortress and into the Four Lands.
If all that has you scratching your head, rest assured that the logistics are handled much more deftly by Gough and Millar over a story-packed 80 minutes, each one far more coherent than any summary I could ever write. Since they keep the expositional dialogue short and sweet, there’s not much time to stop and think about how nonsensical or perhaps a little too reminiscent of Tolkien (a doom-and-gloom prophecy; a weakened dark lord slowly building up power; a John Rhys-Davies; the list goes on) the plot sounds. They also present the order of events in a more logical sequence than Brooks—where he jumped from setting to setting like a jester dancing on hot coals, the writers here stay with characters for long stretches so we can soak in all the wide-eyed speechifying. If only it weren’t delivered through such gravely sexy faces.
The tone does feel a little looser when the story moves from the full-blooded elves to Will Ohmsford (Austin Butler). Maybe it’s because the character’s a dopier, clumsier half-elf, or maybe it’s because other than Rhys-Davies (who obviously has experience with this sort of thing) and Manu Bennett (who, as the good Druid Allanon, has the age and the chops to make stoicism an art form), Butler’s the only actor able to make the sword-and-sorcery hokum sound like contemporary speech. When he’s told by Allanon that his origins and the Elfstones gifted to him by his dying mother are the key to salvaging the Ellcrys—and therefore the whole world—you buy into his fear, cautious pride, and increasingly effective stabs at bravery.
By the episode’s end, a Rover named Eretria (Ivana Baquero) and her adoptive father Cephelo (James Remar) are in possession of the Elfstones, and Allanon and Will have hooked up with Amberle in hopes of staving off the onslaught of evil, only to see Amberle’s aunt (and Allanon’s former lover interest) attacked by a winged demon. Although the CGI is little better than 1997’s Spawn (I’ll forgive the restrictions of a TV budget; even Game Of Thrones looks fake at times), Liebesman’s jolting direction of the fight, as well as his visceral staging of the earlier Chosen massacre, show that The Chronicles Of Shannara is at least capable of delivering a riveting action sequence. Now that the elaborate narrative foundation has been laid, maybe there will be more of them. Action sequences are fun. And The Shannara Chronicles would go down easier with a little more fun.
- As I said above, I haven’t read any of the Shannara novels since I was little, so I’ll be rereading Elfstones as I watch this first season. Chances are I won’t come across anything too spoilery, seeing as I don’t remember much of the plot and am discovering things in real time. Regardless, I’ve titled the separate section below “The Spoilers Of Shannara” to cast off thoughts and questions more closely related to the novel and the greater Shannara mythology.
- I tend not to cover every last plot point in any show review, never mind a complicated fantasy epic. So needless to say, there are a lot of subplots I didn’t touch on (Amberle’s lover-boy, her brother, etc.). But I will as they become more prominent.
- Although the digital effects leave something to be desired, Dagda Mor’s makeup is suitably creepy. I’m always a sucker for lacerations bound shut by piercings. Like this.
- I’ve never watched MTV’s Teen Wolf, but I know our reviews have said nice things about it here and there. Does it have a similar lack of joy that feels like a departure from the source material?
- I wonder if Rhys-Davies feels like a traitor playing an elf.
- I get why the heavier elven focus would be more appealing to a young audience, but I’m still left wondering why MTV didn’t start by adapting The Sword Of Shannara, which has a much less convoluted plot.
- Am I wrong, or is Flick being presented here as Wil’s uncle rather than his great uncle, as he is in the books? Likewise, the guy they’re referring to as Wil’s father is actually his grandfather in the novels, right? Maybe the writers just wanted to streamline the family tree a bit.
- The appearance of derelict helicopters and satellites make it clear that the creators aren’t tiptoeing around the fact that The Shannara Chronicles doesn’t take place in the past or another dimension, but in the future. From what I remember, this isn’t revealed until way later on in the novels. Does anyone remember similar futuristic hints in the books? I’ll point them out as I stumble across them.