THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES aired on 5 Star in the UK today and MTV in the USA. The beloved fantasy novel written by Terry Brooks was the sequel to his hit 1977 bestseller The Sword of Shannara, an epic fantasy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings but with one unusual twist – the stories are set in a post-apocalyptic future that only resembles the medieval world of fantasy.
The Elfstones of Shannara is a much darker affair and sees elves pitted against a demonic invasion. Only a young, half-elven boy and an elven maiden can stop it. The book captured the imagination of millions of readers. But how does the new TV series shape up?
The TV pilot opens with an action sequence not in the novel, as Amberle, an elven princess, competes in a difficult race to become one of the Chosen, a religious order sworn to protect the Ellcrys, a magical tree that protects the elves from demons sealed off from the world by The Forbidding. We are then introduced to several of the main characters, including Will Ohmsford, the young boy whose destiny is linked to the Ellcrys in some way.
The show boasts some excellent CGI visuals, especially the enormous backdrops of the Elven palace of Arborlon and several shots of old world superstructures, now crawling with vines and forgotten. It’s a handsome production, although sometimes the elven costumes and hairstyles resemble Arborlon 90210 rather than those of a medieval fantasy land.
Initial signs were encouraging.
The writing was for the most part serviceable. The first episode was more of an introduction to the characters, which worked fine on a story level. However, there were some cringeworthy moments. Series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are known for Smallville, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and I Am Number Four. And that kind of writing style lingered throughout. There were several moments of heavy-handed cliché: the kick-ass heroine, the dumb young male hero, the kick-ass female warrior, the kick-ass female thief, etc., etc. Also, several rather unfeasible physical stunts: a male elven warrior knocked out by a young girl with one blow of a sword hilt. But hey, maybe these elves all have glass jaws.
The writers also changed a lot, bringing in some characters earlier and adding more romance, which is forgivable when you’re trying to draw in new viewers. One strange plot hole was that none of the elves believed in the magic of the Ellcys, not even Amberle. Which was odd, because she’d just competed in a dangerous trial to become a member of a religious order dedicated to protecting that very magic. The king also had an advisor specifically dedicated to monitoring the tree’s health. Kind of makes you wonder why they bothered if the tree’s power was just a fairy story.
Also apparent was some groan-inducing dialogue. This was dialogue obviously added to appeal to modern teens: “I smell elf-boy hate” says one character, while an elven princess tells her friend “Thanks for the save”. I’m pretty sure people won’t be talking like that in 10 years, let alone thousands of years from now. That kind of writing made Arborlon feel more like an American High School than a place of high fantasy.
But what really got on my nerves was the directing – or more specifically, the editing. During the first 25 minutes I had to resist the urge to switch off, because I was getting dizzy. Director Jonathan Liebesman (known for Wrath of the Titans and the recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) seems to have a rule that the camera cannot stay on anything for more than 2 seconds. As the shot constantly changed, sometimes even mid-sentence, I felt like I was inside a nightclub at 2:30 in the morning. Even a dying woman’s last moments featured multiple shots because I guess that just wasn’t dramatic enough. When the camera finally lingered on a money shot of Arborlon for a whole 10 seconds, I felt real relief.
All of which was a shame, because I wanted to love The Shannara Chronicles. I’m a huge fan of the stories and of Terry Brooks’ writing in general – The Elfstones is one of the few novels I’ve read several times. And like many fans, I’m amazed that Hollywood has not seized upon the chance to adapt these into big budget movies. Because that’s what they really need.
Despite this, the series showed some promise. What was smart was the way the filmmakers used backdrops – the Seattle Space Needle now like a giant, fallen tree. The sense of wonder conveyed in the trailers really drew me in. The demons also look suitably weird and scary. And there are enough wonders in the book to provide many CGI amusement in future episodes.
The acting too was pretty good. The leads certainly look the part, with Will Ohmsford and Amberle (played by relative newcomers Austin Butler and Poppy Drayton) both being particularly strong, if not outstanding. John Rhys-Davis (possibly the only man to play both a dwarf and an elf) adds his usual gravitas as the elven king. As for Manu Bennett as Allanon – he’s a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment. A man of monolithic stature, he looks the part. But does he possess the menacing mystique of Brooks’ creation, or will his character degenerate into a brute superhero?
I am going to watch future episodes, if only to see whether the editing style will calm down. I hope so. Because if the creators can steer away from the patronizing, market-driven approach of so many other forgettable TV shows, they could still create something great. Or at least something that gives people a flavour of Terry Brooks’ unique and moving vision of the world of Shannara. This series’ saving grace just might be the incredible plot of the original book. But at this point, after viewing the pilot, I need a little more convincing that the magic is there.