Thursday, January 7, 2016

O' Shannara! Where Art Thou?

Please sir, may I have another magic sword?
Right after I read Tolkien’s seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, I immediately ran down to my local B. Dalton bookstore to try to find something, anything, that was even remotely similar.  My hands stumbled upon Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara.  The book had me at the cover, with an elf, a dwarf and a human all staring at a magical sword.

The fact that two of them were archers was sauce for the goose!

What I hadn’t realized was that The Sword of Shannara was actually a Tolkien-clone.  I saw the parallels with Lord of the Rings immediately, with Shady Vale standing in for the Shire and unsuspecting, pure-of-heart main characters driven from their quiet lives to play major roles in important events.  There was even a “fellowship” consisting of nine additional characters—new and improved with more elven archers!  But I assumed this was how fantasy books were written.  Having only been exposed to two series, I figured this was a winning formula—swords, magic, dark lords, elves and a bit with a dwarf!

I loved it!

When The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara were released, I snatched them up as well, devouring them as only an impassioned reader can.

Quick!  Look dramatic and yet . . . fantastical!
Thus, despite some mockery and scornful word-of-mouth reviews, I wanted desperately to like MTV’s adaptation The Shannara Chronicles.  I set out to watch the first two episodes (available for free on YouTube) with as much hope and trepidation as Shea Ohmsford leaving the Vale for the first time.  The story kicks off with Elfstones, which Brooks has said is a better place to begin.  Being an author myself, and sometimes cringing when I have to re-read my first novel for reference, I can understand this.  The riff on LOTR was decent enough to earn Brooks a place at the table, but Elfstones is where he proved he could pass the mustard without spilling it on the nice table cloth.

Alas, Shanarra is not the next Game of Thrones.  It is good enough for what it is—MTV’s attempt at getting in the game of gritty fantasy—but Shanarra misses the point of everything that is great about HBO’s hit series.  It immediately tries to cover too much ground, exchanging character development for “exciting action”.  Maybe this will pay off in the next few episodes (the season is 10 episodes total) but don’t hold your breath.  I certainly don’t mind all the pretty elf and half-elf faces—that’s how elves should be.  But the willing suspension of disbelief is brought crashing down several times as the dialogue uses anachronistic language to try to create some of the humor that underlies much of Game of Thrones.

Is this dark and brooding enough for you?
Most of the characters are fairly well adapted, although Austin Butler’s Wil Ohmsford, seems perpetually lost and confused.  Poppy Drayton is lovely as Amberle Elessedil, a nicely updated character from the original text who can now hold her own in the Four Lands world—but for some reason still needs to have a shower scene in a waterfall.  John Rhys-Davies is wonderful as Eventine Elessedil, pulling off the aged Elven king with surprising grace.

The real treat here, though is, Manu Bennett’s Allanon.  He’s always been a fan favorite-character—a combination Gandalf and Aragorn. Bennett, stellar as Crixus in Starz Spartacus, pulls off  the mysterious druid so very well.  His presence alone immediately conveys the capable lone wanderer, a man who passes through dangerous lands on a mission to keep them safe.  Allanon is not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley, but if you have to go down that alley, he's the guy you want leading.  Bennett makes the character his own and almost (almost) wholly new.

Some of this makes up for the stumbles in the first two episodes, although it’s hard to forgive characters who live in a fantasy world, but scoff at belief in the fantastical.  This is meant to lend drama to the character drama, but in truth it makes me cringe in disbelief and wish I could fast-forward.  I'm very willing to give this series at least another two episodes, and that alone might carry me through the entire set of ten.  Granted, it’s been years since I last read Brooks’ Shannara series, so nostalgia might be carrying me along some distance.  But viewers looking for the next big thing in fantasy television may only find what critics complained of with Brooks’ first book—a Lord of the Rings clone.


  1. Manu and Rhys-Davies are worth watching for, for now. I enjoyed it. :-)

    1. Exactly. I'm willing to forgive a lot on their score. Also, the special effects are pretty impressive. We've come a long way since "Dragonslayer"!