When I first heard about The Shannara Chronicles, I will admit to probably being too optimistic. I mean, we were still talking about MTV, after all. But I wasn’t the only one, and I had some good reasons. The Smallville guys were writing it, the Iron Man guy was producing it, and Terry Brooks, the author of the series on which it was based, a man famous for refusing to let movie and television people get their hands on his story without damn good reason, was personally involved in the creative process. Beyond that, as previously mentioned, the book being adapted was The Elfstones of Shannara, arguably the best novel in the entire series. There was reasonable cause for hope.
Still, it took me over a year to get around to watching the first episode. During that time, I learned that the show had been greenlit for a second season, which was good. I also learned that it had made its way to Netflix disturbingly quickly, which was bad. Finally, at long last, I convinced my fiancée to sit down with me and watch that first episode, practically praying that it be good enough, at least, that she’d consent to watch the next one.
As it turned out, that wasn’t in any way a concern. Because I myself had no interest in watching the next episode, still haven’t, and probably never will.
There are two reasons that the first episode of The Shannara Chronicles turned me off basically forever. The first is that it’s bad simply on the merits of being a television show. The visuals are striking, at least in terms of the backgrounds and most of the CGI, but the costuming is truly bizarre. The actors are almost entirely terrible (what the hell are you doing here, John Rhys-Davies, are you that hard up for work that you had to hang out with these idiots?) And the script is awful. Awful. And I say that knowing that most fantasy stuff sounds really silly when you ask people to say it out loud. I swear to God, at one point a character in this show literally says the words, “I summon a henge of stone.” That is real. That happens on screen.
The second reason I won’t be going back has to do with what happens in the episode vs. what happens in the book supposedly being adapted. I know, I know, an adaptation shouldn’t be exactly like the book, why can’t you just appreciate the changes, blah blah blah. I reviewed Game of Thrones for four years, y’all; if you think I haven’t already heard all of this, you don’t know Game of Thrones fans. But in this case, the changes are so thorough, so immediate, and so goddamn cliched that I simply cannot leave them alone.
Let’s start from the beginning. The Elfstones of Shannara opens with a group of elves known as the Chosen, who are tasked with caring for the ancient (and magical) tree called the Ellcrys. The Chosen are picked anew by the Ellcrys herself every year, and females are almost never selected. This past year, an elven girl named Amberle, the king’s granddaughter, was picked to be one of the Chosen, but she recently disappeared. Different from the others, she was unusually close to the Ellcrys; the tree actually talked to her after her choosing, instead of speaking only at the time of selection. At some point, the Ellcrys told Amberle something she didn’t like (which I won’t spoil, but if you’ve read the book or seen the first season of the show, you know what it is) and she fled from the city.
The Shannara Chronicles opens with Amberle training for something. Apparently, in this version the Chosen are selected based on who can cross the finish line first after running a race/obstacle course. Women aren’t allowed to compete, so Amberle trains at night with the help of her uncle, Ander. She shows up on the day of the race, and it’s a great scandal, and of course, she barely makes the cut, largely because the Ellcrys helps her at a crucial juncture. It had to be a race, of course, because in this version of the story, nobody believes that the Ellcrys is actually magical. Later, she starts having horrible visions when she’s near the tree. One of those visions is that she will stab her boyfriend with a sword, which she obviously doesn’t want to do, so she leaves.
Again, I try not to be too profane on this blog, but holy fucking shit, this is bad. Not only is it riddled with the most obvious fantasy tropes in the world – woman defies patriarchy, nobody believes in magic anymore, a prophecy about killing a loved one – but it completely defies one of the central narratives of the book, which is about Amberle accepting a responsibility from which she had previously fled. In this version, she’s just running away from a vision the tree inexplicably gives her. Then there are the weird characterizations of both the individuals and the society at large, which don’t line up with the books in any way. Amberle goes from being a shy, kind of weird loner kid to being the coolest girl in school – and yes, I appreciate the way she gives the finger to elven sexism, but of course she had to be the last one to cross the finish line, and she only made it because the Ellcrys really needed a girl this time around. Ander, who in the book is a quiet, intelligent, compassionate man, is portrayed in the show as a prankish sex maniac who can’t keep his eyes of the Captain of the Home Guard, because this is MTV and errbody gets hooked up. That’s honestly the main problem here, and the one I was most afraid of going in — everybody is an MTV character, even these supposed elves. It’s okay if your elves aren’t exactly Tolkein elves, but they need to be some kind of elves, don’t they? The only thing non-human about any of these people is the pointed ears. They look, act, and speak like regular humans…in the year 2016 (when Amberle pulls a sword on her boyfriend so he won’t stop her from leaving, his line is, “Seriously?” because we’re assuming the audience can only relate to modern-day teenagers). The only exception to this is when characters talk like cardboard cutouts instead, such as Amberle’s friend and loyal companion, whose first or second line of dialogue in the show begins, “As your friend and loyal companion…”
Okay, so the elves suck. What about everyone else? Surely there’s at least one main character from the book that MTV didn’t “cool” into oblivion?
If only. There’s a scene in the first episode where this big, muscular guy covered in ritualistic scars that looked vaguely like tribal tattoos wakes up in an icy cave, covered in frost, then gets up and dramatically produces a sword. I had no idea who this man was, and I’ve read Elfstones a hundred times. Turns out he’s MTV’s version of Allanon, the last druid, who stood in for Gandalf as the exposition-spewing, magic-wielding wise man in The Sword of Shannara. Allanon’s whole thing is swooping unexpectedly into some poor Ohmsford’s life, sending him or her on a vital quest, and occasionally shooting deadly blue fire from his fingers. He is a massive improvement on Gandalf in that he is (a) less OP, and (b) morally ambiguous, often hiding the truth from both the main characters and the reader until it’s too late to avoid the pain he’s causing. He takes the concept of the near-immortal wizard to it’s logical conclusion, i.e., someone who won’t hesitate to throw the little people, who don’t share his elite knowledge, under the bus, usually to their death or suffering. Magic and opposing evil forces is what matters.
You know Allanon definitely isn’t? A scar-bedecked professional wrestler with a bad-ass sword. It doesn’t help that they guy playing him was probably rejected for the role of Gregor Clegane for want of acting ability. I can’t, y’all. I just can’t.
Of everyone, I’m most okay with the show’s take on Eritrea, the roguish seductress from Shannara’s answer to a Gypsy clan. She at least resembles her book character, and even though she’s much more of a warrior in the show, I’m not going to complain too much about a woman who’s allowed to be competent in battle. If I had a negative initial reaction, it’s only because by the time she showed up, I was just so sick of everyone in this show being Supremely Awesome…
…except, of course, the hero of the story.
I weep for the Wil Ohmsford I once knew. You know what’s great about Wil in the book? He’s competent. He’s not perfect — he makes mistakes, doubts himself, holds many fears, and doesn’t always succeed — but he is knowledgeable, skilled, and altruistic in both an ideological and practical sense. Wil is a healer, and he is so dedicated to his job that when we first meet him, he’s managed to get himself an apprenticeship with the gnomes of Storlock. These are the best healers in the Four Lands, and they never train outsiders, but Wil is the exception. He knows what he wants out of life, he doesn’t have mommy or daddy issues, he’s not insecure or naive, he’s just a really decent guy with a good head on his shoulders.
In contrast, in The Shannara’s Chronicles, the first thing Wil does is go full fucking Anakin Skywalker, vowing to become a healer because his mom is dead and nobody can ever be allowed to die again (I assume). His mom gives him his dad’s magic Elfstones before she dies, which he has a problem with because he thinks his dad was crazy, so…mommy and daddy issues! Hooray! Wil then sets out on a wide-eyed and ill-conceived quest for…I dunno, healing skills, I guess…and promptly gets rescued by and then duped by Eritrea. Confidence? Nowhere. Knowledge, or maybe practicality? Zero. Healing skills? Somewhere in the distant future, maybe. The dude comes off as an idiot who probably should have just stuck around to help his uncle on the tuber farm or whatever, instead of storming off in an aimless huff because death is a thing. It’s almost as pathetic as the actor attempting to play him.
And even here — EVEN HERE — somebody working for MTV couldn’t resist incorporating the post-apocalyptic nuclear angle. It’s not the focus of the story, which is an improvement, at least, but even in the first episode you could see the temptation to jump the gun, abandon the characters, and just talk about nukes. There’s at least one random shot of some modern device sitting on the ground covered in moss, followed by Wil and Eritrea saying something about the Old World. And I’ve seen stills from a later episode that seem to depict the fallen form of an ancient, destroyed Space Needle, which makes me wonder how much it cost to get that shot, and where else that money could have gone. Maybe to the makeup budget? During the pilot, Eritrea kills what she calls a troll, but what looks like a dude in a gas mask, because again, we cannot just let this go and tell a fantasy story.
It is possible that this show gets better, but what I’ve read doesn’t sound promising. The next season will feature the same main characters, not a generation hop, which actually makes sense in TV, but some of the stuff MTV has been telling us about Season 2 is making my blood run cold.
For one thing, the next season’s plot will apparently involve the Warlock Lord somehow, which means we’re venturing back to Sword of Shannara territory instead of moving forward with stuff from The Wishsong of Shannara like the Ildatch, an sentient book of evil magic, or, you know, the wishsong. The city of Leah is apparently being upgraded to the major human nation of the Four Lands. And of course, we have a whole host of new characters, who, taken together, make this new season sound positively schizophrenic.
Season 1 apparently already brought in Slanted, the gnome tracker from Wishsong. Now it seems we’re getting a version of Mareth, a girl with magical powers who appeared in The First King of Shannara. Original characters Chiam and Lyria serve the roles, respectively, of leader of magic-hating soldier band The Crimson, and romantic interest of Eretria. The only place I can imagine they got The Crimson from is the Crimson Elfstones, which drain magic in the books. As for Lyria, I hope for the sake of this show’s viewers that she’s actually a person and doesn’t exist strictly for fan service/copying Game of Thrones reasons.
But the most egregious new character is Gareth, described thusly by Den of Geek:
Gentry White (UnReal) will play Garet, the “wise-cracking Weapons Master of the Four Lands.” Garet is a bounty hunter, “skilled, sly, and charismatic,” it sounds like Garet could add some comedic elements to Season 2.
Wise-cracking. Comedic elements. Here’s a picture of the Weapon Master, Gareth Jax:
Garet Jax does not crack jokes. Garet Jax fucks up your day. That is all.
This is coming off really strongly like I just hate everything about this show because it’s nothing like the books, but honestly, I had to write all this just because I’m disappointed. All this time waiting for Shannara to be adapted to another medium, and this is what we get? Will there ever be a non-book version of this story that feels like the creators respected said story, and that also happens to not be a pile of shit?
What’s that you say?
OH HELL YES
Welcome to Shannara: The Video Game! Produced by Legendary and released in 1995 for DOS and PC, the game takes place in that lost generation between Sword and Elfstones, i.e. it involves Shea’s son, who is presumably Wil’s father. It’s…presumably canon? Maybe? It’s definitely a really fun game, half puzzle-quest and half turn-based combat, buoyed along by a good story and fantastic voice-acting.
And it’s hard. The combat system isn’t terribly strategic, but the puzzles can get ridiculous. Most of the game involves finding innovative ways to solve challenges, particularly the ones that seem impossible. To do this, you have to find items and use them appropriately, a task that can involve putting things together, taking them apart, examining them and re-examining them until you finally find that one fucking phrase in the flavor text that indicates how they are supposed to be used. How many of my fellow Shannara players were told you needed to find “that which died when first it blossomed” and thought, “Hey, that must refer to the dead rose petals which are logically (but not explicitly) part of this random-ass potpourri box I found (and already used for something else) earlier in the game?”
It’s also pretty goddamn dark for a fantasy adventure game presumably marketed towards children. If you’re not paying attention at the end, for example, it’s really easy to do the wrong thing and end up not saving the world, but rather becoming totally corrupted by dark magic and turning into the Ultimate Evil yourself. This isn’t the Diablo-style, “I finished the game like I was supposed to and now a cut scene is telling me I became my own enemy” finish, either; if you turn evil at the end, it’s because you done fucked up and missed something.
Moreover, to get to the end in the first place you have to systematically leave every single one of your companions behind to die. Every. Single. One. Starting with the girl your character is in love with, which is just the sickest, most traumatic video game scenario you could possibly inflict on a player.
It goes like this. Early in the game, you and Shella (your by-default girlfriend) have to get information from a ghost by summoning him back from the dead using a ritual you found in a book. In doing so, you and Shella damn your own souls by engaging in dark magic; when you die, your souls become the property of the same evil asshole whose plans you’re supposed to be thwarting.
Later, Shella is mortally wounded in an ambush, and as she’s dying, she tells you she’d really rather not lose her soul to the villain of the story. Fortunately (kind of) the book you found contains another ritual that will release her soul from bondage. Sounds simple, right?
Yeah…except that ritual can only be completed in the moment the subject dies, and Shella isn’t quite dead enough yet for it to work. You could wait her out, but the ambush was just the opening volley of another attack that’s bearing down on you as you speak. That means you have to make Shella more dead in a hurry, so you can free her soul with the ritual before you and the rest of your friends are captured. So you see where this is going…
Yup. In order to save Shella’s soul, you have to stab her with your sword and kill her yourself. Not only that, but later on her fucking ghost shows up demanding to know why you murdered her in a soul-saving exercise brought on by the summoning that was your stupid idea in the first place. Jesus Christ, Legendary, way to sucker me into playing a supposedly fun game and then put me through self-hating emotional hell! It’s what games these days are really missing, when you think about it: an accurate simulation of the sacrifice and guilt and horrible moral quandaries it takes to actually do something heroic. I can’t imagine why the idea didn’t catch on.
Then again, people who love video games are constantly defending them as a legitimate alternative means of telling a story, so here’s the perfect example of that. You know what tends to happen in a good story? The hero has to do something that makes him fucking despise himself for the greater benefit of humanity. The Shannara game knocked that one out of the park.
Of course, you do have the option to save Shella’s life using magic, but it’s magic you need to defeat the evil guy and if you use it up on Shella, you fail in your quest, lose the game and allow darkness to sweep over all the land. It’s pretty hard to find a way to play Shannara in 2017 (you can download it for free and play it with DOSBox, but that version has all the voice-acting stripped out and it does diminish the experience) but if you can manage it, you might consider just saving Shella’s life with the magic on the second playthrough. True, you condemn the world to a horrible future of terror and subjugation, but you’ll probably get laid before the end.
And in any case, you’re better off playing this, even without the voice-acting, than watching The Shannara Chronicles.