MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles is a Modern Take on an Old Classic

It might have taken decades for Shannara fans to finally get their hands on a screen adaptation of Terry Brooks’ classic fantasy series, but it took only a few hours for them to devour the first four episodes (available now on the official website) and begin debating its merits online and around the water cooler. The Shannara Chronicles, which debuted on MTV on January 5th, is an adaptation of Brooks’ second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara, regarded by many readers as his finest work. It might seem odd to begin with an author’s second novel, but, as I discuss in Rereading Shannara, it’s actually the perfect introductory point for new fans to the series.

As a tried-and-true Shannara fan, with a close personal history with Elfstones, I was particularly keen—and concerned—for this adaptation. There’s a lot to be excited about, of course (Brooks’ character-driven narratives are perfect for television, and Elfstones is a terrific story), but also some areas of concern (MTV? Really?) So, as I’ve learned to do over the years, I approached The Shannara Chronicles cautiously but optimistically.

I needn’t have been worried. Yeah, it’s not the second coming of Game of Thrones, and it’s aimed quite directly at MTV’s predominantly teenage market, but The Shannara Chronicles is a solid adaptation of a great novel. It might even have the legs to become the next big thing in fantasy television.

I think the show’s ultimate success depends on the angle at which viewers approach it. If you’re a big Shannara fan and expect a straight-across adaption of Brooks’ novel, you’re probably going to be frustrated by the show’s tone. If you’re jonesing for a new Game of Thrones, the lack of nuance and political complexity might leave you a little bored. However, if you’re like me, you’ll recognize that Elfstones, when read in a modern context, is basically a YA novel; the pairing with MTV and their approach to create a teen drama mixed with an epic fantasy is actually a fairly accurate representation of Brooks’ novel. And, if you’re someone loves fantasy television but finds Game of Thrones exploitative and needlessly violent, The Shannara Chronicles is the perfect antidote. Viewers new to the series, or new to fantasy fiction period, will be drawn in by an engaging and addictive series with a likeable cast and a mile-a-minute plot.

So, for Shannara fans, it’s about tempering expectations—understanding that an adaptation is just that: it reimagines the source material, changing it for a new medium, and a new audience. For more on this, tune in to next week’s edition of Rereading Shannara, where we’ll dig deeper into The Shannara Chronicles‘ success and failures as an adaptation.

Light spoilers ahead.

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One of the most immediately apparent strengths of The Shannara Chronicles is that it’s a show about relationships. From Amberle’s fear of the Ellcrys, to her sense of duty to her people, to Wil’s tug-of-war with Eretria, and Allanon’s enigmatic and antagonistic bond with the people he is trying to save, every storyline in The Shannara Chronicles is built off of a foundation of healthy (and unhealthy) emotional and political relationships between its sizeable cast. You can feel the tension between Allanon and the Elven King Eventine, who have been allies before, but must wade through a sea of distrust and confusion. Wil is believably pulled between Amberle, who wants nothing of his help, and Eretria, who is strong and cunning but believes Wil is her ticket away from her father’s controlling grasp. (Though I think it does a disservice to Eretria to imply that she must anchor herself to another man to escape her father. The strongest characters in The Shannara Chronicles and The Elfstones of Shannara are all women.)

Fortunately MTV has assembled a cast that is more than equal for Brooks’ work. I’m particularly impressed with: Ivana Baquero, who brings a lot of charisma to Eretria and steals every scene she’s in; Manu Bennett, who does a tremendous job in the unenviable position of having to portray Allanon, one of ’80s fantasy’s most iconic characters; and Austin Butler, who’s Wil is accurately self-deprecating, naive, and likeable (and, truth be told, just straight-up dumb sometimes). I’ve read Elfstones countless times, and so I have strong pictures of these characters in my head—I know their mannerisms, the way they talk, how they look and dress—yet I was surprised by how easily I fell into the show, forgetting that I was watching somebody else’s interpretation of the characters. This is thanks in part to snappy, well-written dialogue and the wonderful chemistry between almost the entire cast.

Less impressive are the Elven brothers, Ander (Aaron Jakubenko) and Arion (Daniel MacPherson), both of whom struggle to live up to my memories of the characters in the books. Arion is meant to be a charismatic and athletic leader, someone with the gravitas to steal the attention of whatever room he walks into. However on the show he’s skinny, whiny, and has a weird reverse mullet. Ander’s character has been altered dramatically—he’s a playboy instead of a bookworm. Initially this put me off, but by the end of the fourth episode I recognize it as the writers’ attempt to add some diversity of character to the Elves, lest they all come across as boring stick-in-the-muds. It’s not so much a criticism of the actors, who are fine, but of the writers’ interpretations of Brooks’ characters. I think that Ander’s struggle to reconcile his lack of confidence as a leader is one of the novel’s strengths, so we’ll see if playboy-turned-hero manages to be as emotionally effective in the adaptation. I doubt it will.

The show’s detailed and imaginative visualization of the Four Lands, a post-apocalyptic fantasy version of the Pacific Northwest, is absolutely delightful. A visual feast. While still full of all the touchstones that fantasy fans expect in a post-Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones world—Elves with pointy ears, cloaks, glowy magic, sweeping New Zealand landscapes—it subverts expectations by placing relics of the Old World, our world, into nearly every scene. As Amberle, Eretria, and Wil traverse the Four Lands, they pass under collapsed freeways, through landlocked oil freighters, run across rusted-out vehicles, and battle Trolls garbed in the detritus of the twenty-first century. Even the characters’ wardrobes and speech resonate with contemporary North American life. At first it’s a little jarring. I mean, an epic fantasy full of people speaking with American accents? Unheard of! But once you settle in, you realize that the artists, fabricators, and linguists involved in building this living, breathing world have done a fantastic job of visualizing what our world might look like hundreds of years after the apocalypse and the waking of magic.

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The Shannara Chronicles‘ biggest challenge is in condensing a chunky fantasy novel into a short season. This most obviously rears its head in the show’s frantic, sometimes hard-to-follow pacing. It gets better by the time you’ve finished episode four, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, I’d have trouble following along. It’s relentless in the way it throws characters around on various missions, and meetings between disparate characters happen with eyebrow-raising coincidence. This is all exacerbated by some lengthy infodumps that desperately try to get the viewer up-to-speed on the important aspects of the Four Lands, its unique history, and the events that precede the start of the story (including the creation of the Forbidding and the events of The Sword of Shannara, which are shuffled around like out-of-place puzzle pieces.) The book suffers from the same issue with excessive infodumps, but its relaxed length is more forgiving.

One of the things that I’m most impressed with is how the show’s writers have addressed some of the changes required for bringing the story to the screen. It’s inevitable that a story, especially an older epic fantasy, will require adjustment for an episodic format like television, not to mention a new, modern audience, but those changes also present the most threatening potential pitfall—change too much, and you harm the essence of the book you’re adapting, thus alienating entrenched fans. Perhaps owing to the fact that Brooks has sign-off on all scripts before they go into production, every change presented in these first four episodes draws on already-established material from Elfstones or the later Shannara novels. For instance, I like that instead of confusing new viewers by filling in the backstory of Shea’s battle against Brona, they roll the Warlock Lord’s backstory (ex-Druid gone bad) into the Dagda Mor. One of the new characters, Bandon, draws on the Seers, such as Ryer Ord Star, who are introduced later in the series. Even the adjusted narrative structure, which begins before the novel (Amberle’s self-exile, Wil deciding to become a Healer, etc.), works better for television because it relies less on flashbacks and infodumps disguised as conversations.

In all, as a big Shannara fan, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by The Shannara Chronicles, not just as an adaptation of one of my favourite novels, but as an addictive and likeable television show in its own right. Believe it or not, it works surprisingly well as a bridge between the young adult-oriented television that MTV is known for, and the straightforward epic fantasy that Brooks has been writing for the past thirty years. It’s difficult to make an old story feel contemporary, especially since fantasy has changed so much since Game of Thrones hit the scene, but The Shannara Chronicles does an admirable job thanks to smart changes writing and wonderful story at its core.

Now. Gimme episode five!

Hugo Award winner Aidan Moher is the founder of A Dribble of Ink and author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories. He regularly contributes to Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog, and several other websites. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter.

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