I was reading fantasy before I discovered Sherlock Holmes and it’s still one of my two favorite genres. Now, one of my favorite series’ has finally been brought to the screen. Last October, Fletcher Vrendenbuergh posted about his re-read of Terry Brooks’ classic, The Sword of Shannara. Sword, loved by many (me among them) and reviled by many, was a huge hit upon release, appealing to the horde of Tolkien fans who wanted more of that style of fantasy. It’s a good essay with lots of comments: go check it out.
After Sword, Brooks wrote a big chunk of a sequel, which (Lester) Del Rey told him to chuck and start over. Brooks did so and in 1982, we got The Elfstones of Shannara, which took place two generations after Sword. Shea’s grandson, Wil Ohmsford, now had the magical elfstones. Wishsong of Shannara rounded out the trilogy.
Two dozen more Shannara books would follow, with another due out later this year. Some take place before Sword, with most afterwards. Back when fantasy films consisted of “efforts” such as The Sword and the Sorcerer, Krull, Ator and even Ah-nuld’s two Conan movies, I always wondered why someone didn’t take Sword to the screen; be it live-action or animated. But nope: nothing.
Of course, Peter Jackson redefined fantasy films with his six movies from Tolkien’s books. And HBO created a monster with George R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The 44-episode Legend of the Seeker, based on Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels, did not fare so well and was cancelled after two seasons on television.
But now, in 2016, we finally have The Shannara Chronicles, a ten-episode miniseries, based on The Elfstones. For that, we have MTV to thank. Well, it’s a mixed blessing. You got a sneak preview and some Black Gate commentary HERE last summer.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Look: I’m talking about a book that you could have read any time in the past 34 years. I don’t think it’s my fault if you come across something in this post that you don’t want to know before you read Elfstones. And you can set your DVR and record the four episodes of the show if you want to see them before you read this. I wash my hands like Pilate did (though I think I’ve got a stronger case than he does).
Shannara is a land where long ago, magic had ruled. Then science arose and an apocalyptic war wiped nearly everything out and changed the landscape. Sword and its two sequels take place years later, in a medieval-ish fantasy world where magic is almost non-existent. Brooks has said that Shannara is a vision of our future, not an alternate world, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Raymond Feist’s Midkemia.
Basically, way before the apocalypse, elves battled demons and won. They created a magical tree, the Ellcrys, which maintains the Forbidding, a barrier that keeps the demons imprisoned in an unpleasant dimensional prison. Now, the Ellcrys is dying and the demons are starting to re-enter The Four Lands. Which is very, very bad. Amberle, the Elven king’s grand daughter, must undergo a dangerous quest, bearing a seed, which will result in the rebirth of the Ellcrys and fully restore the Forbidding.
MTV made the first four episodes immediately available online and is airing the remaining six on television weekly (all ten will be on TV). Right out of the gate: Chronicles is visually impressive. It’s nice to look at. There are sweeping shots of vistas and Arborlon is a cool-looking elven capital city. Filmed in New Zealand, the production took advantage of the natural resources.
It was there from the first book, but I didn’t pay much attention to the post apocalyptic environment until Brooks moved it more prominently into the storylines of later books. Chronicles does a nice job of working it into the scenery – like a rusted out truck in a field, or a ‘modern’ door. To the characters, it’s just a remnant of a long ago time.
Boy, the people are pretty. One of my fellow Black Gaters commented, “It’s the CW version of The Lord of the Rings.” It’s the casting (and their looks and acting) that really drives home that this is fantasy for teens. Which isn’t automatically a bad thing, but it absolutely changes the tone of the project.
Except for John Rhys-Davies (who brings to mind Sean Connery as a king of the Elves: odd choice), the cast could have come from episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, The OC and Melrose Place (I’m dating myself. Change that to The Flash and Arrow). We have the obligatory ‘heroine bathing’ scene in the pilot, then a post-sex beefcake shot of the hero a week or two later.
The demons and the fight scenes look like they came straight out of a video game. In years gone by, that would be cool, I guess. But we’ve become so blasé about the visuals in our games (I started out on an Atari 2600!), that now that kind of thing looks ho hum on the screen. It’s not really a bad thing, but it’s pretty obvious from the first demon appearance. Not much of an impact.
How does The Chronicles compare with the actual book it comes from? When asked what he thought of the movies ruining one of his books, James M. Cain replied, “…they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.”
When I studied the craft of screenwriting, I learned that books and screenplays are different things, with different needs: Changes need to be made. So, except for rare occasions (like The Maltese Falcon) when a book can translate with minimal changes, I don’t expect a ‘book on screen’ experience. Some changes work (like dropping Tom Bombadil from The Lord of the Rings) and some don’t (read Michael A. Crichton’s Congo and then wonder what the heck they were doing with that movie).
I’m assuming that they completely revamped the Rover storyline because they wanted to put Eretria (one of the pretty people), front and center with Wil and Amberle. She’s even credited above Allanon. There is almost no resemblance between the Rover story in the book and in the miniseries. Good or bad, it’s hard to say at this point.
I got a chuckle out of the Druid Sleep. In the books, Allanon can go into a hibernation mode that restores his waning magical powers. It lasts for many years and adds to the Druid’s mysterious reputation. In the Chronicles, after being injured while fighting a demon, he takes a quick power nap, gets healed and heads back out on duty. It’s just that simple on MTV. This certainly isn’t your Brothers Hildebrandt Allanon, but I think they’ve done a pretty decent job with the character. He’s a little less ‘play it close to the vest,’ but not too much so. They could have really messed up this crucial character and I don’t think they did so far.
Amberle and Wil get that women’s/teen empowerment boost. In Elfstones, they’re reluctant questors who would rather do anything than undertake the journey. They sort of start out that way in The Chronicles but quickly shift into take command mode, boldly asserting themselves and overcoming their self-doubt (which is a HUGE element of the book). In Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the hero is dragged kicking and screaming into the fray. And in a screenplay, there has to be a point where the protagonist takes charge of things (often moving the story towards the final confrontation and the climax).
Chronicles powers up the two heroes pretty early; presumably to appeal to the target audience. The entire opening of the pilot has Amberle battling her way to be one of the Chosen, who serve the Ellcrys. In the book, the tree picks the Chosen (which would explain the name) and she never wanted to be one. Her character is completely changed from the outset. We will see what impact that has on the story going forward.
If they took Sword, which is by far the most popular of all the Shannara books and screwed around with the story, it would cause some consternation for fans. It’s not the same with Elfstones, which is really just one of the books in the series.
Now, if they change the ending significantly, I’ll probably consider this miniseries a failure. But they seem to be making a reasonable adaptation. They dropped The Reaper, leaving two major demons instead of three, but that isn’t an unreasonable change.
It looks good on screen and it’s rather light fare, which should help its ratings with the MTV crowd. The changes aren’t too dramatic (as if, say, they let somebody else able use the elfstones) and the newly created characters seem to have been created so they can impart information, which is rather lazy screenwriting, but not an unforgivable sin.
I think it’s okay so far. Not what I would have liked to see, but not too bad, either. With six more episodes to go, there’s a lot of plot twists and fight scenes ahead. The series has led me to re-read The Elfstones for the first time in about thirty years. I’m actually enjoying it more this time around. It’s not a bad book. And it doesn’t have any of those pesky hobbittsses!
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.
His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published.