I fully expected to hate this series. I read the original trilogy in the early 80’s and found it to be a lowbrow rip-off of Lord of the Rings: easy to snigger at but surprisingly difficult to put down. I hated Wil from the start, notwithstanding his dull “only person who can save us” story-arc. His destiny makes everybody else disposable, so when his love-triangle buddies Amberle and Eretria make an appearance they are reduced to bit-playing bimbos. At least there was Allanon, a goth version of Gandalf maybe, but at least a character with some meat. And unlike Gandalf, whose magic was on-tap and without measure, Allanon paid a bloody price every time he exerted his power. I liked that. It changed my perspective on what magic (if you have to use it at all) looks like. Anyway, my paperbacks below, minus Elfstones. Don’t know where that one went.
To the tv-series The Shannara Chronicles (2016–), which I notice feature the man himself, Terry Brooks, in the production credits, Will (played by Austin Butler) is a effeminate wimp. Why does every filmic incarnation of ‘half-elf’ mean casting a metrosexual in the lead? Think Legolas — hell, think every frigging elf in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth — and I am sick of it. In this latest iteration, elfiness is no more or less original than everything we’ve seen before. I wonder what this series might have looked like if it was produced in Norway, or even in England. But the Hollywood taint means everybody gotta be pretty.
Generating dramatic tension by narrowing options — Allanon, the last Druid, Amberle, the last Chosen, Will, the last son of Shannara — by the end of the second episode the trio are on the cusp of a dodgy mission to “carry the seed of the Ellcrys to the bloodfire in Safehold” which, unless you’re a hardcore fantasy fan, is a premise to make your toes curl. I’m embarrassed sometimes to try to explain the lure of fantasy fiction, I can’t even do it now, but it’s there, and anyone riveted by the excellent adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s work can feel it for themselves. But to stay immersed in this sometimes banal genre, for me, it’s important not to sever the delicate silver thread that lets me suspend disbelief.
So, putting aside the pretty-pretty, the constant sexy costume changes for elf-princess Amberle, and the fatuous plot, why do I like the Shannara Chronicles? Because it’s not as bad as it could have been. Because it doesn’t desecrate Terry Brooks’ legacy. Because we’ve learned a lot about how fantasy could actually look and not just read. And, okay, because of the sexy costume changes… Anyway, I’m almost universally disappointed by adaptations of my adult and childhood SFF classics, so I’m astonished when they aren’t that bad. Lord of the Rings was one, maybe the first. Game of Thrones was the second. Shannara is, surprisingly, the third. Not least, they have an assortment of baddies like the Dagda Mor below, who make the White Walkers look like a bunch of frosty hipsters.
Annoyingly, we have to sit through a lot of heel-stamping, arms-crossed-poutiness and angry-eyelash-batting between two jealous, perfectly made-up female leads as they fight over our boy-girl hero. Grudgingly, they are obliged by the script to remain almost constantly together, so while I haven’t seen to the end of Season 1, I’m predicting they will keep baiting this lowbrow plot hook, but for those less interested in classic SFF involving magic visions, magic swords, magic stones, magic demons, magic druids, magical bloodlines and grim magical destinies, there’s a lot of distracting buff dudes with shaved chests and perfect teeth, artificially enhanced but totally fighty warrior-babes, and frequent raunchy segues that kinda don’t really add anything except some sexy padding to the storyline. And just wait until the branching storylines diverge even further, it will have the best of use scratching our heads.
Yes, Allanon, confusion will reign. But at least it might be worth the effort, and for once we’re willingly along for the ride. I won’t be walking out of the cinema early on this one unless, lacking the scrying abilities of sub-character Bandon, it’s entirely possible the entire venture will lose direction and turn into a pointless melee between spiky-toothed demons and leather balconette-bra wearing bimbettes while some blonde wimp whines and whimpers. But let’s remain optimistic. So far, so good. And while it’s true I’d like to see the girls with a little more dirt on them, and some scars, some suggestion there will be a Brienne of Tarth among them someday, everything on my body that can be crossed is crossed that this series stays as good as it is so far. More of the right stuff, and less of the other.