Other Media Review

The Shannara Chronicles

The Shannara Chronicles is bound to be a “love it or hate it” show. Based on the book series by Terry Brooks, it’s basically Lord of the Rings, the MTV edition. Three very pretty teens, an elf, a half elf, and a human thief, team up with a badass Druid named Allanon (hello, Manu Bennett, love you!) to stop Demons from taking over the world. In order to do this, they have to use magic elfstones to save a magic tree. Luckily for the viewer, this is all set in CGI Enhanced New Zealand. The scenery is pretty and the actors are pretty but the dialogue – oh, dear.

Pretty people, pretty New Zealand, pretty CGI - so much pretty.
Pretty people, pretty New Zealand, pretty CGI – so much pretty.

Whether or not you like the show will depend almost entirely on how you feel about very modern YA dialogue in the hands of fantasy characters. Manu Bennett is a veteran actor who is in his element fighting CGI Dark-Elf-Demon-Orcs, and the younger actors, Austin Butler (Will), Poppy Drayton (Amberle), and Ivana Baquero (Eretria) commit to their parts, but the lines veer from clichéd (“It has begun!”) to gratingly anachronistic (“Have you no respect for Elvin traditions?” “Only the ones with parties!”).

It’s nice that the dialogue doesn’t rely on thee’s and thou’s, which can be another kind of grating, but surely it shouldn’t sound like these people just walked out of their Freshman College English 101 class and are headed to the dance club. Some people don’t mind this at all. Personally, it made me want to run screaming from the room. Mileage will vary.

Manu Bennett, savior of shows.
Manu Bennett, savior of shows.

It’s hard to judge a show by the pilot, but I’ll usually stick with a show no matter how awful the pilot is if I like the characters. I can honestly say that at this point I do not care what happens to anyone or anything in the show. However, there are a couple of rays of hope:

  1. The scenery is very pretty.
  2. The actors seem committed to their parts. Manu can do this kind of thing in his sleep, so he’s fine, and those young actors are all, “This is my big break and I’m going for it!” which you have to admire.
  3. Out of the three young leads, two are women, and they have a lot of physical and emotional kickassery to do.
  4. Will (Austin Butler) delivers some nice comedic timing that bodes well for the future. At one point he complains that Manu Bennett’s character doesn’t talk, so Bennett explains the upcoming plot setup to him. Will replies:

 

So I’m supposed to use Elfstones, which I don’t have, to protect a princess, who doesn’t want to be found, from a Demon horde bent on laying waste to the world? And even if I succeed, which is entirely doubtful, my life could still be doomed because magic will have fried my brain. I liked it better when we didn’t talk.

 

See, there was some at least slightly witty banter that worked, and that helped establish plot and character. Maybe this show will become wildly entertaining. Maybe it will develop emotional stakes. Right now, the world feels pretty but the cultures feel hollow. The world also looks very white (although Bennett is Maori and there is a black elf character who I gather will be important to the plot later on). The script sounds like someone took Gossip Girl and Fellowship of the Ring and stuck them in a blender (not in a good way). There’s room for growth here but I’m not in a hurry to keep watching.

I never read the Shannara books, but in high school I adored The Dragonlance Chronicles by Laura and Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, and this show reminded me a lot of the Dragonlance Chronicles. The Dragonlance Chronicles took Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons and lightened it up for easy reading and made a huge fantasy series with magic and tortured love and adventure and pretty much all the things I cherish in life.

Alas, a couple of years ago I tried to re-read Dragonlance Chronicles and found it unbearable. It was awful. It was bad fan-fic. It was a soap opera in which you could almost see the characters rolling dice and consulting their character sheets before anything happened. When I read it in my teens, this felt fresh and exciting, but by now it feels clichéd and hackneyed. So maybe that’s my problem with Shannara. I have already read about elves and druids and thieves and halflings going on quests and just making the cast younger and prettier doesn’t make the story feel new to me.

By the way, this show appears to be aimed is for a young audience, mostly teens. There’s quite a bit of gore, which bothered me because it seems edited in after the fact. It didn’t fit the tone. It was like they filmed a scene, decided it wasn’t edgy enough, and threw some fake blood over everyone. Other than that and some innuendo and heavy flirting, the pilot was pretty tame. I ran it by my tween daughter but I accidentally biased her opinions by snarking all the way through the pilot. However, I believe these two comments are the genuine, unfiltered opinions of MTV’s target audience, as voiced by my extremely geeky tween daughter:

  1. “These writers do not know how to write shipping.”
  2. “That dress is hideous.”
Close up of one of the characters in a tight purple dress with cutaways over her inner breasts and sternum, plus a black leather collar with a deep vee in the front to set off the plunging neckline of the purple dress, and then there's really thick shiny makeup and some kind of scraped back hairstyle with feathers in the back or something I don't even know
I couldn’t find a full-length photo of the dress, but you get the idea.

Honorable mention goes to the fact that John Rhys-Davis plays an elf king and the fact that not one but two characters are undergoing separate “Chosen One” character arcs. In case you miss it, Amberle is the last serving member of The Chosen. This is not a subtle show.

Many wonderful shows had terrible pilots. Heck, many had terrible first seasons. Maybe this time next year The Shannara Chronicles will be must-see TV. But it sure isn’t now. I hope the young actors walk away with big paychecks, a nice addition to their resume, and glowing future careers in better shows with much, much better scripts.

Currently the pilot, which consists of the first two episodes, is streaming for free and the next two episodes can be watched on MTV or purchased from iTunes.

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  1. 1
    genie says:
    2+

    I’ve got episodes piling up on the DVR because back in the day, when the book came out, Elfstones gave me all of the Greatest Book Ever feels, including sobbing my late-teen eyes out – I suspect people like me are one audience that will stick with it just because of that alone.

    (of course, just from the dialog you put in there, I’m already saying “but that’s not what was in the book!” because Will had the Elfstones when he met Allanon….)

  2. 2
    Samanda says:
    1+

    I remember trying to read the Shannara novels when I was too old to really wallow in them. It’s long enough ago and the books made such a slight impression that I couldn’t have told you anything about them now. I may have a look at the first few episodes for the eye candy, but I’m definitely not the target audience.

    PS: Thank you Carrie S for your Dragonlance comments! A good friend adores them and tried to get me to read a couple of the sub-series. Unfortunately, i was too old and had read too many better books to be able to read them without the sarcasm metre going off the charts. Made me stop and wonder about my friend’s taste until I realized they were things he’d loved as a kid and still had a nostalgic affection for.

  3. 3
    Fi says:
    1+

    Technically speaking, it’s set in the far future rather than a fictional medieval past so the dialogue isn’t anachronistic. It’s just really, really dumb. I thought Shannara was a strange choice to adapt when I first heard about it because the source material is really dated and things that were written in response to those tropes and cliches are mainstream, like Game of Thrones. Having now watched the first episode, it still feels like very dated fantasy with veneer of modern MTV glued on top. It’s an odd final product. Those two things are not really chocolate and peanut butter.

  4. 4
    Brigit says:
    3+

    Thank you, this review totally sums up my feelings about the show. So… does anybody else think Manu Bennett is the only reason for watching this? 🙂
    As for the novel: I know I’ve read it, but I don’t remember it at all. I do know that I didn’t get that post-apocalyptic vibe from the novels that the TV series is emphasizing.

  5. 5
    2+

    I am definitely in the “hate it” category. I read one or two books back in the day and all I could think of was “Can we spell derivative?” It was such an obvious rip-off of the Lord of the Rings and very badly written, IMO.

  6. 6
    Tam says:
    1+

    I also loathed the books as a teenager. They were pretty obviously a Tolkien ripoff, but the writing was far worse and the characterisation utterly wooden – I imagine that nowadays, they’d go into fanfiction obscurity without ever making it past a publisher. Sounds as if the series is a waste of NZ scenery. 😛

  7. 7
    Eliza says:
    5+

    I’ll be a semi-dissenting opinion here, just so those reading know it’s not all bad. Yes, there’s lots of overly pretty, lots of CGI, and lots of silly dialogue. No denying that. But I’ve seen the first 4 episodes available on demand, and once I accepted the above and just went with it…I got really sucked in. Sure, it’s nothing revolutionary, but who says entertainment always has to be? I’ve never read the books (and something tells me I might be disappointed), but I’ll keep watching the show. Just a little fun fantasy fluff for relaxing after a stressful day. I can live with that. 🙂

  8. 8
    ENM says:
    3+

    I assent with the semi-dissenting opinion–yes, there are a lot of silly cliches, and the dialogue is not always great…but it is a fun show and for me it actually kind of highlights the dearth of truly high-fantasy (i.e. elves, magic, quests) TV shows out there. Thrones doesn’t really fill that void for me. I watched the first 4 episodes and I’m sticking with it for now, and I hope it does well enough to help other high fantasy shows get more traction in the future.

  9. 9
    Keith says:
    2+

    “Elfstones of Shannara” was the first book of Terry Brooks that i read and got me attracted to the Shannara series (I have all the books). Now watching the first few episodes, There are a few things that I don’t recall from the book, but this is for MTV & tv so I can see them wanting to sex it up some for younger viewer. That said, although I could find faults with things that are not in the book, and the CGI demons (if this was a theater movie i’m sure that more would have been spent on special effects but hey, it’s MTV!), I found it entertaining and wanting to see more. I liked it!

  10. 10
    Sarita says:
    1+

    My father once started reading Sword of Shannara to my brother and me on a camping trip. It turned out that parts of it veered into unintentional hilarity when read aloud. I remember there being something about a half-elf character having pencil thin eyebrows that stuck straight up. Good times.

  11. 11
    M.A. Grant says:
    1+

    Oh, my goodness, someone else finally was able to explain the obsession (and later adult morning-after regret) that is the Dragonlance Chronicles!!! They still sit on my bookshelf as a reminder of those happy childhood days and quiet threat of adult reading.

  12. 12
    1+

    Mostly a spot on review, as stated by others. Only, it usually takes time to love characters unless they are really really wronged early on and so far no one has been really wronged (although they have witnessed tragedy, not the same). If someone from MTV is reading this please edit out any “sloppy seconds” type of dialog before you release the next episode because I bought the whole season on Amazon already and it was something like 22 bucks. It should only take you like a couple hours and I’m sure its okay if you just replace it with silence because most of us can’t read lips. Also, I just wanted to day my dad read me and my brother the first book when we were about 5 and 7 years old. Awesome! I picked the books up a few years later and devoured everything else Terry Brooks ever wrote. Tried to read them recently as a person of adult age – meh. But if you’re like in the 8-13 age group then they are still awesome. So thank you MTV for giving this a chance. Good job with everything except for the dialog, in my opinion.

  13. 13
    Lauren says:
    2+

    I haven’t read the books, but the pilot was so jam-packed full of awful I couldn’t withstand more than thirty minutes of it.

  14. 14
    bookworm1990 says:
    1+

    Your daughter’s comments are gold.

  15. 15
    Marcus Pfeiffer says:
    0

    In response to an earlier comment;
    This show is a “textbook” example of the parachronistic form of anachronism.
    If you can set that aside, we don’t always have to eat Filet Mignon and Lobster Tails… Have some cake!

  16. 16
    Findlay Robertson says:
    0

    I’m in my fifties now. I read the first couple of Shannara books back in the 1980s. I have to say, I absolutely bloody hated them. The only reason I read the second book was a friend told me it was better, it was, a bit, a very little bit.
    I thought I’d give the series a look, and all I can say is I bloody hate it.

    The Elves look like extras from every bad teen show in the US.
    The dialogue was laughable but not in a funny way.
    The jarring image of a rusting helicopter in the show when how many centuries have passed?
    Oh, and no offence to Americans, but Elves with US accents just don’t sound right.

  17. 17
    0

    @Findlay Robertson, I am always relieved when someone else says how much they hated these books. I read the first one and for the first time wondered if we could put any limits on the First Amendment to prevent dreck like this from being published. But as I considered the implications, I realized free speech was well worth the occasional dreck.

    As a USian, I agree. Elves should not sound like they come from the USA.

  18. 18
    Bill says:
    0

    Please make the plot less obvious.

    Please give the cast less wooden lines. The kids are doing their best to deliver them with feeling, but clichés and crap will weigh anyone down.

    The veterans look tortured to the point of I’m sure they’re just thinking “lets get this over with, pay cheque at the end of the week”.

    Could be so good. Its got all the ingredients, it just needs some imaginative writing and direction.

  19. 19
    Valory says:
    0

    I’m 44, read the books when I was 14, was actually able to skip 100 pages here and there because it was so boring, but it was still fantasy, and I was 14… That being said, I was excited to see a TV series made from the books. Should have known better to even watch seeing that MTV produced it. I know the books were bad, but they weren’t twisted, perverted and full of sex (half scenes or innuendo)or had profanities in them. I was really hoping for an honest to goodness fantasy tv show, not a softened down version of Game of Thrones. Ugh.

  20. 20
    Sodbuster says:
    0

    I watched Season 1 on Netflix. I thought it was an Ok time-waster, good for a binge watch on a rainy weekend. Spoiler: I wish they would have left out the whole love triangle thing – it seemed forced and unrealistic that they should just all start boning out of the blue. Stupid boy couldn’t keep it in his pants either, and I never like to see the hero being a man-slut. This isn’t a James Bond movie after all. Why does every single teen-movie or show have to have a love triangle?

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