The geeks shall inherit the earth.
Or, in our case, the geeks shall inherit the ability to determine pop culture.
I actually think that second statement is the more unbelievable one, because never in my wildest dreams did I think that the fantasy novels I grew up loving would someday become some of the most popular films and television shows of my generation.
Hollywood’s most recent adaptation that’s banking on our collective interest in fantasy fare is MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on the second book in a series of novels written by famed fantasy author, Terry Brooks.
Before I talk about the first four episodes of this ten episode series, a quick look back:
The existence of fantasy stories in film/television isn’t new (a couple of my favorites are The Neverending Story and The Princess Bride), but it wasn’t until 14 years ago that one particular film transcended geekdom and forever changed the way many people saw fantasy fiction.
Let’s go back to December 19, 2001.
The day of my single greatest film-going experience.
Together with my family, I watched the impossible: a glorious film adaptation of my favorite book of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ You know that experience you had when you first saw first Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Jurassic World, or The Avengers, etc) in a theater? How the crowd went wild with cheers, laughs, and tears as the movie flickered across the big screen, creating a communal experience that was full of excitement and nostalgia? My first experience of The Fellowship of the Ring was the complete opposite. Our packed theater barely dared to breath during the movie, first in fear that our beloved book could never be faithfully adapted to the big screen, and then in growing awe that somehow Peter Jackson and company did, in fact, manage it. It was one hell of an experience, but even then I had no idea what it meant for me, and my fellow fantasy nerds, going forward.
Less than fifteen years later, some of the biggest films and television shows of all time include: Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and so on.
And now, MTV has thrown it’s own contender into the ring with The Shannara Chronicles, a new television series that premiered last week.
A little about the source material: Terry Brooks has written over 20 novels that ultimately tell the story of how our world, after a nuclear holocaust, eventually rebuilds itself as The Four Lands, where humans have evolved into multiple races that also include gnomes, dwarves, and trolls. Magic is woven throughout the stories as something that has always secretly existed, as has the race of elves, who play a prominent role in the particular novel that has been adapted for the television series: ‘The Elfstones of Shannara.’ Many fans have grumbled that the show is starting with the second novel in the series, the first being ‘The Sword of Shannara,’ but executive producer Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man) and Brooks have endorsed the decision by saying it’s a bit simpler (re: shorter), not to mention more progressive with it’s, not one, but two strong female lead characters. The story also boasts a love triangle, which, for better or worse (more on that below) certainly appealed to those in charge at MTV.
The story in ‘Elfstones of Shannara’ takes place during a time when magic was, once again, thought to have died out in The Four Lands, but when an ancient tree starts to die, thus allowing demons to re-enter the world, it sends visions to a young elven princess, Amberle, who must then go on a quest to save everyone. Pretty standard stuff, but Brook’s popularity was never rooted in his ingenuity with his fantasy world, but rather in his engaging characters and vivid writing style. Amberle is counseled by the last of the Druids, Allanon, and accompanied by a young man, Wil Ohmsford, with elven heritage and the potential to tap into an ancient magic using The Elfstones. Eretria, a Rover girl (think gypsy) with questionable motivations also joins our band of misfits as the rest of the elves split their time between quarreling amongst themselves and trying to deal with the demons who have already slipped past their prison barrier.
I’ll start off by saying that I was initially giddy with excitement at the news that someone was finally adapting a Shannara novel to the small screen…especially since they were shooting in New Zealand. Plus, they somehow managed to cast Gimli himself, John Rhys-Davies, as the king of the Elves, no less (eat your heart out, Orlando Bloom!).
But then I thought about it some more, and became a little less excited…
Here’s the thing, I’m not a young adult anymore and the lowest common denominator of what producers think “young adults” want – gorgeous young actors with skinny waists and flawless skin who say things like “sloppy seconds” (it’s in episode four…believe me, I couldn’t make that up) and never seem to get down and dirty (NOT talking sexually here) – doesn’t appeal to me. But, then, maybe I’m not the target audience. Still, isn’t there a way to appeal to a larger mass of people – the way that The Lord of the Rings did, or even Harry Potter (Game of Thrones is decidedly adult, so therefore a bit of an unfair comparison)? Maybe, but it seems that MTV was aiming for the tweens and teens who wanted their love triangles and ridiculous dialogue…so I resigned myself to seeing hipsters portray some of my favorite characters and for the writers to leave out some of the more interesting nuances of the story. Also, as much as I like Manu Bennett as an actor, he does not, AT ALL, look like Allanon – a lean and towering figure from the novel that was pretty much the epitome of awesome bad-ass-ness (combine Gandalf and Aragorn and you get the general idea).
Then I watched the first four episodes of the series…and ate just a little bit of humble pie. Not all of it, mind you, but more than I anticipated, and that is actually the start of my surprising endorsement of the show.
Are the actors and actresses too pretty, skinny, and clean? Yes. Do they say some ridiculously inane dialogue? Oh yes. But they also display more emotional range than I had anticipated. Color me surprised. Also surprising: Manu Bennett is kind of awesome as Allanon! His physical presence is impressive and his gravity has a wonderful naturalness to it, even when he’s speaking made up languages and casting spells.
Strangely enough, the ways in which the book is at its best are also the ways the show is – the characters and setting stand out despite some wonky and convenient storytelling (lets just say people must have transporter machines just off screen as they get around awfully fast in between scenes).
The other major thing the show has going for it is its sweeping visuals. Either television budgets have gone up in the last ten years, or productions are somehow getting more bang for their buck, because this show is downright stunning to look at. The visual language also gives a lot more depth to the story, showcasing the fact that this is a distant future of earth (a fact Brooks did not include in his early novels but was a plot point that eventually evolved through his writing). The production design, costumes (well, most of them. I had to occasionally wonder at Amberle’s choice of clothing), and special effects are very evocative of a fantasy world that is, while familiar, still quite vibrant and established. The horror elements involving the demons are suitably gross and scary as well.
So, at the end of the day, I’ll keep watching. Poppy Drayton (Amberle), Austin Butler (Wil), and Ivana Baquero (Eretria) are compelling enough leads, Manu Bennet simply rocks, and the world is impressively, and beautifully, rendered. It’s no Lord of the Rings but there may be a place for a larger variety of fantasy content than I was first willing to admit. And I can’t complain too much, because, as a geek, it’s just nice to see all the stories I buried my nose in as a kid, getting to see the light of day now.
Plus, even when these movies and shows don’t turn out as well as we, the fans, hoped…the books will always be there to return to.
The Shannara Chronicles airs on Tuesday nights on MTV (the first four episodes can be found via the MTV app as well).
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