With The Shannara Chronicles, MTV shows it can take fantasy seriously

“There’s a Shannara TV series coming!” “That’s good!” “It’s on MTV.” “That’s bad.”

Those thoughts initially went through the heads of some of us who enjoy the fantasy series Terry Brooks started with 1977’s The Sword of Shannara, which has grown to 27 books so far.

However, in this case, we were wrong. Through four episodes, creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (particularly known for their work on Smallville, but they’ve also been involved in numerous films) have been telling this story in excellent style with MTV’s The Chronicles of Shannara. The show has high production values, gorgeous visuals, solid acting performances, and plots largely faithful to the books’ letter and even more so to their spirit. Gough and Millar have also delivered an experience that can be highly entertaining for both long-time fans of the books and those new to the series.

What’s this series about, anyway? Well, the Shannara series mostly focuses on tales from a medieval-esque continent (The Four Lands), with plenty of the races you’ll find in most fantasy literature, such as elves, trolls, gnomes and dwarves. One element that makes it stand apart is that this is actually a futuristic Earth following nuclear and chemical warfare, where magic rules instead of science. But that origin isn’t all that important to the ongoing story.

The Sword of Shannara involves a small group of travelers from different places who go on a quest to battle an ancient evil that’s returned, and if you think that sounds like The Lord of the Rings, you’d be right! Brooks has made no secret of how Tolkien inspired him, and Sword in particular was “deliberately modeled” on Tolkien’s work, but still manages to be a terrific read in its own right with some different twists and turns.

However, it’s the second book (The Elfstones of Shannara, first published in 1982) where Brooks’ work really shows that it’s developed its own identity. This is the book that Chronicles is wisely based on. Sword is great, and might make an interesting prequel a long way down the road if the series takes off, but its overwhelming similarities to Tolkien might turn off new viewers who think it’s just a rehashing of that story. Elfstones still owes a debt to Tolkien, but it’s telling quite a different story, one that stands in its own right as excellent fodder for a TV series.

In this story, a tree (the Ellcrys) that holds demons in their prison is dying, and Elven princess Amberle Essedil and her protector Will Ohmsford (Austin Butler) must go on a last-ditch quest to take the tree’s seed to a long-lost place known as Safehold. Meanwhile, the Elven kingdom and the rest of the world comes under threat from the escaping demons.

On TV, this has translated rather well so far. The beautiful backdrop of New Zealand brings the Four Lands to life, and the extensive costumes, props and special effects serve to maintain the immersion. This feels like a medieval-era fantasy world with appropriately distinct races, and the magic and demons that fill it out are depicted well. The acting has also been quite solid, with Manu Bennett (a New Zealander with a background both in rugby and dance, and who played Crixus in Spartacus and Azog in the Hobbit films) particularly standing out as stoic and powerful druid Allanon. Poppy Drayton has been great as Amberle, filling out her character even more than the book does in some ways, and Ivana Baquero has been impressive as Rover (a band of thieves)-raised Eretria, who winds up first opposing Wil and Amberle and then having to follow them.

One thing that has quite impressed about Chronicles so far is the extensive and nuanced roles for the female characters. Amberle and Eretria play important roles in the book, of course, but the sections about their quest are largely told from Wil’s perspective and Amberle, in particular, is presented as more mentally tough than physically strong. On screen, she still carries that mental resilience, but is also shown to be quite capable physically.

In the first episode, she wins an anything-goes endurance race typically restricted to men (something that wasn’t in the book) in order to be named one of the Ellcrys’ Chosen (caretakers) and generally proves adept in both armed and unarmed combat. Eretria’s somewhat physically dangerous in the book as well as cunning and seductive, but she’s become seemingly even tougher on the screen. The addition of Emelia Burns as Commander Tilton, a female Elven army leader (also not found in the book), also helps on this front. This feels like a series that’s not afraid to let its female characters shine both physically and mentally, and that’s a solid point in its favor.

It’s hard to analyze exactly how effective Butler’s performance as Wil is so far. He’s portrayed the character as generally somewhat naive and outclassed by Amberle and Eretria. That’s not completely different from the book’s early portrayal of Wil, but he does seem a little more competent in the novel at first. The books have him studying as a healer with the gnomes of Storlock for years before this quest starts, while Chronicles has him intercepted by Eretria first and then Allanon before he ever gets to Storlock.

This portrayal makes some sense so far, thanks to changes to the story and the characters of Amberle and Eretria. But it could prove annoying if Butler continues to emphasize it too much and doesn’t show the character growth (and some of the interesting character notes) we see from Wil in the book. It would be hard to give Butler a full endorsement at this point, but his work in the early episodes isn’t bad or wrong, and it may yet pay off in the long run.

The cast that’s filling out the world around these characters is an impressive one, too. John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in The Lord of the Rings films) is a particular standout as aging Elven king Eventine Elessedil, illustrating that character’s grief over the previous loss of his youngest son Aine, his love for Amberle (Aine’s daughter), his leadership in a time of crisis, and his conflicted feelings towards sons Arion and Ander.

Heir to the throne Arion (Daniel MacPherson) is appropriately scheme-filled and disdainful of magic (although perhaps a little too broadly so at times), and Aaron Jakubenko is doing great work to date as the more realistic second son Ander. Eventine and Ander particularly grow in importance as the book goes on, and Rhys-Davies and Jakubenko seem up to that task. Created-for-the-series characters Catania (Brooke Williams) and Bandon (Marcus Vanco) have also been good so far, and Jed Brophy has been solid as primary villain The Dagda Mor.

It should be noted that while this is a serious fantasy series, and more expansive and ambitious than much of MTV’s programming, there are still perhaps some more typical MTV touches here. Sex is emphasized at times, including regular excuses for skimpy attire (for both the male and female characters), plus at least two bathing scenes, demon-on-demon love, and one seduction inside the elven castle, and that does fit with MTV’s brand. It’s not Game of Thrones’ “sexposition” and isn’t necessarily too much at this point, but could get over the top if this becomes a regular feature of the series. However, this isn’t really any more risque than your average CW show at this point, and it doesn’t yet feel like it’s straying too far from the book.

That’s really the overarching feeling of this series to date. While there have been notable changes from the book (including Wil being the son instead of the grandson of Sword protagonist Shea, various events happening differently or at different times, and the insertions of these new characters), they all feel faithful to at least the spirit of Brooks’ work, and sometimes perhaps even improve on it. (The expanded roles for the female characters in particular feel like a good change.)

This is a series that should likely satisfy most Shannara fans. It’s also one that’s very accessible for new fans, though, and one that can be enjoyable viewing even if you’re not terribly into fantasy in general. It’s certainly easier to keep track of than Game of Thrones, even without familiarity with the story, as this isn’t a wide-flung and complicated world. It’s a well-crafted one, though, and one that’s producing a great ride so far, suggesting that MTV can tell Brooks’ story just fine.

Andrew Bucholtz

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing. He also covers the CFL and other sports for Yahoo! Canada.