Monday, March 07, 2016

TV Review: 'The Shannara Chronicles' Season One

Title:  The Shannara Chronicles (Official, Facebook, Twitter, InstagramIMDB, Wikipedia)

After the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, many fans began to ask when would something from the Shannara series make it to the big screen.  The long running series by Terry Brooks has been optioned numerous times over the years but it wasn't until the success of Game of Thrones prompted MTV of all places to try their hand at the high fantasy business and I for one am very glad they did.  And for those sensitive to such things, there will be spoilers ahead.

Based loosely on the 1982 epic fantasy, and second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara, The Shannara Chronicles follows the journey of half-elf Wil Ohmsford, elven princess Amberle Elessedil, and the Rover Eretria to save the dying Ellcrys, a magical tree that acts as a barrier holding back the evil demons of the ancient world.  The Druid Allanon plays the part of the ominous chess master and magical warrior, at times moving important pieces on the board through subtle manipulation and half-truths and at times standing with the people of the Four Lands battling against the advancing Demon armies.

The world of Shannara is a complex one with a long, long history (this first book in the series, The Sword of Shannara was published in 1977) but here's the very condensed version.  Before the coming of humanity was the age of Faerie.  This was a time of magical creatures, including the Elves and the Demons.  A war raged between the Elves and Demons, nearly ending the world.  Eventually the Elves constructed a prison for the Demons called the Forbidding and with the creation of the Ellcrys, the Demons were banished from this world and trapped in the Forbidding.  With the dawn of humanity, the Elves went into hiding and eventually lost touch with magic.  Magic lived on as agents of the Word (the force that created the world) battled against those of the Void (evil incarnate).  The Void's demon agents (not to be confused with the Demons trapped in the Forbidding) eventually sent humanity into a time known as the Great Wars, at the end of which was a great calamity that nearly destroyed all life on the planet while drastically changing the landscape of the Earth.  The Elves and groups of humans survived the destruction, kept safe under a magic dome that shielded them from the rest of the world.  After hundreds of years the dome feel and the descendants of those survivors ventured out into the world discovering what had grown over the ruins of the Old World.  Magic took hold in this new world leading to the formation of the Druid Order.  The Druids brought in people from all the races (Elven, human, dwarf, troll, gnome) to study magic and the lost sciences of the Old World.  The races, all except the Elves, evolved from humanity, changing to adapt to the world after the Great Wars.  After a thousand years, a member of the Druid Order was seduced by the evil Ildatch and became the Warlock Lord.  The Warlock Lord tried to takeover/destroy the world on three different occasions before his final defeat at the hands of Shea Ohmsford wielding the magic Sword of Shannara.  Which brings us to the events of The Elfstones of Shannara.

For the most part, the TV show holds to this history or at least to the essence of it.  In books, the world of Shannara exists thousands of years into our future, with few things having survived the Great Wars.  In The Shannara Chronicles that time and distance isn't as great.  The show incorporates science fiction and dystopian elements, showing a world that has been built on top of the still very visible ruins of the Old World (I especially love the image of the fallen Space Needle in the show's opening episode).  Throughout the series characters find themselves surrounded by things from our world (a swing-set, a buried high school) including their discovery of a human community called Utopia that is trying to rebuild the Old World (with some actual success).

When comparing the show to its direct source material, there are a few significant changes but again the essence of the book holds true.  Wil Ohmsford is now the son of Shea Ohmsford instead of his grandson and is half Elf instead of one-quarter Elf.  Wil also does not have as many problems using the elfstones in The Shannara Chronicles as he does in The Elfstones of Shannara.  One of the biggest changes surrounds the main villain the Dagda Mor.  In the book he was simply a powerful, if not the most powerful, Demon in the Forbidding.  In the show he was an Elven Druid that was twisted by the Ildatch into a Demon.  This change placed the Druid Order's origins into the time of Faerie before the rise of mankind.  That is a significant departure from the book.  The settlement of Utopia their possession and use of a couple of guns, electricity, a movie projector, and a record player is  another drastic change.  One great variation was the revelation that Safehold was located in the San Francisco bay area (though I'm still not sure why the Bloodfire was in an old church but oh well).  The dialogue and some elements of the characters and their relationships were modified for a younger, MTV audience giving the show a modern, hip feel to it.  The show's ending held true to the book in some ways but deviated in others in that it set things up for a second season following at least some of these same characters.  In the book, the story ends with Wil and Eretria going off to start a life in Shady Vale and the sequel The Wishsong of Shannara follows the adventures of their children Jair and Brin Ohmsford.  I had assumed that if given a second season, The Shannara Chronicles would simply follow the stories laid out in the books.  That is apparently not the case.

Overall I think The Shannara Chronicles is a very good series and a solid adaptation of a classic novel.  The show is not perfect but its flaws are overtaken by its heart.  One thing that is crystal clear about this show is that everyone involved had a love and respect for the book.  I doubt that everyone involved had read Elfstones, but one can tell from interviews that everyone involved loved the project, the world, and the story and that is one of the most important pieces to any great adaptation.  I certainly hope the show gets a second, third, and fourth seasons.  I would love to see this team take on Wishsong, see how they would bring to life that unique type of magic, the fantastic character of Garet Jax (I suspect Allanon's death scene would be quite incredible as well), and maybe go even farther into the future world of Shannara (Walker Boh anyone?).  And while elements and characters of the original story had to be cut, the soul still remains and as a fan of the books, it was an absolute joy seeing this world brought to life on the screen.          

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