The Shannara Chronicles Is the Epic Fantasy That Only MTV Could Have Made

Illustration for article titled The Shannara Chronicles Is the Epic Fantasy That Only MTV Could Have Made

There’s a lot to like about MTV’s live-action adaptation of Terry Brooks’ Shannara book series . But it’s also very much an epic fantasy TV series made by MTV, which begs the question: Who is The Shannara Chronicles really for? Because the show may be too fantastic for normal MTV audiences, but also too MTV-ish for most fantasy fans.

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Here’s our spoiler-free review.

Imagine if Peter Jackson had hired the cast of any of MTV’s current high school dramas to be in his Lord of the Rings movies—that’s The Shannara Chronicles. It’s almost exclusively a collection of extremely attractive young white people who, despite wearing elf ears and being forced to discuss magic stones and demon-imprisoning trees, give zero sense that they’re living in a post-apocalyptic world full of magic. They talk and act exactly as they would, if they were starring in a modern high-school drama. In addition, their outfits tend to be things that look very much like modern jeans, slacks and hoodies.

This is very weird—because otherwise the show has gone all out to bring the fantasy realm of Shannara to life. It’s filmed in New Zealand, giving the show the same otherworldly setting that Lord of the Rings had. The CG for the fantasy locations is top-notch, and all the sets are well-designed and well-utilized. The VFX for the magic and monsters also looks above and beyond what I would have expected for this type of basic cable series.

The crazy part? Somehow, this dichotomy actually works. My recollection of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series is mainly that 1) it was an extremely generic carbon-copy of the Lord of the Rings, and 2) the characters were flat. But there’s something weirdly compelling about seeing what seem to be utterly normal teens arguing about whether the sacred Ellcrys tree is actually preventing the evil Darda Mor from unleashing his hellish demon army. It even makes sense, in a way, since Shannara is set in the future of Earth; if there was ever a fantasy series where the heroes could act totally mundane and wear hoodies, Shannara is it. If nothing else, this strange combination makes the TV adaptation unique—certainly more so than its source material.

And honestly, The Shannara Chronicles’ biggest problem is its source material, because the story is about as standard as fantasy series come. A seemingly normal farm boy with a secret heritage? Check. Strong-willed princess? Check. Older mentor who represents the last of a heroic order? Check. A monstrous bad guy set on destroying the world? Check. A magic item that can stop the bad guy, that only the farm boy can use? Big check.

But just because you know the story doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Shannara Chronicles for what it is: a pleasant adventure series, with a strange sort of charm to it. It may not be the teenage Game of Thrones that MTV was possibly hoping for. But if you’re looking for more elves and magic and demons on TV, you should definitely give Shannara a try.

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Just keep in mind the elves will probably be wearing hoodies.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.

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DISCUSSION

A seemingly normal farm boy with a secret heritage? Check. Strong-willed princess? Check. Older mentor who represents the last of a heroic order? Check. A monstrous bad guy set on destroying the world? Check. A magic item that can stop the bad guy, that only the farm boy can use? Big check.

Undoubtedly, the first Shannara book especially comes off as a flat carbon-copy of LOTR, as you said. And maybe that’s why this series is smart to be starting with the second book.

But what strikes me is... this list is not especially similar to the high points of LOTR. What it’s really similar to is Star Wars... except Sword of Shannara came out in 1977, which means Brooks was already writing it prior to that, too early for Star Wars to have been an influence. (But how interesting that they both come out in the same year.)

LOTR does not have a hidden-farm-boy “chosen one” (I guess, though, that you can point to T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” for that trope). And LOTR’s older mentor is not the “last” of a heroic order (at the very least in LOTR, Gandalf is prominently just one of 5 wizards, although we only ever meet one other in that trilogy). And of course, there’s no “princess” character as a *main* part of the group in LOTR (opening up a fair criticism of women’s roles in the series).

I guess where Sword felt most derivative of LOTR was in some of the broad strokes of the plot, and specifically, the “multi-ethnic company must band together despite fantasy-race suspicions of each other to fight a dark lord” structure.

It’s just kind of interesting to me to see it laid out like that and realize that while Shannara also sets a pattern for “fantasy adventure” in the 70s, it really isn’t JUST like the pattern set in LOTR. It does borrow some of LOTR’s pattern, but it borrows from others as well. I sort of wonder what else Brooks thought he was borrowing from.