It is always a bittersweet time for me when I settle in to watch a television series or movie based on a beloved book or series of books. I had the same mix of excitement and dread when I watched the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO as I had earlier this week when I pulled up my DVR list, poured my glass of wine, and kicked up my tired feet to watch The Shannara Chronicles.
I may be underselling the apprehension side on this one. If you happened to be lucky enough to catch my geeky origin story post from November then you’ll know that this series, and the book they are clearly starting off with, Elfstones of Shannara, was my first ever fantasy novel when I was younger. I consider it the spark that lit my fantasy and science fiction passion. I’d been exposed before, of course, but this was that pivotal OMG moment where I knew this would be my calling for the rest of my life. If you were not lucky enough to catch my origin story I have you covered. You can review it here. Go on, I’ll wait here while you read it.
Good, now that you’re back, let’s get down to it with The Shannara Chronicles. This a full episode recap so there will be nothing but spoilers from this point onward.
First, I know there is a lengthy debate about whether or not the Shannara series of books are fantasy or not. I consider it fantasy although it is set in a futuristic version of the Pacific Northwest United States. They use magic and fight demons. They ride horses and use torches. To me, that is all very fantastic and that is why I consider it a fantasy series. I hope you’ll overlook that if you believe it should be characterized otherwise. Let’s agree to disagree, shall we?
My intention is to do a full recap of each episode (although the first airing entitled Chosen is considered to be episodes 1 and 2 in the chronology which can get confusing so I will call it either the premiere or Chosen Parts 1 and 2 to
help avoid confusion). After that, I will highlight what I see as the major deviations from the novel. I’ll also keep the jokes about MTV being unable to count properly to myself. The first episode begins by showing us some impressive CGI of what the Four Lands look like. We are taken on an aerial tour of the elven city of Arborlon and then we drop down to a bound and blindfolded girl running through a dark forest. This is our first glimpse of the elven princess Amberle Elessedil. She raises eyebrows when she shows up for the competition known as The Gauntlet as there has never before been a female participant. We also meet her boyfriend, Lauren. We pick up early on that the Elven race is going through its own version of a feminist movement and that Amberle is really stretching the bounds of rules and protocol by competing.
Despite repeated attempts to sabotage her in the race Amberle and Lauren both finish in the top seven and win places in the exclusive group known as The Chosen. The Chosen are to be the caretakers of the Ellcrys. Though most of the elves believe it to just be old superstition the tree is rumored to be magical and that it protects the Four Lands from evil. As part of the ceremony following the Choosing each Chosen must place their hand on the tree and be accepted. When Amberle touches the tree she receives horrifying visions of demons devouring elves and the lands in ruins.
We cut to the scene of a man covered in frost awaken on an ancient stone table in a cave. He is covered in runic tattoos and has one hell of a wicked sword. After repeated visions, including one in which Amberle sees herself kill Lauren, she assumes she is foreseeing the future and decides to run away so that she cannot be near Lauren to cause him harm and flees the city.
We switch perspectives and meet a half-elf named Wil Ohmsford just as his human mother passes away and he receives the Elfstones from her. They belonged to his elven father whom we later discover is a descendant of Jerle Shannara. Wil decides to leave for Storlock, a town of peaceful gnomes who are the most renowned healers in the land. Along the way, Wil meets with some obstacles including a playful Rover girl named Eretria.
In the meantime, Allanon has arrived at Arborlon to talk to the Ellcrys and is reunited with his old friend Eventine Elessedil, King of the Elves. He confirms the Ellcrys is dying and tells the elves that each leaf that falls from the tree represents a demon escaping from the Forbidding. We then see a leaf wither and fall. Somewhere in the wilderness, we see a demon arrive newly freed from the Forbidding and he is one gnarly looking bad guy known as the Dagda Mor.
Wil is found by Allanon who convinces him to go with him to the ancient Druid’s Keep at Paranor. Wil learns of his royal heritage and that Allanon can teach him how to use the magic left to him.
Not to be forgotten, the Dagda Mor is shown again and he summons another demon from the prison, who arrives as a naked woman. This is the Changeling who can take any living shape. The Dagda Mor sends the Changeling to Arborlon to kill the Chosen.
Allanon and Wil retrieve the Codex from Druid’s Keep and learn that a Chosen must retrieve a single seed from the Ellcrys and take it to the Bloodfire in a place known as Safehold. The Dagda Mor appears to Allanon in his mind and tells him the Chosen are already lost. Wil and Allanon hurry back to the city.
Amberle approaches Lauren at the Ellcrys and stabs him in the stomach. It is really the Changeling but it is the vision Amberle had before. When Wil and Allanon arrive at the city they find all of the Chosen remaining behind are dead.
Wil and Allanon determine that Amberle is headed to see her aunt in Wing Hove and they leave to retrieve her. Unfortunately, the Dagda Mor has managed to find out where she is as well and dispatches a Fury to kill her. That is where the episode leaves off.
When comparing this to the novel I think one must first realize the target audience here is (for better or worse) not those of us that read the novel 20+ years ago. The show is airing on MTV and follows the new version of Teen Wolf. It is clearly targeted at young adults. Once you accept that the differences make more sense and are, to this point, not bad. I’m not willing to say it is good but the pacing was okay for how many storylines they were fitting into the premiere and the acting is well done.
The first major deviation I spotted was the prolific ruins of current times. The books discuss the ancient times and readers are able to easily figure out this is a post-apocalyptic world that follows our own. In a television show with limited time to tell a tale, making the ruins visible was a much quicker and fun way to show us the timeline.
Another much bigger deviation is how the Chosen come to their service and the history of their order. The show has the young men run a rigorous obstacle course called The Gauntlet and the first seven elves to finish are the Chosen for the next year. In the novel, all elves of a certain age are brought before the
Ellcrys and stand beneath her branches. She will then lower a branch to touch the shoulders of those she chooses for service. Amberle was not the first female Chosen in the books but females were rare, only be chosen ever several hundred years. This deviation I wish had not been made. They are called the Chosen for a reason and I like the idea of the tree making the choice herself. These seven will be her companions for the next year and should be chosen based on overall character and heart not just their ability to run fast and jump far. This subplot allows them to underscore the feminist arc, though, by showing how a girl needs to work harder and is targeted more when competing in a predominantly male field. This is taken a step further when twice during the premiere Amberle mentions that all of this is her fault and alludes to her deciding to run the Gauntlet as the cause. Though this makes the feminist in me cringe a bit it is something most women feel. We carry guilt and worry that any time we buck the system or go against the status quo it will be our fault if something goes wrong.
I like the modification where each leaf that withers and dies allows one demon to escape from the Forbidding. In the novel, the Dagda Mor simply finds a weak spot and uses his powers to free himself and several other demons. I love the visual that the falling leaves provide.
Finally, I will discuss Allanon. I may have somewhat flipped my lid when I saw Allanon was cast as a younger guy. They went with a younger, sexy, body builder type and that simply does not fit at all with the character I know and love from the novels. There is even an illustration of him in the novel that shows him as an older man in flowing mystical robes with a long beard and a lined face. It took me several minutes of ranting and raving with the television paused before I could continue watching the show. I do not agree with this decision at all. But…the talented Manu Bennett most recently of Arrow and not so long ago of The Hobbit Trilogy is doing the best one could hope for in this role as written.
I’m sure everyone is wondering, as I was, how the author of the series Terry Brooks feels about the television adaptation. You can find an extended view into the private screening Terry Brooks had for family and friends over on GeekDad. I am still insanely jealous of GeekDad Will over this situation. In the meantime, I saw a brief Q&A with Terry Brooks on the red carpet at the official premiere event and he said about the television show that “[i]t captures the heart of the story. So, for [him], it’s been extremely satisfying.” And I think that is a good final summation of the premiere. It didn’t blow me away, it didn’t greatly disappoint me. It was just satisfying.
Cover picture is a screen capture by Samantha Fisher