A clichéd fantasy novel transformed in to an abysmal TV series that relies on its Young Adult genre to gloss over its absolute failure.
For those of you who have taken the time to delve in to my website and learn a little about me it is clear that there are a few things that I am extremely passionate about. Literature (especially of the fantasy persuasion), TV, and film are among those that climb highest among those interests. As you can imagine, whenever I see a fantasy novel translated to TV or film I meet it with a mix of weariness that borders on concern, and, for some reason, a slither of hope. Maybe that hope is born of the successes that we have witnessed over the last decade or so. Lord of the Rings was a triumph on the big screen, while Game of Thrones sang its worth on TV. Maybe, just maybe, they could strike another win with the Shannara Chronicles, especially considering how long this has been in the making. Within 10 minutes of the pilot those hopes were dashed. Within a few episodes they were crushed in to a quivering wreck that will forever be tainted to future efforts.
The original Shannara trilogy was one of the first epic fantasy series that I read that bordered on the cusp of adult tones. For that reason I will always look back on it with a certain fondness. But I am fully aware that the fondness is based on the nostalgia of adolescence. Looking back these are not good books. Not terrible, but certainly not good. They sit on my bookcase in all their hardback glory simply gathering dust. They are derivative of many earlier, far superior works (mainly LotR), but the main culprit of this is the first novel, The Sword of Shannara. So, when I read that the series was not going to be adapting this book, but instead drawing more heavily from the Elfstones of Shannara, this is when I found myself daring to hope.
The trailers were everywhere, blaring from the cinema screen of every movie I went to see, dancing on my TV on pretty much every commercial break. And they were not awful. The cast seemed halfway to decent with Manu Bennett (who is fantastic in Spartacus) playing Alannon and none other than John Rhys-Davies portraying the Elf King (I’m sure some of his LotR alumni may call him a traitor for this).
Then I watched it. And for some reason I kept watching it. Somehow the episodes progressively got worse and I held on to a hope that it would improve. It had to, surely. Well, no it didn’t. Before I go in to dissecting the series for its many, many faults, maybe I should get the good points out of the way. Manu Bennett is pretty good as Allanon and proves to be the anchor that keeps this series from truly smashing itself against the rocks. The creature design on any of the non CGI characters is half decent. James Remur seems to have a lot of fun as the leader of a group of bandits (can’t remember his name – I could look it up but if it wasn’t memorable enough for me to recall it without doing that then he obviously wasn’t that good). A lot of the scenery is pretty decent. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which as an MTV production I think is pretty much standard. And….uh….that’s about it.
*Sigh*……Now where to start with the rest? Let’s face it, it was obvious this was going to be no LotR or Game of Thrones. But that is no excuse to deliver an abysmal adaptation. This could have been interesting if they really played off the character interactions, showed some intense fights, and developed some real chemistry with characters we truly cared about. There was only one person I liked in this show, and that was Allanon. I often got the impression that Manu Bennett acted as if he was on a different series, one where the rest of the cast and the producers actually cared for what they were putting on the screen. Whereas he gives some gravitas to his lines and adds some deadpan humour to proceedings, the other actors come across as corny in the way they deliver their lines, and indifferent to the apparent darkness that is going on around them. They present every line with a hint of humour that belies any threat to them, they mock any adversaries with a wry smile rather than an air of fear. You never truly believe they are in any danger.
This is not all the fault of the actors. The screenwriters, directors and producers are all equally to blame. They are so concerned with maintaining the glossy looks of their attractive main cast that they refuse to mire them in dirt or grime. Allanon gets in a fight and he looks battered afterwards. Wil, or Amberle, or Eretria get in to a fight, or thrown to the mud, they get up with immaculate hair and make-up and not a scratch on them, once again conveying that feeling that no matter what happens, they are never in any danger. And while they deliver the lines with a banal chirp, there is often little they can do with phrases that are so cringe-worthy that it is actually hard to watch.
The confusion is rife throughout the whole series, in nearly every aspect. Some of the characters are dressed as you would expect. Allanon with his warrior priest robes, the Elf King with his regal gown, the Dagda Mor with his grotesque masochisms. Even Wil with his farmboy attire, while horribly clichéd, is in tune with what you would expect. But then you have the embarrassing costumes that some of the elves wear, especially Ander, who is dressed in skinny jeans and leather jacket, as if he is about to throw down the sickest tune of the naughties with his bessies from down the street. It screams of desperation that they are trying to be cool and hip, and down with the tweens. It does not fit at all with the setting, but does fit perfectly well with the whiny, constantly grating personality of the characters. Some who are even less than one step away from throwing a Justin Bieber style strop over not getting their way.
This leads nicely on to what is possibly the greatest failing in a series of this type. Character development, or more likely lack thereof. Covering ten episodes you would think that they would create characters that are able to grow from their experiences, develop relationships, learn from their mistakes. None of that happens. None at all! Characters make the same mistakes over and over and over again, and they manage to learn nothing new about each other, rather just cling on to a tenuous link through a journey they need to go on that is foretold in some prophecy. Yet, in spite of all this, we are expected to believe that love is able to blossom. The writers obviously have no idea what human interaction really is, rather just assume it is a string of cheesy one-liners delivered to present some form of wit and personality. It does not. It is simply annoying. When characters die, you do not feel the weight of it. You simply shrug your shoulders and wonder to yourself, what was that person’s name again? Sometime you even find yourself hoping for a characters death because they are simply THAT annoying.
I could go on and on about the failings of this show, but I will just leave you with one more bugbear that frustrated me throughout. The geography of the Four Lands is absolutely baffling. The logistics make absolutely no sense. Some characters are sent to destinations that take them weeks to get to, but then find themselves back in the elven home the next day. The base of the demons seems to be constantly moving while staying in the same place. It is understood that this is a far distance from the elven kingdom, yet Ander and Arion manage travel there and back in what seems to be a couple of days. And then again when the demons are on the move, it takes them weeks to get anywhere. Characters keep crossing each other’s paths as if the whole series was based in the three acres of woods at the bottom of my parents’ garden.
As this series is based on a trilogy that is mired by criticisms of derivativeness, I held a certain trepidation when I set out to watch it. It is clear that they could have done so much with this show, but tried too hard to cater to the Young Adult market, and in so doing failed at every turn. If you are expecting another Game of Thrones you are going to be incredibly disappointed. To quench your live action fantasy desires stick to those that are already riding high in the critical stratosphere and stay well away from this. It’s not often that I truly struggle to find any redeeming features, but this time I’m at a loss. Season 2 is in the making. How, I have no idea. And the only reason I am going to watch that is to provide another review and hope that the creators will learn from their mistakes. But we all saw where hope got me last time.