MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, based on the books by Terry Brooks, premiered this week. I’ve been interested since I first heard about it and was surprised at how well it turned out.
It’s no surprise that with Game of Thrones‘ success, more and more fantasy epics are being mined for source material for television and movies. The Shannara books—written by Terry Brooks and now numbering 24 with the next due out this year—have been around since 1977, when The Sword of Shannara was published. I got into the books in the late 1980s and it is still one of my favorite series to read. It’s pretty impressive that the series is still going strong today. With the growing interest in fantasy properties, Shannara had to be at the top of television and movie executives’ list for potential adaptation.
When I first heard that Brooks’ books were picked up by MTV, I was skeptical. This was MTV, after all. But I still eagerly watched the casting news and other developments. I was going to give it a try, no matter what. I was also surprised that the television adaptation was starting with the second book of The Swords of Shannara trilogy. Why? In the end, though, it ended up being a good choice, for reasons I’ll go into later. The wait finally ended this week, with the two-hour premiere of The Shannara Chronicles. And what a two hours it was.
There was a lot to like about this series. I really couldn’t find any faults.
I watched the debut episode with the fiancée—who had never read the books or had exposure to the characters—and she really enjoyed it. For me, it was both familiar and different. But a good kind of different.
There’s a lot of story packed into the first episode but the viewer isn’t left with lingering questions about the basics of the setting and the story premise. Premiere episode writers (and series creators) Alfred Gough (Smallville, I Am Number Four) and Miles Millar (Smallville, Spider-Man 2) do a great job of setting up the world, explaining where things stand and letting the viewer get to know the players and the various fantasy races involved. This episode had to introduce the world, the characters and why they are important, as well as the thrust of the series. It did all that, and did it well, clearly establishing the whys, the wheres, the whats and the whos. I said I was surprised that the series didn’t start with an adaptation of the first book of The Sword of Shannara trilogy but after watching the first episode, I realized that they didn’t have to. Gough and Millar do a brilliant job of explaining all the events that happened in the first book and their implications through the characters’ dialogue. Viewers get to learn all about the Warlock Lord, the War of the Races, as well as who Shea Ohmsford is, what he did, and his fate.
It isn’t just The Shannara Chronicles‘ writing that does justice to the books’ classic good versus evil quest, The performances by the cast also ensure that viewers remain interested in exploring the fantasy setting.
All the actors are spot on but Manu Bennett (Arrow, The Hobbit trilogy) is especially notable for his near-perfect portrayal of the druid Allanon. He’s not as tall as I always pictured Allanon to be, but he has the sheer imposing presence of the character in the book. Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth, La Mujer del Anarquista) also really stands out as Eretria the Rover—probably my favorite character and performance. Austin Butler (in the role of Wil Ohmsford) and Poppy Drayton (in the role of Amberle Elessedil) both play their characters perfectly.
But the best part of the entire thing are the sets, locations, art direction, and production design. Yes, there is a lot of CGI, but for a basic cable network show there is a ton of detail put into the costumes, the outfits and the make-up. Just an amazing job all around. The main setting of The Four Lands looks amazing. The buildings and the architecture are some of the best I have seen in made-for-TV entertainment. The show is filmed in New Zealand and just like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the landscape is beautiful. The Elves’ capital city of Arborlon is stunning, with the tops of houses poking out of the trees. The mountain fortress Paranor, while not what I expected or imagined, was what it needed to be.
The Shannara stories takes place on a future Earth, after environmental disasters almost destroyed the planet. The show’s design team has done a remarkable job of showing that the events depicted in the series take place in what used to be our world. It isn’t just the rusted remnants of helicopters or the fallen Seattle Space Needle or even using an old bus door as the entrance to a house. It is also in the clothes the characters wear. You can see how the outfits—which have a nice sci-fi/fantasy feel—evolved from modern-day wear. The Elves’ formal clothes, the dresses in particular, appear to be descended from the styles we would see now. Eretria’s pants had a jeans-like quality to them.
The make-up on the monsters, especially on series villain The Dagda Mor (played by The Hobbit trilogy’s Jed Brophy), was just crazy. Previews of future episodes also showed the Gnomes and they look equally well done.
I can’t imagine what the budget is for this show but they used it wisely. This is one of the more visually stunning shows that I’ve seen in a long time, with writing and performances to match.
Being an MTV production, the network might have hyped up the romance elements and its appeal to the teen/YA crowd, but it doesn’t detract from the overall show. And the music? Excellent.
I was looking forward to this and figured I would like it, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I did like it.
The Shannara Chronicles Season 1, Episode 1 (“The Chosen”) crew and cast
- Director: Jonathan Liebesman
- Written for television by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
- Based on the books by: Terry Brooks
- Cinematography: Michael Bonvillain
- Film editing: Peter Gvozdas
- Production design: Robert Gillies
- Art direction: Robert Bavin, Andy McLaren (supervisor)
- Music: Felix Erskine
- Set decoration: Megan Vertelle
- Costume design: Jane Holland
- Hair and make-up designer: Vinnie Ashton
- Prosthetics make-up supervisor: Shay Lawrence
- Prosthetics make-up artists: Don Brooker (senior artist), Tristan Lucas
- Austin Butler (Wil Ohmsford)
- Poppy Drayton (Amberle Elessedil)
- Ivana Baquero (Eretria)
- Manu Bennett (Allanon)
- Aaron Jakubenko (Ander Elessedil)
- James Remar (Cephelo)
- Daniel MacPherson (Arion Elessedil)
- Jed Brophy (The Dagda Mor)
- Brooke Williams (Catania)
- Emilia Burns (Commander Tilton)
- Mattias Inwood (Lorin)
- Sarah Peirse
- John Rhys-Davies (Eventine Elessedil)
- Mark Mitchinson (Flick Ohmsford)
- Shushila Takao (Changeling)
- Roz Turnbull (Heady Ohmsford)
- Gary Young (Went)
- Ella Rouhier (voice of Young Amberle)