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Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Chronicles of Shannara on MTV, Season 1

The Sword of Shannara was the first big fantasy novel I ever read. I still remember walking into the Walden Books on Main Street in the New England town in which I grew up, and sorting through the titles in their tiny fantasy section.  I remember the glowing sword on the cover.  I remember turning back to that cover again and again, trying to imagine the three main characters fleeing the Skull Bearers in that flight to to the Silver River.  I remember hiding the book in high school in that same New England town so that I wouldn't get teased by my peers.  I remember that same book being thrown around a classroom while I struggled to get it back like some scene in a John Hughes movie.
   When I heard that the Chronicles of Shannara was being produced, I contained my excitement.  It's a new dawn for fantasy, or at least, it is compared to what I grew up with.  Given the success of Game of Thrones, it was no wonder really that classic fantasy was sought after to produce.  In fact, a television friend of mine even asked me for some recommendations.  That was back before I left the center of the universe, NYC.
When I saw that it was MTV that decided to produce it, unlike some fans, I wasn't perturbed.  I liked "The 100."  Now that I'm officially old, seeing teen melodrama doesn't irritate me, it amuses me, and I admit a certain enjoyment of the eroticism in shows filmed to titillate the chattering class.  I'd been meaning to review the Sword of Shannara for eons, and I am now doing a reread.  However, the Chronicles begin at the second book.  There is an interesting history to that second book, given briefly by Wikipedia.

   To begin with, since this is a film review, I am not going to adhere to my usual rubric.  I will simply comment on that which seems appropriate.  First, the style.  It is immediately apparent that this was filmed to capture the Hunger Games generation.  I admit that I have only seen the first movie, and have never read the books.  However, the starting scenes of the book show a very Hunger Games competition to become Chosen to the Ellcrys.  The whole thing is filmed to maximize on a teen audience, from broad declarations of love and loyalty, to sex scenes that never occurred and gratuitous kissing/flesh, etc.  None of this bothered me, and since I have not read The Elfstones of Shannara in twenty years I cannot yet comment on accuracy.  Though, it seems pretty obviously NOT accurate.  Again, I don't care so much.  I care for the lingering success of my genre, for its mainstream appeal, and for what I believe to be the ultimate benefit: chiefly, the liberalizing of America.
The Space Needle in Seattle
In another shameless appeal to the younger generation, the show really rams home the post-Apocalyptic nature of the Shannara world.  If I were a producer, I'd be saying, "Look at The Walking Dead, people LOVE this stuff!" At one point in the first season, the teens fall into an old ballroom decked out for high school prom (minus the skeletons).  Though the books are pretty over-explanatory, the Druid Alannon outlines the entire history of the world in the first 100 pages of "Sword," they do not reference a single ruin or artifact of the old world until the Scions of Shannara, the fourth Shannara book written by Terry Brooks.  The action in the Elfstones of Shannara (Season 1) occur several thousand years after the Apocalypse.  There isn't a single car, bridge, or building remaining.  Though the Hadeshorn lake is likely still a remnant of radioactive poison.  In Chronicles, Season 1, ruins are ubiquitous.  At one point, Will Ohmsford even asks his co star "don't you ever think about how remarkable ancient humans were?"  This just doesn't happen in the books.  Nonetheless, I like it, though it feels a lot less like fantasy this way.  And the imagery the shows creators show is stunning, if not quite as original as some of its progenitors.
Poppy Drayton. Just gorgeous.
Let's talk actors, the series stars, Austin Butler, Poppy Drayton, Ivana Baquero, all three of them pretty hot.  Though Poppy (I'm sorry Poppy, but if I'd rather be named Amberle than Poppy) is really stunning as the elf princess.  I can't say much for acting.  Not that it's bad, I just can't say much about it.   Hers is not a character inflected with obvious weaknesses.  She is a strong, smart woman, and she faces adversity with will and strength.  Strong characters can be somewhat boring, it's true.  Maybe she's a good actor, maybe not.  Even though I spent a decade as an actor in NYC, I've never felt qualified toIt's been too long since I read the book, but I'm pretty sure that Ivana Baquero's character is made up for the series.  Again, so what?  She's hot too, and gets to take Will's cherry in the first episode or so.

Austin Butler, I'll "spare" you the images without shirt
Will (Austin) is an interesting choice re hotness.  Granted, as a straight man, maybe I'm wrong, but I do not think he is a particularly good looking man-boy.  But what I like about him is his sort of soft, innocent, and caring appearance.  Will Ohmsford is sort of an interesting character overall.  In fact, all of the Shannara boys are, including Shea Ohmsford, (Will's father in the series, like great great great grandfather in the books), he is not a swash-buckling hero, he's not even a swash-buckling hero in training.  He isn't a mage, or sorcerer's apprentice either.  If he is anything at all, he is an apprentice healer.  An odd choice for a hero.  This grants a fair amount of depth to the young Will, allowing him to play the caring, feeling role normally reserved for female characters. On the otherhand, the two women get to enjoy more traditionally masculine roles.  Amberle, a young warrioress elf, and Eretria, a thief character.  However, this welcome role reversal does not make these characters particularly deep.  Far from it, but it seems like MTV certainly tried to have strong female roles.  Even if both women fall for one dude.  Like many MTV properties, they even had some lesbian foreplay at one point, titillation for the younger crowd.
Ivana Baquero, naked, in a bath, with Poppy Drayton
   One of my concerns about Shannara was going to be the casting of Alannon.  Alannon is a different sort of Old Wizard cliche.  Young seeming, but silent, withdrawn, and timeless, there is nothing funny about the dark druid.  He is a druid, and falls more under the Druid cliche, though these druids are not worshipers of nature, but worshipers of the old order of men, purveyors of the knowledge of the Age of Man.  I loved Alannon growing up, and having him as a fixture in a series whose faces changed with each book was a welcome sight, even if a grim one.  As one character states, "when Alannon shows up, you know you're in trouble."  Regardless, I can state with confidence that the casting of Manu Bennett is almost perfect.  He is strong, reserved, and stately.  He even brings a little bit of grim humor to the role.  He is a tad good-looking for the role, something I was nervous about at first.  But my reservations were quickly abandoned. Having begun my reread of the Sword of Shannara, I can state that Manu reflects the druid pretty well.
Manu Bennett as Alannon
   One aspect of the show that falls short for me is that there is something flat and one dimensional about the world created by creator's Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.  It's hard to define.  When you read the Sword of Shannara you can't tell that it's Earth until Alannon literally tells you. In my mind, this had the opposite effect you might expect.  The world is less familiar as a post Apocalyptic America then it is a world with a dynamic history and geography of its own.  The beautiful vistas Gough and Millar create make you think of High Apocalypse novels, not of High Fantasy.  I don't know why this matters, but it does.  In some respects many fantasies take place in a post apocalyptic vision.  The characters walk through ancient, haunted ruins, surrounded by a bygone era of grandeur, forever lost.  Tolkien's Middle Earth was very similiar in that respect.  The world of the Fellowship is a shadow of the world before The War of the Elves in the Second Age. Ruins are in the very bones of High Fantasy.  And the swords, torches, and horses are the very outcome of low tech society that has lost its way.
   I think perhaps that one of the Chronicles Season One's failings is that while it discusses the history and frequently alludes to events that have occurred, it skips the prosaic matters that make fantasy worlds real.  Traders on the road, the petty local politics of tyrants, the class struggles hidden, yet glorified by false visions of feudalism.  The world of the Chronicles is shown to be a dystopian vision of isolated communities and roving bands of killers.  While the Sword of Shannara actually makes a point of literally telling you that this decentralized version of the land is political choice (something in my reread I find unpleasant) it is ultimately lying about this because there are local politics and trade: decentralized political systems are a red herring.  Gough's vision of the land of Shannara could take place on the same set as The Walking Dead.  But it's just not true.  The Apocalypse happened two to four thousand years prior, and world wars, which the land has experience many, are not apocalypses--just terrible.
   Regardless, it appears that there will be a second season of the show.  And I'm glad.  There was a time, perhaps when I was both jealous of a younger generation taking fantasy on, and grateful that my preferred medium was successful.  But I am jealous no longer.  With a daughter of my own, I am thrilled to see fantasy living and expanding past what my generation had done for it.