Ever since Game of Thrones became the most successful series in HBO’s history, other networks have been looking to find their own success within the fantasy genre. It’s harder than it sounds—in order to be effectively immersive, you’ve got to spend some serious money, and then on top of that you need compelling characters and storytelling that makes it all worthwhile. Which explains why, more often than not, these mimic shows have failed. But MTV is diving headfirst into the fantasy genre with an adaptation of another beloved and long-running series of fantasy novels, and the result is actually a delightful surprise.
The Shannara Chronicles is based on the Shannara books by author Terry Brooks, of which there are many spinoffs and prequels beyond the initial trilogy. This TV series iteration is most closely based on the second book of Brooks’ trilogy, The Elfstones of Shannara, which revolves around a quest involving magic elfstones and a dying tree.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Shannara Chronicles is that it actually takes place on Earth thousands of years from now. There are ruins of helicopters and monuments lying around that belong to the “ancient humans,” but the story begins with a race of elves, of which a new legion of “Chosen” have been selected to guard a mystical tree called Ellcrys. For the elves, this is mostly a symbolic gesture as they’ve been told that magic died out years ago, but the legend tells that as long as the Ellcrys stands, a giant demon army remains imprisoned for all eternity. Until now.
Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton) is a young elf, the first female to ever pass the physical test (which involves running through a forest blindfolded) and become a Chosen. But when she reaches out to touch Ellcrys as part of her initiation, she’s shown a vision of a future desecrated by demons, with her people all dead or dying. But at the same time that the tree gives her the vision, it also begins to die out for the first time in history. This event triggers the awakening of a Druid named Allanon (Manu Bennett), who fought in the war that brought an end to the demon army 30 years prior, but was forced to go into “Druid Sleep” as a result of his depletion. (Either that or he’s just super good at hiding from everyone he knew for three decades).
Allanon tracks down a young half elf, half human boy named Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler) who, unbeknownst to him, is the last living bloodline of Shannara and the son of a legendary warrior who single-handedly brought the war between the Four Lands to an end. Begin: hero’s journey.
Matters are made more complicated by a young girl named Eretria, played by a very grown up Pan’s Labyrinth star Ivana Baquero. Eretria is a Rover, which is basically another word for a thief or scavenger. She makes a living stealing and lying, but as we soon come to learn, she plays a crucial role in the impending adventure.
Adventure you say? Why of course, this is a fantasy series, there’s absolutely an adventure. Amberle, Wil, and Eretria are destined to save the world before it ends, as they’re tasked with a highly dangerous mission to save Ellcrys, which is the only way to prevent the demon army from being unleashed. For every leaf that falls from Ellcrys, a demon is let out, and these dudes are creepy (a couple wreak havoc early in the series, and are not to be messed with).
I’ve seen the first four episodes of the series, and what’s most impressive is the world building of the show. MTV clearly invested a lot into the production, which really serves to sell the scale and mythology of the story being told. Gorgeous New Zealand vistas bring the dynamic landscape to life, and the production design is impressively tactile, fully realizing an elegant Elven palace or a dingy druid temple.
Some of the romantic elements are a cheesy, and the exposition is really clunky at times, but for the most part the show is continually compelling and complex. While I feared that the second episode would revert to a “story of the week”-type plot that would keep the impending demon army at bay throughout the run of the series, the show actually moves through plot quite fast, embracing the serialized aspect of the storytelling.
Butler is a solid mix of charming, adorable, and heroic as Wil, while Baquero’s shading of Eretria is a nice foil for the clean-cut, somewhat privileged nature of Amberle. The real standout of the series, however, is Manu Bennett, who imbues Allanon with equal parts confidence and self-awareness. When dealing with things like magic and dying mystical trees it’s easy to delve into parody, but Bennett sells the mystical wonderfully with just a slight knowing wink to the audience that says, “This is ridiculous, but just go along with it—it’s gonna be fun!”
The show does a swell job of setting up and fleshing out the characters over the first few episodes, so that by the time their quest begins, you’re eager to see not only what will happen mythology-wise, but how the dynamic of this very fragile triangle will develop. There’s plenty of drama to be mined just from the short, shared history they go through together in the premiere (which was directed by Jonathan Liebesman), and that’s reinforced considerably in the next two episodes in a way that is very MTV.
Also, somewhat shockingly, the creature and visual effects in the series are quite graphic, crafting some truly terrifying demons and other evil-types. There’s considerable violence too, pushing the boundaries of what I was prepared to see from a series on MTV—although I guess The Walking Dead gets away with showing any vomit-inducing imagery it wants. Things are changing.
If you’re looking for something with the level of darkness or action of Game of Thrones, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But The Shannara Chronicles offers an alternative to Thrones’ dim and grim fantasy, focusing on optimism and mythology more than devastating emotional stories and dire situation after dire situation. (It’s not a straight comparison, but the video game Skyrim kept coming to mind as I was watching the show). At the same time, the series makes clear that the stakes are real and the fate of the world is in the hands of this unlikely trio. It’s just that they’re impossibly good-looking, young, and keen on flirty banter, which it turns out is actually not a terrible thing to have in a high-fantasy series. Color me pleasantly surprised.
The two-hour series premiere of The Shannara Chronicles airs on Tuesday, January 5th on MTV.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television