Back in my day, when I was an adolescent nerdling escaping into the pages of Terry Brooks’s Shannara fantasy lit series, the Tolkien-esque escapades of elves, druids, dwarves, and humans were engrossingly epic affairs tinted with somber urgency.
Their stories unfolded between book covers splayed with shadowy scenes of questing parties, magick, and life-or-death destiny.
So epic was the high fantasy world of Shannara—set in the fictional Four Lands long after nuclear war laid waste to Earth and paved the way for magic and monsters to overrun the land—that the prolific Brooks has churned out 25 separate Shannara novels to date, nearly one per year, for the last three decades. He’s still writing more.
Shannara, in other words, was serious sword and sorcery business. Fast-forward to 2016 and brace for a not-so-shocking shocker in the age of repurposed nostalgia: Shannara has now gone full MTV, thanks to Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the show runners who re-envisioned Superman’s high school days into the hit show Smallville and have another new fantasy action series, Into the Badlands, blending genres over at AMC.
They (along with exec producers Jon Favreau, Dan Farah, and Jonathan Liebesman) have given Brooks’s franchise a tween-friendly cast, a Game of Thrones Jr. vibe, and a blond half-elf hero with boy band locks who resembles a pointy-eared “Baby”-era Justin Bieber, hoodie and all. Even more surprising, maybe, to those who fall into that improbable sweet spot between Terry Brooks diehards and fantasy teen television viewers: It’s actually kind of watchable—at least, as other critics have pinpointed, in the way Xena: Warrior Princess sliced its way into syndication with its campy earnestness and never, ever took itself too seriously.
Not that you’ll recognize much from the gravely-toned books in the first few episodes of The Shannara Chronicles, which debuts in a clunky two-parter that flows much more smoothly once pesky requisite character introductions are out of the way. Adapted not from Brooks’s 1977 debut novel The Sword of Shannara but its lighter 1982 sequel The Elfstones of Shannara, the 10-episode series is a breezy adventure that channels its source material through the eyes of a pretty, youthful trio.
Former Nickelodeon actor Austin Butler (The Bling Ring, Yoga Hosers) plays Wil Ohmsford, the aforementioned Halfling Bieber of the Four Lands who’s given a bag of his late father’s supposedly magical stones by his dying mother and bumbles off naively from his backwoods home in search of his own destiny.
Elsewhere, a rebellious elfin princess named Amberle (Poppy Drayton) defies courtly norms to join an elite guard of warriors sworn to protect a magical tree called the Ellcrys whose existence, legend has it, is the only thing keeping a hell mouth of evil demons from destroying the world.
They both cross paths with Eretria (Pan’s Labyrinth star Ivana Baquero), a forest-toughened “rover” girl desperate to thieve, trick, or maim her way to freedom to escape the rule of her father, the leader of an paternalistic tribe of gypsies.
Between bonding over dead parents, tasting their first drops of autonomy and individual will, and sparking an obvious love triangle, Shannara’s teen heroes navigate young adulthood in a harsh world where mistrust, deception, violence, death, and homicidal gnomes lurk everywhere.
Are the performances all good? Not by a long shot. Maybe that will change as The Shannara Chronicles gives its young stars more to do than moon around wild-eyed at the great big world, as Wil does, or despair into a sinkhole of guilt, as with Amberle, who like most spoiled princesses thinks everything’s gone to crap because of her. While the kids feel out their respective strains of teen angst—both heroines steal a few flirty peeks at Wil’s pale rock hard abs, because of course—Shannara at least attempts to find anchor elsewhere in larger themes.
The grown people problem facing Elf King Eventine Elessedil (John Rhys-Davies) is that, generations after the conclusion of a bloody war won with magic (see: The Sword of Shannara for its pointed symbolism on the power of the truth) nobody believes in it anymore. What was once accepted religion, to put it one way, is now fable. Only when an escaped demon unleashes winged furies and murderous changelings who start ripping bodies apart do he and his subjects realize what their loss of faith has cost them.
But Game of Thrones this is not, even if it’s MTV’s most expensive venture into original scripted programming yet. Although Shannara’s verdant New Zealand sets are often breathtaking, it’s often undone by cheap-looking interiors and computer-generated vistas and VFX effects—particularly when those low-budget pixels are being pushed around the show’s best performers.
MVP honors go to Manu Bennett (like Rhys-Davies, also a veteran of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings franchise), who runs a veritable masterclass in acting opposite CG creations and wooden co-stars alike as the dashing Druid Allanon, the papa wizard figure guiding Wil toward his magical destiny.
The Shannara Chronicles’ most promising element is also what it hopes will hook the Hunger Games demographic: Girl power. Amberle, the defiant Elf princess, runs a blindfolded Cornucopia-like gauntlet against a field of male competitors to prove herself worthy in an opening sequence that feels more Mockingjay than Terry Brooks. In this post-apocalypse she’s the obvious Katniss Everdeen of the Four Lands. Eretria, meanwhile, is a crafty and capable young woman who aches for her own freedom as her abusive father threatens to sell her into an arranged marriage—or worse.
Amberle is one of seven protectors dubbed The Chosen Ones, yet it’s Wil, the naive bumpkin born into his destiny through a bloodline, who is the default savior of the world. While he hurtles toward an arc that promises to play out predictable daddy issues, the young heroines of Shannara are already wrestling with more modern themes. Raised within patriarchal families to fulfill roles of compliance and duty, both are in their own way fighting to articulate their own agency, stifled by the societal norms that have been thrust upon them.
Readers of the books know how choice plays out in the story of Amberle, one of Shannara lore’s best female characters. Early on in The Shannara Chronicles, the show’s other kick-ass heroine declares herself as she holds a foe at knifepoint. “When and if I kill you, it’s going to be my choice—not his,” Eretria snarls, defying her father’s orders. “This is not going to be my life.”