Pop Culture

Reflections on the Shannara Chronicles

One of the very VERY first adult books I ever read was the Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks. I rapidly fell in love with his work, and have read most of his books (and I can safely say that I had read all of the Shannara books as of about ten years ago). I actually got to meet him when he was on tour in 2009, which was AWESOME!

I met Terry Brookes in Eugene, Oregon in 2009

I met Terry Brookes in Eugene, Oregon in 2009

But, then a funny thing happened. I realized as I picked up a new book from one of his series that I knew nothing about anyone in the series anymore. I wasn't picking up a book with familiar characters, characters that I had left at some cliffhanger, stuck in the midst of a plight that might have destroyed the world in the previous year since the last book was released.

See, Shannara is a series of books that, I would argue, is about the world of Shannara more than it is about the characters of Shannara. Sure, there are Ohmsfords, Leahs, and Elessedil's throughout, but they aren't the same ones. In fact, most of the "series" of Shannara books are written generations apart from the others. 

This is not to say the writing is bad. Quite the opposite. I think Brooks is one of our generation's best sci/fi writers. He tells brilliant stories, and makes engaging characters that I want to read about. And that's my problem! When a series wraps up, and I have only gotten to spend a couple of short-ish books (or in some particularly terrible cases, just a single book!) following those characters, I want more. I don't want to meet the next Elessedil. I want to read more about the current one. That original series of books I read, now called the Heritage of Shannara, was particularly tough for me to let go. Walker Boh, Wren Elessedil, Par and Col Ohmsford... to this day, I want to read more about those characters. I want a Wheel of Time level of material about that group of people!

This brings me to the Shannara Chronicles, the show that MTV piloted this year.

I was super sketchy on MTV of all places doing the show. Surprisingly? It was actually pretty good. IGN and IMDB both gave it pretty favorable reviews throughout. Like an 8, which is more than 'pretty good' these days. Sure, it's more of a YA show than the books are YA books... But that's to be expected on MTV. So yes, the love triangle is, perhaps, a bit more played up than it needed to be. They probably played up some of the technological things more than they needed to (both effects and things I shouldn't talk about becase spoilers). But that's alright. It was enjoyable. 

Enter my concern. Remember how I said I wanted to read more about the same characters? I'm kind of in the same place with the show. Season 1 explores the Elfstones of Shannara, which is the second book that Brooks wrote, part of the original trilogy. Guess what? Books 1 and 3 are about totally different people than Elfstones, and without giving spoilers, season 1 of the show effectively covers the content of book 2. So, where does that leave us with season 2? 

Sure, some tv shows swap casts (see True Detective) but I don't love the concept. I'm really interested to see where this goes. Will season 2 move into Legend of the Seeker territory and start making up entirely new material about the characters from the book? I sort of hope not. That worked great on Dexter. It didn't work so great most other places. Legend of the Seeker by the way, the TV show adaptation of Terry Goodkind's Seeker of Truth series, was... um... much less good. And, it totally bailed on the original storyline from the books (for no good reason).

Rumor has it there is a season 2 of Shannara on the way. I'm really interested to see how they handle what comes next.

Other Mediums

I love the Dresden Files. It is, hands down, one of my absolute favorite series of books. I used to really like the Dresden television show that Sci/Fi did. Then I read the books. In retrospect, I now have a very hard time enjoying the show. The super quirky Dresden with his hockey and drum stick magic wands was, an appealing quirky character. That isn’t the Dresden of the novels, a Dresden I have infinitely more love and respect for. I found a thing I really liked, and went looking for more material in the world and in this case, the new thing I went looking for actually ruined the entry point for me.

This past weekend I got to play the Firefly board game. I have to say, I was impressed. It has a lot of elements that are a ton of fun. As with just about any game, there are elements that are also a bit out of balance. Overall though, it was a really enjoyable experience that felt like it had actually been crafted with the universe that had been created on the show in mind. You actually do fly around in a Firefly class ship (perhaps the Serenity, perhaps not) and do jobs, build your crew, tinker with your ship, avoid the Reavers, and there are definite times when you Aim to Misbehave. It is more or less what happened in every episode of the show. And it's awesome (if a bit long to play).

I mention this and found it blog-worthy because it really is genuinely rare that I found some additional piece of pop culture that I truly enjoy. Usually, in the case of Dresden, I find something I like better and ditch the original thing. Or, in the case of something like The Legend of the Seeker adaptation of Sword of Truth Series I just have a hard time getting into it altogether.

Digging a little deeper, I’ve found some generalities that seem to hold true for me. I typically enjoy movie adaptations of books more than television shows. Fight Club, for example, is so true to the book (in my opinion) that you almost don’t need to read the book. Dune, on the other hand, while a very good film, is a significantly different creature than the original work. Even the recent Hunger Games book to film adaptation was enjoyable, although I could do without the trend of shoveling as many movies down our throats as possible (thanks Harry Potter for setting that trend, despite being, on the whole, an excellent adaptation).

In the television world, I have a hard time finding book to tv adaptations I want to highlight. I mention this because in almost every case, I like either the book, or the television show (or neither), but not both. The Dexter series is truly excellent, but I had a hard time getting into Darkly Dreaming Dexter when I read it. I haven’t looked at the remainder of the series, but I understand that the books diverge significantly from the series of books. I’m not a Game of Thrones fan, but I do plan on watching the series eventually. I have tried to read the books multiple times and still haven’t been able to get into them. Obviously there are countless other examples here. I would be interested in hearing if you have any you like.

The world of games continues to fascinate me. The table top RPG world has opened to in the past to series like the Wheel of Time, and more recently the Dresden universe. The Flyfire board game was a great entry here. Even some video games have graced the shelves (the Wheel of Time PC game was not… awesome).

One thing I haven’t really seen much of yet is the video game to movie movement. Sure, Final Fantasy got a couple of films. Spirits Within wasn’t great, as I recall, but I still love Advent Children dearly (it’s Final Fantasy 7, come on what’s better than that?). Rumors of Halo, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto movies continue to circulate. I actually went and saw the Need for Speed movie earlier in the year with my brother in law, and it as surprisingly not… terrible. I reserve judgment on these until there are more tangible examples. The Last of Us is supposedly forthcoming, and it’s probably the first horror more in over a decade that I will go see in the theater. I plan on talking a bit more about this particular example in a future post talking about long story arcs and how they can be affected in medium jumping. Watch for it!

The bottom line here is that a book isn’t always just a book. So often now a book is turned into one or more media. I just wish more of it was turned into good media. One thing that I think, fairly universally (but not entirely) is that deviation leads to failure. I think so many of the adaptations that I particularly love have in common the concept they are mostly true to the original work. (Yes, Dexter is an exception to this rule, and there are others as well). However, in general, I think it holds true. The series that set out in their own direction, almost riffing on the source characters or material, invariably seem to go down rabbit holes of plots or quirks that fans of the original work will dislike. There is, almost always, so much good source material in the original that inventing quirks for a character is wholly unnecessary.

I hope that the trend continues to follow the Game of Thrones model. Yes there's a lot of source material. Yes it's a lot for a new viewer to jump into. And yes, if you get past these things and stay mostly true to the book, you have a world that is massive and will grab the viewer and suck them in. You don't have to go and invent drama in good fiction. Honestly, if you do, it's not going to work so well. Take Dresden. Dresden has plenty of baggage and quirks. He doesn’t need a hockey stick to pull it off.