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FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: THE SHANNARA BY TERRY BROOKS
 



 

Tolkien’s estate in the guise of his grandson Christopher Tolkien sued New Line Cinema, claiming that the studio still owed him some royalties from the Lord of the Rings movies. We however believe that if Tolkien’s estate should be suing anyone, it ought to be Terry Brooks . . .

Described as “the master of modern fantasy” by the blurbs on his books, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series are currently being turned into movies by Hollywood. Now that the Harry Potter film franchise is fast winding down, Warner Bros. is desperately looking around for another reliable cash cow. Warner believes that Terry Brooks’ Shannara series of fantasy novels just might be that cow. Only problem is that it is a bit of a dog actually . . .

Described as the “second best selling fantasy series after Harry Potter” by one press release, the Shannara books seem a dead-given for a movie adaptation. After all, upon its publication in 1977, the first book in the series became the first modern fantasy novel to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for more than five months! Since then sci-fi & fantasy bookshelves across the planet have been groaning heavily under Brooks’ various tomes (22 at last count!) in the series, nudging out more legitimate science fiction efforts of greater imagination out in the process.

Warner already has the second book in the series (Elfstones of Shannara) in production and the first book (Sword of Shannara) in pre-production as a sequel. Why release them this way around? Well, apparently the events chronicled in Elfstones serve as a back-story to Sword and according to Brooks himself it is actually more logical to film the one before the other. However, not wanting to be weird, we decided to check out the books in their order of publication instead. Thus we kicked off with Sword of Shannara . . . which is far as we got. To be honest, after the tortuous ordeal that was Sword of Shannara we won’t be checking out Elfstones any time soon. If ever.

Brooks started writing Sword of Shannara as far back as 1967 after reading Lord of the Rings. Apparently he wrote it as a way to fight what he called an “increasingly rapid descent into terminal boredom” brought on by his entrance into law school. Yup, nothing helps fight boredom like spreading it around a bit. After all, Sword of Shannara is nothing but a dull rewrite of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Don’t believe us?

Sword of Shannara kicks off with a hobbit, oh sorry, a half-human half-elfin named Shea Ohmsford being told by a wizard, oh sorry, a druid, named Gandalf – oh sorry – we meant Allanon, that he is in fact the last surviving descendant of the Shannaras. It doesn’t turn out to be a Nigerian e-mail scam though. Shea isn’t set to inherit anything if he can come up with some cash to free those funds in the Swiss bank account. It just means that he is the only one who can wield the mythical sword of Shannara, the only weapon that can destroy the Warlock Lord.

The Warlock Lord is, you guessed it, a bad ass mother who leads vast armies of Orcs. Oh sorry, we meant trolls and gnomes. Soon a fellowship, oh sorry again, a company of people is formed. Their mission? To boldly wander around aimlessly across the same pseudo-Medieval landscape as the one described in Tolkien’s novels for most of the book’s 600-plus pages before killing the Warlock Lord with the mythical sword of Shannara. The End.

"The Sword of Shannara is about as soulless and empty as Hollywood itself!"

Remember Kevin Smith’s spoof in Clerks 2 of Lord of the Rings being nothing but a bunch of people walking around before throwing a ring down a pit? Well, Sword of Shannara follows the same pointless “quest” structure so beloved of the epic fantasy genre.

If there is anyone out there who is more obsessed with landscapes and the weather than the Victorian novelists, it’d be “modern fantasy” writers such as Brooks. Much of the novel is nothing except . . . yup, an extended travelogue. Along the way we have several of the situations and characters found in Lord of the Rings being shuffled around in an unimaginative way. Epic battles? Natch. Rulers of faraway kingdoms under a spell? Natch. Elves, gnomes, dwarfs and druids? Natch.

If you’re thirteen years old then you’d no doubt be impressed by Sword of Shannara, but once you hit fourteen you’d be wondering what the hell you were thinking . . .

Sword of Shannara is as soulless and empty as Hollywood itself – and it thus comes as no surprise that they would want to make it into a movie. It is so shallow in its characterization and plotting that it makes Paris Hilton look like Susan Sontag. “Dreary”, “unimaginative” and “derivative” are the adverbs that spring to mind when describing the book. As it goes through its predictable motions, it soon becomes a drag to read. It’s like watching Eragon again, except it takes much longer this time round.

But don’t take our word for it. Influential fantasy editor Lin Carter criticized The Sword of Shannara as being “the single most cold-blooded, complete rip-off of another book that I have ever read”. Carter wrote that “Terry Brooks wasn't trying to imitate Tolkien's prose, just steal his storyline and complete cast of characters, and [Brooks] did it with such clumsiness and so heavy-handedly, that he virtually rubbed your nose in it.”

In a 1980 book on American fantasy, the critic Brian Attebery also accused The Sword of Shannara of being “undigested Tolkien”, finding it “especially blatant in its point-for-point correspondence” to The Lord of the Rings.

Author Orson Scott Card named The Sword of Shannara as a cautionary example of overly-derivative writing. He called it “artistically displeasing”, but we can think of much more colorful language to describe it but won’t as we run a family Web site here.

Also check out this relevant paragraph from Wikipedia:

Assessing The Sword of Shannara decades after its publication, the Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey found it distinctive for “the dogged way in which it follows Tolkien point for point”. Within Brooks' novel, Shippey located “analogues” for Tolkien characters such as Sauron (Brona), Gandalf (Allanon), the Hobbits (Shea and Flick), Aragorn (Menion), Boromir (Balinor), Gimli (Hendel), Legolas (Durin and Dayel), Gollum (Orl Fane), the Barrow-wight (Mist Wraith) and the Nazgûl (Skull Bearers), among others. He also found plot similarities to events in The Lord of the Rings such as the Fellowship of the Ring's formation and adventures, the journeys to Rivendell (Culhaven) and Lothlórien (Storlock), Gandalf's fall in Moria and subsequent reappearance, and the Rohirrim's arrival at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, among others.

The author of the article - or is it someone else? probably a Brooks fan this time round taking into consideration the collaborative nature of Wikipedia - points out that “the plot of Brooks' subsequent novels bear little resemblance to Tolkien's works (apart from elements shared by many novels in the genre).” Yeah right.

After the dull, tortuous ordeal that was Sword of Shannara we weren’t exactly ready to take a chance on Elfstones of Shannara. Besides, Sword of Shannara is a reminder of what we despise most about the Fantasy genre. After having spent several hours in Brooks’ universe with Sword one simply cannot imagine him setting another twenty-plus novels against such an anaemic and derivative fictional universe; not in the same way one can, let’s say, imagine Iain M. Banks setting a couple more novels in his Culture universe after having read Use of Weapons.

Besides, the only “clever” thing in it is that the Shannara books are supposedly set in the far distant future, instead of a mythical past; one in which humanity has reverted back to Medievalism after several devastating wars. But Brooks never does anything with the concept. Never does any of the book’s heroes come across, let’s say, the ancient ruins of New York – or maybe a shopping list with Pastrami as one of the items to be bought. No, because then it would be a science fiction novel and instead Brooks sticks doggedly to the tired Tolkien epic fantasy template.

So we won’t be bothering with Elfstones. Life is too short to be wasted on watered-down Tolkien. Besides there are lots of great hard SF novels out there still to be read. (Next up for us is Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo-winning novel Spin, which is also being turned into a movie.)

Anyway, Elfstones of Shannara is to be directed by Mike Newell who already showed his adeptness with the genre with his version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or The 12 Tasks of Harry Potter as one jaded colleague has dubbed it). No cast has been announced as yet, but we would suggest the following:

Shea . . . Elijah Wood
Flick . . . Sean Astin
Allanon . . . Ian McKellen
Menion . . . Viggo Mortenson
Orl Fane . . . Andy Serkis
Hendel . . . John Rhys-Davies


 



 

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