HBO has been raking in the Gold Dragons and Silver Stags with their hit show “Game of Thrones,” based on fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series. The success of a franchise like “Game of Thrones” has big implications for fantasy literature and its authors. If one massive fantasy world can translate to commercial success in the form a TV show, surely others can as well. It’s quite possible, but just because GOT has enjoyed a ridiculous amount of success does not mean that other fantasy worlds will. Enter the “The Shannara Chronicles.”
A few months back at ComicCon, MTV released the first look at their upcoming fantasy series “The Shannara Chronicles.” The series is based on author Terry Brooks’ epic fantasy books in the “Shannara Series.” In total, the series has 21 different books set in its universe. That is a dragon-sized horde of content. The series actually takes place on Earth, nearly 2000 years after a nuclear apocalypse wipes out most of the population. Instead of the burnt hellscape typically associated with a post-apocalyptic world, “The Shannara Chronicles” has a fantasy setting where the surviving humans have mutated into Tolkienesque fantasy races like elves and dwarves. The story follows a group of young adventurers trying to find long lost magic in order to save the world from an evil warlock and his horde of demons. But can this new fantasy series satisfy like GOT?
I have not read the Shannara books more than preview of the first few chapters in the first book, so my impressions are based on the trailer and what I have read about the series. Full disclosure, I actually tried the first book in the series on a recommendation from a friend, but ended up putting it down in favor of Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” trilogy. Now that Shannara is going to be a show, I’ll have to pick it up again and report back. What have read about the series has been mostly praise. Most top 100 fantasy book lists that I have seen have the first book in the series, “The Sword of Shannara,” on them somewhere. But can Shannara ride the wave of popularity created for fantasy by GOT? I’m skeptical. Here’s why.
I argue that GOT’s acceptance by viewers is not only because of its amazing story and characters, but because the setting is not too out there. In other words, GOT is what we call low fantasy. Low fantasy is still fantasy, it takes place in fictional, mythic worlds but its fantasy elements are not so robust. In fact, GOT marginalizes stereotypical fantasy elements. As an audience, we know that magic exists in the world. But to most characters in the GOT universe ghouls, giants, and White Walkers are simply fantasy. The audience can relate. In real life we know that magic doesn’t exsit, but there are some experiences in life that may make us reconsider, if just for a brief moment. For example, you never really know if the Warlocks from GOT Season 2 are magical or just tripping hard. As an audience, we infer that something supernatural is going on because we have more perspective than the characters. But try forgetting what you know as the audience and see things form Jorah Mormont’s point of view. Deanerys has simply been kidnapped by crazy people who want her dragons. The circumstances might be strange, but ultimately men are flesh and blood. Valar Morghulis. Essentially, GOT’s fantasy elements are not the main focus of the show. Sure there are dragons, but they’re more a of plot device used advance Deanerys’ story, rather than the focus of it. The result is a show more accessible and appealing to a mass audience.
Shannara, on the other hand, is high fantasy. Right from the get-go in the trailer there’s pointy ears, magic rocks, and mystic trees. Now, I love that sort of thing, but I’m not sure that’s going to have the same wide appeal as GOT. Is there outright aversion to having more prevalent fantasy elements in a show? I don’t know exactly, but I think that Shannara is going to lose a lot of viewers who are not already into high fantasy. Not because it’s a bad story, but because the exaggerated fantasy elements may make it less relatable. Those familiar with both series, GOT and Shannara, may say I’m comparing apples and oranges here and I would agree. GOT is political thriller set in a low fantasy world, whereas Shannara is a heroic epic set in a high fantasy world. But the reality is that to Nielsen, the monolithic ratings tyrant, both stories are simply “fantasy.” There is just no way “The Shannara Chronicles” are not going to be compared to GOT in regards to ratings and ad dollars.
While I may sound cynical about “The Shannara Chronicles,” I am actually ecstatic about seeing it. It looks like a great series and I’m pleased that more fantasy literature is making it to the TV. I hope my analysis proves incorrect and the show does awesome. We’ll find out this January!
Shannara’s website: here!
Cast and crew: here!