Terry Brooks is only the latest fantasy author to find his works adapted for film and television, but the books that birthed The Shannara Chronicles have quite a legacy already. Beginning with The Sword of Shannara in 1977, Brooks has written 25 Shannara books spanning generations of characters. The Shannara Chronicles TV series is an adaptation of the second book, The Elfstones of Shannara.
MTV presented The Shannara Chronicles to the Television Critics Association the day after it premiered. After the panel, we got to sit down with Brooks to discuss the adaptation, produced by Smallville and Into the Badlands executive producers Al Gough and Miles Millar.
Why was the second book the right one for the series?
It’s actually pretty easy. The first one did not have any strong female characters. It had one female character and she was very much a supporting character in the book. It seemed to me early on that trying to find a demographic balance with no female characters was going to be a problem. We’d have to change the sex of the characters or something like that. That was one thing.
Second one, there’s no love story. When you’ve now stripped the women away and you’ve stripped the love story away, you’ve lost your female audience I think pretty thoroughly.
Women like action too, but it’s good to have a full bodied story.
They do. You want a more well rounded story and really, Elfstones is a more well rounded story. It’s still a quest story. It still has magic. It has an offbeat kind of love story in which one of the young women is very much attracted to Wil Omsford, and the other one is sort of indifferent because she’s on whole different wavelengths with what’s going to happen with her life.
I like the fact that the focus of the story is on acceptance of responsibility where you don’t necessarily want to accept the responsibility, which I think everybody identifies with. It’s a part of our lives every day. We have to take on things we don’t want to. We have to face up to things we don’t particularly want to. Sometimes problems that aren’t even of our own making. This story very much has that in mind, obviously on a much more elevated scale.
I felt like it was a better story and actually, when I spoke to Al and Miles that first time, they said, “We want to do Elfstones.”
Does that represent your growth as an author also from the first to the second book?
Sure, I heard from the female readers of the first one, “How come there are no women in this story?” I didn’t even think about it at the time. I was very much under the influence of Tolkien and using his format. I was really rewriting William Faulkner but that’s another story. But I was under the influence of that.
I felt like that book, Sword, was better in the second half than the first half. But Elfstones was the culmination of a very long and difficult series of rewrites, but I thought I got that book about as well as I could’ve and I thought it was as good a book as I could write.
I remember the art of the hardcovers from book stores growing up. Is that artist still around and in any way involved with the design of the show?
Well, no. Those people are all gone. In fact, they’re all dead. I guess one of the Hildebrandt brothers is still alive but the other one’s gone. Keith Parkinson’s gone. Darrell Sweet is also gone. That covers the first 12 books.
The show does remind me of those covers. Did Al and Miles look at those for the production design?
Oh, absolutely they did. They had read the books before we even met and they were very well versed and able to discuss the nuances of the storyline.
And the cover art?
Yeah, I’m saying it was the whole package because they had gotten copies of that original book and seen the cover art. I don’t know the extent to which they were influenced by it. Maybe to some extent they were but we never actually discussed that particular aspect of things.
Had there been movie talk when the books were first published?
Oh yeah. I think we optioned Sword in the second year that it was out to somebody or other. There was a lot of talk about what was going to happen but nothing ever happened.
Then there were other options taken from time to time, but it never developed beyond, “We really love this and we’re going to do something wonderful with it.” There were never any scripts. There were never any actors, directors, anybody that would’ve suggested anything was ever going to happen. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to it.
By the time other novels like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones got adapted, had you let it go?
Well, I think I felt I’d already said I’m going to end up just like Tolkien. I’ll be 30 years dead and then they’ll make the movie. There was never any serious interest and I just figured that it wasn’t important enough to pursue.
I’m a book guy. I’m interested in books. That’s what I write. That’s what I’m attached to and all my focus was on continuing to build my backlog of books, that series and develop it to the point where I felt like I was going to finally reach a conclusion to it.
There hadn’t been much talk about it in the ‘90s, late ‘90s, early 2000s. There really wasn’t too much talk about it until [executive producer] Dan Farrah showed up. He seemed messianic about it. 25 years old or something like that, this kid saying, “I can do something with this. I think I can do it.” I said, “Who are you? Why do you feel this way?” He gave me some reasons why he could do it and so forth. I said, “Well, if you think you can do something with it, you take Elfstones and go out and talk.”
How did it feel seeing your work performed for the first time and visiting the set of your own world?
Great. Just great. We were very excited about it.
Judine and I went over when they were first starting, so we saw much of the filming of the early episodes that were a part of the premiere of course. We saw the rushes, we were on set when they were actually doing the filming, watching them run those kids up and down that hill over and over and over again. Jonathan Liebesman would say, “One more time, one more time.” So that was good.
I think the sense of the excitement of that opening that Al and Miles created was the right thing to do because the book opens very slowly and you really can’t do that with a piece of visual art. You’ve gotta have something happen right away, especially in this age which has moved far away from the days when people would stand still for having slow openings. They want something right away.
Some of the language is very modern, phrases like “stuck up bitch” or “I call it like I see it.” Were those in the book?
No, no, of course not and here’s the reason why. When I wrote those books, I had not made the commitment that this was this world. I was 12 or 15 books into the series before I decided I was going to link it up to this world.
All the time readers were saying, “Well, where does this take place? Is this this world?” I would say, “What do you think?” Because I thought it was good that they would decide and make that connection for themselves. So when I did finally make it, it became set in stone at that point.
MTV decided early on that they wanted that connection to this world. They felt it would ground the story. It wouldn’t be an anomalous experience. It would be clear that it was this world in the future. They wanted to shorten it up so that it was closer to the time.
I didn’t have any problem with that, partly because of the juxtaposition of magic to science. For me, the books were always about the fact that science and magic are flip sides of the same coin. And that just like science, magic could be good but magic could be bad. It could be unpredictable. I wanted to write about a world in which that happened, that science fell out of favor, fell out of use. Magic rose to fill the void but then science starts to come back in. As you read into the series, 25 books, eventually science starts to come back as a more attractive form of power than magic and magic falls out of favor.
How do you come up with magic names?
Well, I don’t know. I keep a list of interesting names, characters, places, anything. When we’re traveling, I take ‘em down off of street signs, storefronts, off maps. I tell everybody I feel free to steal from everywhere. If I think a name is not being used in a sufficiently successful way, I’ll purloin it and use it for my own purposes and make it something.
Has anyone come forward and said, “I’m from that town. You used our name?”
Yes. All the time. Especially in the Pacific Northwest they say, “Are you writing about the town of Pe El? That’s where I’m from.” I say, “Well, yes. I just thought it would be cool to have the name of this assassin.”
Where did Shannara come from?
I don’t know. I can’t remember. I get asked that question. I think I just made it up at some point and I can’t remember now where or why. A lot of that has just vanished with the passage of time. I didn’t give too much thought to keeping a record of those sorts of things back when I started so now of course I can’t remember a lot of it.
Are any just flat out made up?
Oh yeah, a lot of ‘em are made up. Sometimes they’re hybrids of existing words. You’ll see that. Sometimes they’re totally made up and sometimes they’re actual names I took from one place or another.
In what episode of the show do you think it really starts diverging from the book?
Oh gosh, let’s see. That’s hard to say because they do it sporadically throughout.
They’ve kept the main characters. They’ve eliminated a lot of the battles because it’s way too expensive to film that kind of thing, and they’re not essential to the storytelling anyway.
We’ve seen so much of that already now.
I know, I think they felt, and I agreed with them, that it’d been done to death. The story that counts is the quest of these three young people to achieve a quickening of a seed that will make the Ellcrys reborn and will save their world from the invasion of the demons. So they wanted to stick with that more than any of the rest of it.
I suppose you could say it diverges right off the bat because the choosing of The Chosen is totally different in the TV show than it is in the book, but it works. That’s the question. How well does it work?
I think everything they did that was a deviation worked for me. I didn’t feel myself saying, “Oh no, you can’t do that. That’s not allowed.” I didn’t want to be that kind of guy. I think too many authors are like that.
We’ve heard those stories and seen those movies with the authors who had that kind of strangelhold.
We have, and believe me, they know who they are too. Even in the publishing field sometimes, we know those authors as being fairly difficult people to work with. The publishers don’t like it any better than the people working in the movie business do.
Do some just have the clout to demand that if their book is successful enough?
Nobody has that kind of clout that I know of, except J.K. Rowling. She’s the only one.
E.L. James did too.
I think to some extent, some of the thriller writers that have had books adapted into movies, they’ve had a lot to say about it. Crichton did.
It’s one thing to say something after. It’s another to have the clout to influence the production.
When it’s going on. These people I think maybe had that kind of power but not often. Most of the time you have to let go of that and from my perspective, I don’t have veto power. I can’t come in and say no. What I can do is say, “This would be a mistake. And maybe here’s a way you could do it that would work better.” And then we’d talk it through which is really the way things ought to get done. Congress should come visit us.
I would never say to Al and Miles, “You can’t do that. It’s not in the book.” I would never say that to them. I would say to them, “If you’re going to make the change, then let’s find a way to do it that’s respectful to the readers who count on us to honor what’s in the books.”
What other books could the series entail?
Well, we’re going to follow up with Wishsong I think, to some extent at least. Because it’s not a generation skipping experience and because the characters are not going to all be dead at the end of this one, or fired. Some of them are going to come back and we’re going to have to find ways to graft their stories and basic concepts onto whatever happens there. And we’ll work together to make that happen.
I think they’ll pull from a couple of the different books probably and try to put a story together from that. That’s doable, so we’ll try to find a way to do that.
How many more books are coming?
I’m writing one now. I have one I’ve already written coming out in June. Then I’m writing a three book series to conclude the entire Shannara series. I want it to be done before I’m dead.
The Shannara Chronicles airs Tuesdays at 10PM on MTV.