The Shannara Chronicles: Fantasy finds Kiwi home

By Leena Tailor

NZ expertise brings book to life, reports Leena Tailor
Manu Bennett stars in The Shannara Chronicles. Photo / Supplied
Manu Bennett stars in The Shannara Chronicles. Photo / Supplied

Terry Brooks is still moved recalling the first time he witnessed his beloved novels coming to life in New Zealand.

For years, the American author toyed with adapting his popular books from page to screen, before handing the reigns partially over to a Kiwi crew.

"My wife and I went over in February to be on-set and watch it all happen and that's the first time it really sunk into me, what a production it was and how important production values were. The sets were enormous - they built a whole castle. They built a tree bigger than this room!

"That's fairly impressive to a lowly, Mid-West author. I'm still shocked."

New Zealand actor Manu Bennett, one of the leading cast members on the TV series, says Kiwi know-how was key to recreating the fantasy world.

"One of the most valuable things about the show is the New Zealand practitioners in the background building it," Bennett said.

"I've worked with these people going back to Xena days. These dressmakers, costume departments, lighting departments, set designers - they were all doing Xena, went on to do Hercules, went on to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and then LOTR and The Hobbit.

"The skill level of people in New Zealand to make fantasy look real is extraordinarily high - you won't find it better anywhere else in the world. You can shoot in Vancouver and they've got wonderful sets, but the genre itself has been pinpointed and really focused on in New Zealand, so for all those who have had to leave Peter Jackson's six movies behind, here comes Shannara."

The book series - which started with Brooks' 1977 novel The Sword of Shannara and now has 28 instalments - is estimated to be the highest-selling unadapted fantasy series in the world, with Brooks the second best-selling fantasy author behind J. K. Rowling.

The story is set thousands of years after a nuclear and chemical holocaust destroys civilisation, with elves, humans, dwarves and trolls living together in harmony until a rising evil force threatens their Four Lands.

Filmed in Auckland, the show's trailer wowed convention-goers and had reporters waxing lyrical about New Zealand's stunning scenery when released at Comic-Con last July. Early reviews of the 10-episode first season (which adapts the second book, The Elfstones of Shannara) have been glowing, with Forbes declaring the show the "next Star Wars".

The Shannara Chronicles. Photo / Supplied
The Shannara Chronicles. Photo / Supplied

Brooks always envisioned the Four Lands coming to life on the big screen, however, with plotlines and characters proving "too broad and sweeping", and conscious of delivering die-hard fans a faithful adaptation, television became the medium of choice.

Admittingly picky about who he would work with, 71-year-old Brooks put his trust in Dan Farah - who first approached him a decade ago - and producing partners Al Gough and Miles Millar (who adapted Superman to television series Smallville), then stayed on board as an executive producer, spending around two years helping develop scripts, find the right cast and scout locations.

"It was a slow process. I wrote three books in the interim."

While it may have taken 38 years for Brooks' work to hit the screen, Bennett - who plays the last surviving druid Alannon - notes the relevance of the story to today's society, drawing parallels between conflict born from difference in Shannara and the same disharmony occurring throughout the world today.

"The cast that's been pulled together is really diverse - Ivana [Baquero] from Spain, Poppy [Drayton] from England, Austin [Butler] from America, me from New Zealand, John Rhys-Davies from the Isle of Man. It's an epic story about races and unlike LOTR where you have evil and good, there's a disparity between all the races in this story that mimics what our world is - yet still hinges on the fact that humans were responsible for a giant battle that destroyed the planet.

"It's a realistic view of the world if it f***ed up and you ended up with a mix of people fighting for their rights. In this particular example they're called elves, but they could be say, Scottish."

Having established his career and a loyal global fanbase thanks to roles as Azog in LOTR, Crixus in Spartacus and Slade Wilson in Arrow, 46-year-old Bennett had just moved to Los Angeles when the Shannara opportunity arose.

In his first audition in Hollywood, he turned up a sweaty mess thanks to improvising a last-minute wizard get-up involving a hooded jacket, which led to roasting in the California heat. Convinced the audition was a disaster, he was surprised to get the call that he had won the role and would need to return to New Zealand.

Bennett welcomed returning home and playing a character of lesser evils than his past roles.

"I don't mind playing the baddies. The baddies are complex characters that you've got to really dig deep for and find dimensions that aren't just normal. It's been great to have a whole host of characters like Deathstroke, Slade Wilson or Crixus, who was between good and bad and gave me the whole rollercoaster ride as an actor.

"Alannon is another roller coaster ride. He's dark and ominous, but he's the guy that leads Wil Ohmsford [Butler] into this transition of a young man who's going to fight for the Four Lands. He's a character with range and flaws, but am I a good guy? Yes - I'll take that!"

Rhys-Davies (LOTR's Gimli) also returned to New Zealand, to play Eventine, and believes the series will transform television.

"After you've done an awful lot of old shows - and big ones like Shogun, LOTR or Raiders of the Lost Ark - you get the smell of the great ones. Right from the first meeting, I said, 'There's something about this one that I think is going to make it into an astonishingly important and wonderful series'.

"It's epic in a different way than we've ever seen on television. I sensed that with LOTR. This might be one of those game-changing shows on television."

Bennett said adapting the books into a television series was a masterstroke.

"The game is opening up - film and television are starting to level out. You get richer storylines, broader character arcs and hours upon hours of enjoying the characters you love.

"Movies are a one-night stand - television is a relationship."


What: The Shannara Chronicles
Where: The Zone, Sky
When: Wednesdays at 8.30pm

- TimeOut

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