News that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara books are going to be made into a TV series for US distribution, in New Zealand, set alarm bells ringing in my mind.
Plus side is that, twenty years on from Hercules: the legendary journeys, Auckland will once again be venue for a major US TV production. That’s excellent. I am certain Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings movies wouldn’t have been made in the same way – maybe not at all – had the ground work not been laid by Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena during the 1990s. They didn’t just draw attention to what was possible in New Zealand, they reinforced and built production experience here. So it’s good to see something new happening. Who knows where that will lead for the New Zealand film and TV industry?
But Brooks? Gaaah! I read the eponymous first Sword of Shannara book in 1978 and my jaw dropped. It came across to me as a blatant and execrably bad fan-fic re-write of The Lord Of The Rings. I wasn’t the only one to notice, at the time and later. Just perusing the online comments today, nearly 30 years on, paints a clear enough picture. ‘Almost parodically derivative of The Lord of the Rings,’ one blogger noted. ‘A shitty, lifeless point for point rip off of Lord of the Rings,‘ said a Goodreads reviewer. I could go on, but I think the point’s clear.
To me that highlights a key challenge all authors face. Being ‘the same, but different’. One of the reasons why tales such as Tolkien’s catch popular imagination is because they capture story archetypes – proven forms that address key elements of the human condition: ambition, pride, good versus evil, and so on. Stories that do something radically different risk losing – or never gaining – an audience, because nobody can identify with them. They become fringe literature – fodder for torturing schoolkids during English lessons, devices for pretentious wannabe literati to assert their supposed intellectual superiority. But not something that offers an accessible emotional journey for ‘the rest of us’.
That’s why ‘the same’ is actually a virtue for most writers. But that doesn’t mean ripping off somebody else’s narrative. It means driving to the heart of the story concept and idea – something at the very depths of its foundations, well below the superficial artifice of narrative, and springing a wholly original narrative from that. This is the ‘but different’ part. Shakespeare was a master at that particular art, and so was Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead used Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the archetypal tale of the foolish hero) as the setting for something original.
Tolkien did much the same with Nordic mythology and deep western symbolism to create something both new and – yet – absolutely classic, a mythology with which we can all identify. His approach was first exemplified by The Hobbit. Would you believe it was exactly the same story – at this archetypal level – as the original Star Wars? It is. Both are mythic ‘hero journeys’ with the classic elements and character arc. But at narrative level they are utterly different; and that, to me, is the key point. Same theme, same idea – but totally different stories. And that, to me, was also where The Sword of Shannara fell down.
Yes, by all means, address the mythic archetypes Tolkien used in The Lord Of The Rings; challenged heroism, faded glory, pride, hope, the loss of innocence, and above all of the conflict between the light and dark sides of the human condition, framed around events of utterly epic scale. All these things are keys to a great story. But don’t write a monkey-see-monkey-do narrative!
Apparently the later books in Brooks’ series are way better. But I haven’t found out for myself. And won’t. Once bitten is enough for me.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015