After two busy days of panels and promo spots at San Diego Comic-Con, an exhausted Terry Brooks sat down by a pool bar with Paste to discuss MTV’s adaptation of his epic, high fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles. Brooks’ series began in 1977 with The Sword of Shannara, but the TV series opens with the second installment, The Elfstones of Shannara, which follows a young hero and an Elven princess on a demon-riddled quest. The first extended trailer was revealed at Comic-Con on Friday.
Brooks chatted with Paste about bringing a fantasy series to MTV that was written and celebrated before many soon-to-be viewers were born.
Paste: Tell us about your experience at Comic-Con so far.
Terry Brooks: Because of The Shannara Chronicles, it’s been a pretty big deal. I have the inside track to the show, because I’ve been on site to watch the film and I’ve been vetting the episodes right along. And I’ve seen most of them—the ones that are rough cut or finished forms—so I’m able to form an intelligent opinion (somewhat biased obviously, but maybe not) that it’s really good. It’s very good. I don’t know how people are going to receive it, but yesterday we did the panel, showing the trailer and having people present, and it was dynamite. The response was extremely strong, which was very good, because there was some concern that it wouldn’t be that strong, but it was.
Paste: How does working with TV impact your writing?
Brooks: Writing books is an entirely different process than scriptwriting. I did not sign on under contractual terms to do any scripts. I don’t want to write screenplays or episodes for The Shannara Chronicles. My job was to vet the ones that were being written by Al Gough and Miles Millar, and to see if there was anything there that was a problem with the series or with the books or with the fans’ perceptions. That was very easy to do. They’re extremely good writers. We had a frank talk upfront about what I was going to allow and not allow. I know it’s a different experience. I said, “Make it an adaptation. Feel free to experiment. You want to write some new characters? Write some new characters. You want to change the structure around?”
I kind of learned this first from my sister, who’s a playwright. There is a lot of group involvement in playwriting as well when they mount a production. I learned it from George Lucas years ago when I did [the novelization of] The Phantom Menace. I walked in and said, “How much latitude you going to give me?” He said, “I’m going to let you do anything you want, just don’t wreck my story.” He gave me tremendous latitude, and I understood that you let the artist do the best job they can, and then if you have a problem, you can say something later. You don’t start off by saying, “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that.” It’s a collaborative effort.
I thought Al and Miles were great guys. I knew their work off of previous things. I didn’t think I needed to be in there with my red pen, poised. Only a couple of times did we have a serious talk about what needed to happen.
Paste: Did the trailer screening affirm that they weren’t wrecking your stuff?
Brooks: No, I’ve been privy to the episodes all along. I think I was concerned about what it would feel like to an audience seeing it for the first time. Would they think it was strong enough? Wonderful and awesome enough? And they did.
Over the years, there had been a lot of talk about filming in one form or another, mostly movies—back in the day when that was the way to go. The fans have always had tremendous expectations and they have said to me, “Do not screw this up. If you’re going to do it, do it right.” And so I carry that set of orders into battle, and I’m well aware of the fact that they are judging this thing based on their own feelings in connections with the book that’s more than 30 years old.
Paste: Right, the series started in ‘77.
Sword of Shannara was the first book, Elfstones was the second book. If you want to know why we chose Elfstones, rather than the first book, it’s because I got some flack in the first one because there were no female characters. The demographic that the video world is looking for is a mix of male and female characters. And the second story has strong female characters, and it has a good, unorthodox love story involved. And those are all elements that they want. I always went in saying I want to pitch Elfstones.
Paste: How do you feel about fantasy spreading across networks and shows?
Brooks: As a fantasy writer, I’m really happy about this. When I started out, fantasy was a low man on the totem pole. Nobody was doing it because nobody would publish it. It was felt that it wouldn’t sell. If you weren’t Tolkien, nothing was going to happen. Now, I keep saying that Harry Potter made the world safe for fantasy and The Lord of Rings movies brought it even further. So now we have the 800-pound gorilla in the entertainment room reading fantasy. There is a lot of room in there [for publishers]. And they’re picking up a lot of young adult works and turning them into movies, and they’re finding that audiences identify with that kind of storytelling.
Paste: MTV seems to appeal to you in terms of the way they’ve handled your story.
Brooks: I like working with Miles and Al, because one of the first things they said to me was, “We love this story. This story tells itself. It has a beginning, middle and end; we don’t have to make stuff up in order to fill in the gaps.” I liked that. We explored it more, and we talked about adaptations—you know, the fact that we can’t use interior monologue and all that. We made it a point that this was going to be story-based. Yes, there would be special effects, yes, there would be “wow” moments, but basically, there would be characters and the relationships between them.
Paste: Did you have to revisit Elfstones?
Brooks: I know this story very well. It’s because the book that I wrote after Sword was turned down by my editor. I went back and wrote this one, and he made me write it three times. I know this story much better than the other books. I had worked on a sample screenplay at some point; it’s been at the forefront of my consciousness for a very long time.
Paste: Can you say what happened to that original screenplay?
Brooks: It was basically what you’re going to see. It was an adaptation of the story, as it was. It wasn’t very good, frankly and sadly. But it was something to get me back into it. [The studio] took a look at it and said they thought they could do more.
I don’t have any regrets about where we are with it. I don’t think that there were any missteps in the way that it was put together. When I was watching what [Gough and Millar] were doing, I kept saying to myself, “I could have done that this way, or I could have gone that way if I started over again writing it.” It wasn’t an encroachment that was going to bother anybody.
I hope everybody will love it, but if they don’t, there’s the book. Go read the book again; you’ll be fine.
Paste: You’re prolific, so it’s got to be interesting to come back to Elfstones.
Brooks: I’ve always been prolific, and I’ve always done at least one book a year. Part of that is because I love what I do. If you’re a writer, you want to write. You’re happiest when you’re writing.
Paste: So did you find time to write while you were in production for The Shannara Chronicles?
Brooks: Well, it was very hard to write. Luckily, I had written two books before September 2014, and because I had those books written I was set for 16 and 17. I had that gap of time to deal with the show and to do a good job on vetting it and working with the writers. It was much more work than I thought it was going to be. I failed to take into account the fact that you don’t just [vet] once with each episode, you do it multiple times. And you don’t watch rough cuts and make your comments once, you do it four, five or six times. I’m hopeful next year that I can cut back on some of that, and the writers can do a little more with their experimentation of things.