written by Dayna Abel
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.
If you’ve read Made Of Fail’s reviews of Season One of The Shannara Chronicles, you’ll know that I passed the assignment to fellow reviewer Noel halfway through. The reason? The near-rape of Amberle, which happened again with torture thrown in to boot in the very next episode.
I reached out to both Terry Brooks and the showrunners for an explanation last February, and Terry answered my question in the latest “Ask Terry” column. Here’s my question:
“First of all, I want you to know that seeing Elfstones come to life on TV was truly a blessing for me. A lot of things I love today can be traced back to my first read of that novel. For the first four episodes, I was completely on board with all the changes made during the adaptation to television. However, what absolutely destroyed my faith in the series was Cephelo’s attempted rape of Amberle. There was no reason whatsoever to include sexual assault in the story. Shannara is not Game Of Thrones, and I love it for that.
What justification could you possibly have for allowing such an upsetting element into the adaptation? I have loved your work and respected you for 25 years. I hope you can see why this plot device was wrong to include, and I hope for an apology.”
And here’s Terry’s answer, unedited:
“Asking for an apolgy assumes it is my place to give one. It isn’t. Not every battle I fought did I win in the making of the series. At times i was overruled. This isn’t a one man show,. It is flim by committee. So at times I had to give way to the majority, and this was one. I thought it was pretty harmless stuff myself, and not the only place where an emphasis on sex went away from the books. All I can tell you is that the books are the books and the show is the show, and the two are not the same. We celebrate the differences as well as the similarities. Sorry you were so distressed, but you can continue to enjoy the books without worrying about sex. Mostly.”
I understand that the show is not a carbon copy of the books. I understand that the book’s author is not the director of the series. I understand how adaptations work, and to be honest I actually liked a number of the changes made from page to screen.
What I don’t understand is how in the world someone with such a keen mind can fail to see the difference between sex and rape. I wasn’t concerned about sex on the show. The time slot was late enough, and it’s MTV, and you have to attract an audience. But rape isn’t sex.
Let me repeat that a bit louder for those in the back row: RAPE. IS. NOT. SEX.
It’s old and it’s tired and I feel old and tired having to explain again why there’s never a reason to rape your heroines unless you do it very respectfully and take care to show the long-term consequences of such an act. Neither of those happened on The Shannara Chronicles. Eretria (Wil in Episode Six) swooped in just in the nick of time to save the day, so no, Amberle wasn’t raped on-screen, thank goodness. But why go there in the first place? There were other ways to have Cephelo credibly threaten the princess. Noel came up with one just off the top of his head that even foreshadowed a later threat.
Why rape? Why is it always rape?
Cephelo’s attempt was hard enough to watch. We got as far as seeing Amberle pinned to the ground, helpless, screaming, as Cephelo is undoing his pants. This isn’t new for him. He’s done this before. You’d think this would affect the group dynamic just a tad, but no. In that selfsame episode, Cephelo saves the day against the Reaper. He gets a Big Damn Hero moment. He gets another one later! And no one has anything to say about him sexually assaulting Amberle – not even Amberle herself.
The last bit is doubly upsetting because Amberle is fairly passive in the novel as is, and the show went out of its way from scene one to show her as a woman with agency, who decides what she wants and makes her own choices. She even becomes a capable fighter. I was overjoyed with that change; it made Amberle more than a plot sacrifice. I’d been looking forward to seeing a new audience look up to her as a heroine. Someone women can relate to. A reflection of the strength inside of them.
Do you know what it says to your female audience when you show them that reflection and then violently assault her with zero consequences? It says “yeah, no matter how tough you are, you’re still a woman and we’re gonna rape you by proxy. Lolz r u triggered” I hate that this always feel so damned inevitable. That no matter how strong and cool and noble you are, if you’re a woman you’re going to get sexually assaulted. I’m not implying that a survivor of assault can’t be a hero; on the contrary, it’s central to Jessica Jones’ backstory and relationship with Kilgrave that he violated Jessica (although only mentally in the comics) – the entire series shows the long-term consequences of that violation, and gives us a magnificent bit of closure when she is finally able to confront Kilgrave and make him pay for it. Amberle, on the contrary, says not a single word about Cephelo’s assault. Nor do any of the other characters. If it was going to be dismissed so completely, why even show it in the first place?
Terry is correct on one thing. The Shannara Chronicles was not the result of one, even three men. But in every other respect, he is not only wrong, he is condescendingly dismissive.
“Sorry you were so distressed.” That’s another way of saying “sorry you were offended” rather than “I’m sorry for offending you.” There’s a difference, a big one. It puts the onus on the viewer to go out of their way to not be offended and if you were, well, that’s your problem. Not ours.
Terry, I have loved your books and respected you for twenty-five years. This is your problem. You passed the buck to Gough & Miller and shrugged “meh, they said rape her and I got overruled, what could I do?”
Literally anything? State for the record how exceedingly angry you were that they sexually assaulted Amberle twice? Give links to RAINN and other rape survivor support networks? At the very least acknowledge that this is something that affects people?
“I thought it was pretty harmless stuff myself.” Really? A screaming, kicking woman, the heroine of your piece, about to be raped is “harmless stuff”?
Look. Rape is a gigantic problem. In America alone, one in six women will be the victim of a rape or sexual assault in her lifetime. For men, that number is one in thirty-three. [source: RAINN] The Shannara Chronicles had roughly one million viewers. Would you have felt comfortable showing Amberle’s assault to a rape survivor? Congratulations. Statistically, you showed it to roughly one hundred and sixty-six thousand of them. Hell, my date rape wasn’t even remotely violent, and seeing Amberle’s assault on-screen still horrified me. Imagine someone who is a fan of Elfstones watching this and then getting unexpectedly slapped in the face with reliving their own assault.
It is not “harmless stuff.” To believe otherwise is to be ignorant of the effects of depictions of rape, and callous disregard for an audience you’re trying to attract. Or, in my case, keep.
Being disturbed by the repeated sexual assaults of a character you’ve loved since you were an eleven-year-old girl is not “worrying about sex.” If you really believe rape = sex, you’ve got bigger problems than book adaptation conflicts.
Ultimately I’m not blaming Terry for a decision which was, more likely than not, completely out of his hands. What I am blaming him for is dismissing what I – and likely thousands of others – went through watching that scene as “harmless stuff”. I’m blaming him for not taking a public stance against the constant rape of our fantasy heroines.
It’s possible, likely even, that Terry hasn’t been educated as to how fictional portrayals of sexual assault can have real-life consequences, and how rape is not just a kind of sex. It is, after all, the first adaptation of his work to hit the screen. It’s possible he hasn’t needed to learn how to address the concerns of his audience in a thoughtful way that isn’t simultaneously condescending and dismissive.
Let this be lesson one.
Dayna can be found on Twitter at @queenanthai.