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Why ‘The Shannara Chronicles’ Is More Like ‘Star Wars’ Than ‘Lord of the Rings’

”If you look at ‘Star Wars,’ it takes fantasy that’s set in space. In this case, it’s fantasy that’s set thousands of years in the future,“ executive producer Al Gough tells TheWrap

MTV’s upcoming fantasy series, “The Shannara Chronicles,” could be considered a huge departure for the network whose best-known scripted fare is teen programming like “Awkward” and “Teen Wolf.”

Not only is the series, a co-production between MTV and Sonar Entertainment, the most expensive scripted project taken on by the network, but its sweeping scope is unlike anything the network has done in the past.

“Even though this is a departure in a lot of ways, we did that purposefully,” Mina Lefevre, executive vice president and head of scripted development at MTV said in an interview with TheWrap. “We really wanted to take some big swings, and show some change and differences, as opposed to doing just another teen with super powers. We really wanted to figure out how we could take a stab at something that’s very unique.”

“The Shannara Chronicles,” which premieres Tuesday on MTV, is based on the series of novels by Terry Brooks, and takes place thousands of years in the future, where elves, dwarves and demons exist in a post-apocalyptic world alongside humans.

And while that description might immediately call to mind the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, executive producers Miles Millar and Al Gough say the series has more in common with another famous series.

“What I think is interesting about ‘Shannara’ is that it’s a mix of actually fantasy and science fiction,” Gough told TheWrap. “And with Terry’s books, I think they’re more akin to ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Because if you look at ‘Star Wars,’ it takes fantasy that’s set in space. In this case, it’s fantasy that’s set thousands of years in the future.

Read the full interview with Gough and Millar below:

TheWrap: How did you come to this project?
Gough: They had been trying to develop the film for years, and quite frankly it would take three movies to do the book [“The Elfstones of Shannara”] justice. It felt like in this age of long-form storytelling on television, that this was the perfect book to turn into a television series.

How faithful will the show stay to its source material?
Gough: Well the first season is faithful to “The Elfstones of Shannara,” it tells the whole story in the book. It’s faithful to the spirit of it. Obviously there are things in a book, especially a fantasy book, that you can’t do on television. There are battles and things that are too epic — and in some cases don’t move the story along. So those things had to go, but it’s very faithful to the spirit, and I would say the structure, of the book. What we really tried to do is really go deeper with the characters and really try to explore those relationships. The book was written in 1982, so in many ways, it was ahead of its time. It has strong female characters, a very compelling quest. But it was also a gentler time. The relationships weren’t as complex or as interesting as what we tried to do in the series.

How did it end up at MTV?
Gough: We pitched it around town, and MTV loved the pitch, and loved the vision and the scope. You know, they’re a network that is sort of in transition, and I think trying to rebrand themselves. And they were willing to take a big swing. It’s a big, world-building show. Even though there’s “Game of Thrones” on television, so you know there’s an audience for shows in the fantasy genre, it’s still a big leap of faith, and they were willing to do it.

How did you go about casting the show? What were the key things you were looking for?
Gough: As you look for in every cast, you look for the best actor for the role. And it was a worldwide search. We looked in the U.S., in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and in the U.K. We were looking for the actors who could bring these roles to life. It was a long casting process, it probably took about six months.

Millar: We were also just looking for a diversity of talent. This is a world that has changed, that is colorblind. We have really, really strong female characters. So we wanted to find actresses who could have dimension and play the complexity of the characters that Terry created, and that we evolved in the scripts … You can only really know if its working once it’s all cut together. And for us, when we did “Smallville,” we lucked out with the alchemy of the casting there. And I think when we saw the first rough cut of this, without any visual effects or anything, the cast that had been assembled just worked, and it had the same alchemy that you see when people really connect on-screen.

What were some of the main challenges of developing a big fantasy series like this one?
Millar: When you’re world building, the aim is to create something that you haven’t seen before. The look, the feel, the authenticity of the world … And how do you contain an epic book, that spans hundreds of pages, really choose the key moments and distill the essence of the book into a 10-episode series? So that’s the challenge. One is to make it as epic and cinematic as possible. Then two, how do you contain a book of such scope and make sure fans of the book will be satisfied?

How do you react to “Game of Thrones” or “Lord of the Rings” comparisons?
Gough: I think those sort of comparisons are inevitable. You’re doing a fantasy show, so you inevitably get compared to the other fantasy projects. “Game of Thrones” being now, and “Lord of the Rings” being a groundbreaking series when it came out fifteen years ago.

What I think is interesting about “Shannara” is that it’s a mix of actually fantasy and science fiction. It’s our world thousands of years into the future, where you have these races, elves and gnomes and trolls, but they’re not the ones you know from fairytales, they’re actually mutated humans after a nuclear holocaust. So there is a science fiction element. And with Terry’s books, I think they’re more akin to “Star Wars” than “Lord of the Rings.” Because if you look at “Star Wars,” it takes fantasy that’s set in space. In this case, it’s fantasy that’s set thousands of years in the future.

What about the show do you think the audience will connect with?
Gough: I think for the MTV audience, and all audiences, it’s a great ride. It’s an epic adventure, it’s incredibly emotional. You have really strong characters throughout, it’s multi-generational … There’s a lot of really interesting character dynamics, and interesting stories that are threaded through this quest. And the best of science fiction and fantasy says something about our world as well. So you see that reflected in there. This is not a world where the races get along. The elves are in charge and the other races resent that. You see those conflicts. So this really is a great ride and a full meal for anyone who watches.

“The Shannara Chronicles” premieres Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 10 p.m. on MTV.