Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy — about a group of young people with magical abilities — has climbed a difficult path to get to viewers. So Sera Gamble and John McNamara, who are bringing the books to Syfy, have been scrupulous in their vision, and a tour of the Vancouver sets reveals their thoughtful precision.
The settings created for Brakebills University, the magical graduate school in upstate New York to which Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) finds himself mysteriously summoned, are cozy. The dorm rooms, the magical lab, and the student café are all laden with dark wood: the aesthetics of a university library you'd never want to leave. The cottage where Quentin's clique — the Physical Kids, who do Physical magic, the rarest discipline — spend their time is laid out like an actual, spacious house, with glasses and dishes stuck to the ceiling as remnants of past, drunken spell-casting; liquor bottles and cocktail glasses everywhere; and genuinely comfortable chairs and couches on which to sprawl out. On this unseasonably warm fall night, there was even a smell of incense.
"I almost cried when I saw the Physical Kids' cottage for the first time," Gamble said as she gave a tour of what Rachel O’Toole, the show's production designer, and Kendelle Elliott, its art director, had created.
The set for Julia's Brooklyn apartment was another matter. Julia (played by Stella Maeve of Chicago P.D.) will be a main character in The Magicians' first season despite her ancillary importance in Grossman's first novel. She doesn't get in to Brakebills — and she literally can't forget it; her socially agile perfectionism, which had set her up for a nice life, all goes to hell after her rejection. And forging her own dangerous path to teach herself magic will lead Julia into some dark shit that Quentin, her bygone best friend, will never see at his fancy magic school. So by the middle of filming Season 1, her apartment looks like a small, possibly insane tornado destroyed it. "She's going through things," Gamble said, as she gestured at the mess. "So she has bras on the floor."
As for the sets for Fillory, the magical otherworld that Quentin always thought was fictional (because he had read about it only in novels — and yearned for it), to describe them would spoil the story. But they do exist, and will begin to be revealed on The Magicians as early as its first episode.
After The Magicians was released in August 2009, the New York Times review of it said, "Grossman has written what could crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults." But the comparison was not crude at all — Grossman's ode to other fantasy novels such as J.K. Rowling's beloved series and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia was explicit and deliberate. For smart young adults, ones like Quentin (and Grossman in his own twenties), who grow up devouring fiction about magic — so much so that they would prefer to live in those stories than in their own world — an inability to move forward is real.
"They're about being launched out in the world with all kinds of hopes and an expensive education and all the goodwill in the world — and a whole lot of wrong ideas about how the world works," Grossman said in November over coffee in Los Angeles. "And then having to find your place in the world that is much darker and more confusing and chaotic than anything that you've been led to believe."
In other words, yes, The Magicians "is Harry Potter's missing twenties," Grossman said.
The trilogy — completed by The Magician King (2011) and The Magician's Land (2014) — works on two levels: as fantasy novels, and as meta-texts about fantasy. When you combine those things, the novels enact depression, boredom, parental neglect, the difficulties of growing up, and the lasting psychological damage of violence.
Perhaps as a result of their complexity, there wasn't much interest in adapting the books, despite all of them being New York Times best-sellers. According to Grossman, there were no takers from the movie side of the entertainment business. Then Fox bought the rights to the books in 2011, but the project died without even producing a filmed pilot. It seemed like The Magicians would never live onscreen. "I was super bummed," Grossman said.
But then Michael London, a producer who had been involved in the Fox pilot, had a meeting with Gamble and McNamara in 2013 and mentioned that The Magicians was again available. "And I jumped out of my chair, because I am obsessed with those books," Gamble said.
McNamara has been a writer and executive producer on a number of inventive and — as he would be the first to say— short-lived TV shows: the sinister, ahead-of-its-time Profit in 1996; Fastlane, the stylish crime drama in 2002–3; and the underrated 2011 adaptation of Prime Suspect, to name a few. "Someone once described when looking at my IMDb page as, 'It looks like the names of made-up TV shows on a Seinfeld episode,'" McNamara said recently during an interview at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California, characterizing what he called his "stellar commercial career." (He also wrote the screenplay for Trumbo, for which he has been nominated for a Writers Guild of America award.)
One of those cut-short, yet interesting shows was ABC’s 2005 series Eyes, on which McNamara was Gamble's first boss. She and her then-partner Raelle Tucker had been screenwriting finalists on the second season of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's Project Greenlight in 2003, having written a script called Cheeks that was inspired by their past experiences as strippers. They did not win, but Project Greenlight executive producer Chris Moore was one of the people who called McNamara to urge him to hire Gamble and Tucker for Eyes.
When the show was canceled after only five episodes had aired, Gamble sought advice from McNamara for her next job amid several offers. "He said, 'Which one do you have ideas for? Which one do you like the best when you watch it?' These are basic questions, and I was such a green writer I didn't even know to ask them."
Heeding McNamara's advice, Gamble picked Supernatural, where she ascended from story editor to its showrunner over her seven seasons on the show, which is still thriving on The CW. The two of them remained friends, and occasionally, Gamble said, "We would end up hanging out and having a cocktail and saying, 'What show should we do?'"
In spring 2012, Gamble left Supernatural, and then immediately did a pilot. After that, she was "burnt out." McNamara also did not have a job at the time. "Egregiously," he said, making Gamble laugh. "Not just unemployed, but borderline unemployable."
When Gamble was halfway through reading The Magicians shortly after its release, she asked her agent about its availability, only to find out that it had been optioned by Fox at the time. Now — Michael London was telling her — she had her chance with the series. McNamara, however, not only hadn't read them, but doesn't particularly like fantasy. Taking in London and Gamble's excitement, McNamara set about reading them: reluctantly.
"I was, like, I feel like I know what's going to happen from page one," he said, "And boy, did I not. Boy did I not expect the depth, and the challenges to one's own precepts about heroism, cowardice, destiny — everything." They optioned the books, and Gamble and McNamara wrote the pilot script to sell through London's Groundswell Productions.
They shopped around the finished script, and while "there was no HBO offer," McNamara said, "there were interesting streaming, digital, or BBC-ish kind of offers." Plus, Syfy was trying to find its footing after several years of creative and ratings doldrums, and wanted to meet with them. McNamara, a friend of the channel's then newly installed executive vice president of original content, Bill McGoldrick, told him, "I don't know if this is really right for you — it's not really science fiction."
Nevertheless, London, Gamble, and McNamara decided to talk with Syfy. One executive at the meeting told them that the channel was determined to set history right, and get to where Syfy should have gone after its Battlestar Galactica run from 2004 to 2009, when the critically adored, geek-worshiped drama had brought the channel both respect and business success. "We should have done The Walking Dead; we should have done Game of Thrones," McNamara recalled the executive saying. "We were the leader in genre. We won the Peabody Award for a cable science fiction show. We turned that opportunity into dreck. He said to us directly, 'We took what was filling the halls at Comic-Con and turned them into empty rooms.'"
Gamble hadn't even noticed Syfy's faded place until that meeting. "But then I realized I was a huge genre fan and wasn't really watching much of their stuff," she said.
"We just left the room saying, ‘At least we know one thing: We're going to work with people who are self-aware and honest,’" McNamara said. "’Are we going to get the biggest budget? No. Are we necessarily going to fit their corporate identity? I don't know.’" But the idea of being an important part a rebuilding brand had its appeal: They sold The Magicians to Syfy, which made the pilot in December 2014, and then ordered it to series in May of last year.
Grossman is a consultant on The Magicians. With the Fox version of the show, he'd had almost no involvement, but when Gamble and McNamara began working on the project, "There was much more information flowing back and forth, which was nice," he said. He hadn't thought he would want to be involved at all. "I just thought, Off you go, god be with you — this is TV, and I'm in the books world," said Grossman, who is not only a novelist, but remains Time's full-time book critic. And yet, "I couldn't help but be interested when I started seeing the scripts coming back."
Some of Grossman's thoughts were about what he, a fantasy expert, thought The Magicians could give to the genre's fans that they had never seen before. Which started with the portrayal of magic itself. "I've never seen people do the arcane hand motions and have these wonderful orbs and lines of force develop around them in a way that I always pictured it, which exists in a lot of fantasy novels,” Grossman said. “I've just never seen anybody do it onscreen properly."
"I would be at 10,000 feet saying, ‘Here's my childhood dream of what I've wanted to see onscreen,’" he added.
Grossman's wish has come true — the spell-casting in The Magicians is unlike anything we've seen before — thanks to Paul Becker and Kevin Li, whom Gamble hired to choreograph each spell: They specialize in finger tutting, a precise, geometric, yet flowing offshoot of the interpretive hip-hop dance tutting, but done only with one's arms, hands, and fingers. "We now have the basic vocabulary of the kind of movement of hands and fingers that would make something catch fire or blow wind," Gamble said.
It looks dramatic and weighty, which is what altering the physical properties of the universe should look like. It's also clearly readable as a language, one that the characters are learning and getting better at.
Julia (left) and Quentin tutting.
Learning that magic is real is presented as a revelation for the characters in The Magicians. But once they are living as magicians, they're still the same people, with the same problems that have always tormented them. "I think it's a really fun thought exercise that Lev started with: What happens if you find out about that stuff, but you're of age?" Gamble said. "And you're drinking and you're fucking. What does magic do for you then?"
It was Syfy's suggestion to make the characters older than they were in Grossman’s novels, which begin with Quentin and Julia as high school seniors. If the show runs its full course through to the end of the books, the characters will end up on the other side of 35, and McGoldrick thought it would be easier to find actors who could look 22 and age appropriately than actors who look 17 now and could age into their thirties. The producers were worried about Grossman's reaction to this change, but, he said, "I didn't care at all." They also worried he wouldn't want them to change the name of Janet, another main character, to Margo (because "Janet" and "Julia" might confuse viewers). "I didn't mind," Grossman said. "I like the name Margo!"
"What mattered to me is that the core of the characters stay the same," Grossman said. "And they really have to a remarkable extent."
Translating those cores into television, though, has meant a few instances of laying bare some of Grossman's subtexts — Quentin's depression, for example. In the novel The Magicians, it might take awhile for a reader to realize Quentin's sorrow isn't only circumstantial. On the show, when viewers first meet him, he has checked himself into a mental hospital because, as his psychiatrist repeats back to him: "The feeling of not belonging anywhere was overwhelming. And that you were the most useless person who ever lived." Gamble said, "It's clear when you read the books that he's pretty depressed, and we wanted to make that real: We wanted to put him in a mental hospital."
For Gamble and McNamara, they feel loyal to the spirit of Grossman's work, but the novels aren't their bible. "There's been a time or two when I've sat in a movie and felt how hamstrung a screenwriter was, because they had to hit every single beat that is beloved in a book," Gamble said. "It was clear to us from the beginning that the TV show couldn't function that way. The scope has to be different for us to produce it effectively."
For The Magicians readers who turn into viewers, that will mean finding out more about Eliot (Hale Appleman), Margo (Summer Bishil), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and a very different sort of Penny (Arjun Gupta) — less of an annoying gnat, more of a carnal provocateur. At first, Grossman thought about the changes to Penny, "What are you doing? I don't get it.” But as soon as he saw the pilot, “it was great. He's a great counterweight to Quentin, he gives Quentin shit when Quentin deserves to be given shit."
And Quentin and Julia — the two poles of magical privilege — will remain central. Quentin was Grossman’s fictional stand-in from the beginning, and he is pleased with Jason Ralph's portrayal. "He has to project a lot of intelligence; he has to project a lot of sadness," Grossman said. "He has to be a little bit maddening, because he is much smarter intellectually than he is emotionally. He has to be both disillusioned and deeply idealistic. And he has to go from being kind of a depressed shoegazer to being a hero."
As for Julia, she is Grossman too — even though he originally intended for her to be only in the first scene of the first book, never to be seen again. "But for some reason, she kept coming back," he said. Julia became a main character in the second novel, because, he said, "Once I started writing in her voice, her character just exploded. She was so angry, and so insistent that the story was about her and not about Quentin. I couldn't stop telling that story."
In this world, the consequences of magic can sometimes lead to sad, if not ruinous, turns. Syfy's McGoldrick, echoing a theme of Grossman's, said in a recent interview, "These kids that are in these big fantasy things, if they saw and witnessed the things they do, the death and destruction, it would damage them. They wouldn't come out the other side all pristine and happy — it would really, really affect them."
It’s clear The Magicians books — and now the television show — are very much for adults. There is sex and violence and swearing and scares and some sexual violence. According to McNamara and Gamble, Syfy, an ad-supported network, has not been afraid of those things. After they began writing, they got their first notes back from the Standards and Practices department. "I was ready to either just ignore them or have a big fight or whatever," McNamara said. Before he could decide which, they heard from the Syfy executives: "We've told Standards and Practices they can't give you notes," read the email.
"There's a word we have to dip sound — the word 'fuck.' It means either the 'f' has to go or the 'k.' We basically have to follow the same rules Mr. Robot has to follow," Gamble said, referencing the Golden Globe–winning drama on USA, Syfy's NBCUniversal corporate sibling. "We should send them a fruit basket."
In the era of peak TV, with more than 400 scripted shows on television, it would simply be stupid to water down The Magicians, a series with a vigilant, skeptical fanbase. "It can't be neither here nor there," McGoldrick said. "We can't soften it. That's the whole point, that's why you like the books — that's why it's different from just, Oh, they're doing a fantasy show. We have told them: ‘Just go for it.’"
With its narrative digressions and thematic seriousness, The Magicians promises a lot. And the suffusion of television right now means there is actually less pressure to be an immediate, or even a linear, hit. So maybe the show will get time to dive into all the ideas it wants to.
"I felt connected to the emotional stories that Lev was telling that go beyond romance, drama, comedy, to human experience," McNamara said. "So at certain junctures, when maybe someone — one of our overlords, in a very nice way, because they're very nice people — would say, 'But shouldn't Quentin be more heroic here?' We were, like, 'No!' In fact, we think we've actually made him too heroic — and we're going to go back and make him even less heroic!"
In the same vein, they want to undermine conventions of fantasy and genre that frame everything from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "We wanted to have a pointed, onscreen way of talking about this very interesting theme that runs through Lev's books, which is that destiny is bullshit — nobody is special," Gamble said. "Everyone wants to be the Chosen One. There is no Chosen One! In our case, we have a character look at Quentin and say, 'You have a destiny.'
"But very quickly," Gamble continued, "someone says, 'Oh, did someone tell you you have a destiny? That's bullshit!"
It's as if Harry Potter never had Voldemort to fight, or Dumbledore to teach him — Quentin, Julia, and their friends have to find their own way. Or, as Grossman put it plainly: "I'm a big Harry Potter fan. But there's a certain point in your life — when you're, like, a middle-aged American — that you have to come to terms with the fact that you're not an English schoolboy. Even though it really feels like you are. You're not!"