Let’s be real here: if you’re reading this site, chances are high that at one point or another, you wished you were a wizard (or a warlock, or some other sort of magically inclined being). Maybe you waited patiently for your letter from Hogwarts; perhaps wishing you were a Sanderson sister was more your bag, or even playing a game of “light as a feather, stiff as a board” while doing your best Fairuza Balk impression. For others still, their world of magic came from the mind of Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land. Books rich with the foibles of twentysomething life, coupled with the main characters’ discovery of—and reactions to—their own magical powers.
Now a television series with a slightly aged-up attitude, the Syfy iteration of The Magicians is sure to look slightly different than the Brakebills University/Fillory-fied world that readers have come to know. For one thing, theirs is now a post-graduate program, allowing that second puberty (as I call it) of grappling with the realities of the adult world to be examined in full. The darker dealings of the book’s ruminations—depression, exclusion, violence, coming-of-age, the chaos of adulthood, boredom—will be expressed with more gravity and realism.
“I welcome the people who say, ‘Oh, is it like Harry Potter?’ Because those of us who had Harry Potter are now grown up and want the rated-R version.”
“We’re telling small, textured, real stories about magic,” explained executive producer/showrunner Sera Gamble during our visit the series’ Vancouver set. “We have some grand adventure woven in.”
Adventure is at the crux of what makes The Magicians so fascinating to watch (outside of the fun magic tricks, natch): for all its grounded reality, there’s a meta-ness to its approach towards the big season one mystery: the Beast, a shadowy figure from the world of Fillory. Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), the show’s main character, first hears of the place in a set of Narnia-esque novels called Fillory and Further, about the children of the Chatwin family’s discovery of the magical land. In the series, no one—not even the majority of the magical beings Quentin encounters—believe Fillory is a real place. But anything is possible here, including the realization that even the magical world you thought you knew (or are coming to know) is not what it seems, and sometimes cannot protect you.
“You finished college and now you’re fucked, and that’s sort of where our story begins in the show, and I think that is really important,” explained Hale Appleman, whom many fans will come to know and love as the brashly human Eliot. “Coming-of-age and quote-unquote provisional adulthood … all of that changes when the bubble pops for the first time, and you step out—with your diploma or not—and you’re sort of hit in the face with the real world and all of its challenges.”
“Everyone talks about puberty and becoming a teenager, and high school,” said Appleman. “And I think this is interesting because it grounds us in the reality of adulthood, and there still being a lot of work to do, and a lot of growth, and a lot of challenge. … Sex and death and spirituality, you know, are huge themes that are touched upon in the books and also in the series, and I think that’s really important; it goes beyond getting facial hair or whatever.”
“We had a lot of really long conversations at the beginning of the process about, ‘What does magic look like, how can we make it feel like it’s in the room with us?’ We want to see the motes of dust in the air.”
But how does adventure and the challenge of self-discovery fare when your main characters are, as Gamble put it, “a bunch of drunk, fucked-up 22-year-olds going to Fillory, who are both like, ‘That’s amazing,’ and also, ‘Where’s the pub?'” Well, giving that secret away would ruin the fun of it. But it’s clear, from conversations with the creative team, actors, and even Grossman himself, we’re going deeper than even the author may have previously thought to dive.
“I want Lev to like the show and I really value his notes and his criticism,” Gamble explained. “He reads the scripts and he always has really insightful things to say. I think it’s very helpful to the production of the show that we all feel like we’re on the same team. I think that partially comes from [us] all kind of knowing that what we’re making is now a kind of new creature. It’s based on the creature that Lev created off on his own in his office and this is what happens when you add our brains to his brain. We kind of have accepted it as that’s what this baby is. This is our baby now.”
Over dinner, Grossman told me that he thoroughly enjoyed the changes and character advancements Gamble and the writing staff have dreamt up for his characters, even going so far as to commend them for expanding the depth of certain characters beyond his own work.
“It’s very enjoyable to be telling Julia’s origin story. I think where she ends up is in this iconic place.”
When asked about the character development onscreen versus the books, Gamble explained that they simply, “have the opportunity to further dimensionalize all of the characters. We [get] to spend hours and hours with them; we get to tell more stories about all of them, filling in any blanks we see … we want to know more about Penny, we want to know more about Eliot, and I think the writers really love the female characters from the books and kind of grabbed really hard and had a lot of ideas. I think you can feel how much of our writer’s personal stories have sort of been poured into Alice and Julia and also Margo.”
The increased visibility of its female characters—namely Julia (Stella Maeve), whose entire experience with magic is sidelined to exposition in book two, rather than seen—is evident from minute one. And much to the series’ benefit. In Gamble’s world, “we spend a lot more time with Julia in season one than the first book spends with Julia,” she told to us. “It’s very enjoyable to be telling Julia’s origin story. I think where she ends up is in this iconic place. She is, I think, in the minds of a lot of fans of the books, this sort of dark queen of the witches a little bit, but she doesn’t start that way. She starts as an Ivy league girl whose shit is together and has a nice boyfriend and doesn’t believe in magic.”
It’s an aspect of the books that was lacking for many fans: Julia’s path towards magic is an unusual one, and in some cases, more fascinating and higher-staked. She doesn’t have the comfort of Brakebills to guide her—she must come into her magical own on her own. And it shows: in the first few episodes, Julia struggles and rails against being told that she cannot be a Brakebills magician. That, even though she now lives in a reality where she knows magic is real and she’s quite good at it, she’s just not good enough for them. So she must find her own path; she must take what she wants, rather than Quentin and the rest, who are largely given it (thanks to their acceptance into Brakebills).
“The thing that I love the most is how they’re weaving Julia into this first season, because she kind of goes away for a while in the books. How they weaved her storyline into this season has been great,” added Bishil. “I love that whole world she plays in. It’s so dark and urban and weird; and it’s so different than our little privileged bubble at Brakebills.”
Is it post-grad Harry Potter though? Many fans of the novels have heard numerous comparisons of the Lev Grossman novels to that of Narnia and Rowling’s Potterverse. (Because magic, y’know?) But while many in the fandom grumble at the mention, Gamble is much more accepting of the comparison. “I welcome the people who say, ‘Oh, is it like Harry Potter?’ Because those of us who had Harry Potter are now grown up and want the rated-R version.”
Still, the world feels fully formed of its own making—thanks to both the incredible sets (which you can check out in our gallery below) and director Mike Cahill (Another Earth)’s handling of the actual magic itself.
“[Mike] brings a very specific, very contemporary eye to any scene with magic in it,” explained Gamble. “We had a lot of really long conversations at the beginning of the process about, ‘What does magic look like, how can we make it feel like it’s in the room with us? We want to see the motes of dust in the air. We want to feel like we’re in a room we recognize. He brings this kind of indie film sensibility that John [McNamara, executive producer and writer] and I just threw our arms around. We’re like, ‘That’s what the show is,’ because, listen: we’re not trying to compete with Game of Thrones.”
The Magicians premieres on Syfy Monday, January 25 at 9PM. Are you going to tune in? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credit: Syfy; Alicia Lutes
Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of The Nerdist. Find her on Twitter wishing SHE got into Brakebills to get a PhD in magic (@alicialutes).