Skip to main content

The Magicians builds a better fantasy show by bringing realism to magic

The Magicians builds a better fantasy show by bringing realism to magic

Share this story

Syfy / NBCUniversal

In the 2000s, the fantasy genre saw a box office boom largely caused by the blockbuster success of the Lord of the Rings movies and the Harry Potter franchise. The drive to cash in didn’t work for everyone, though. It produced a lot of expensive failures and abortive franchises: Eragon, The Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia films, the Percy Jackson series, etc.

American TV is embracing more hard realism in our fantasy fare

But fantasy is making a comeback on TV. Game of Thrones’ success has ushered in a second age of fantasy adaptations, with two key differences: the stories are far more mature now, and instead of standalone big-budget movies, the modern fantasy revolution is happening in more serialized, long-form television series. And so we get shows like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Once Upon a Time, and Outlander, with adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles books all currently in the works. In short, American TV is embracing more hard realism in our fantasy fare, grounding magical elements in a solid foundation of real-world issues and problems.

Syfy's adaptation of Lev Grossman's The Magicians is part of this new wave of fantasy shows, and as the show begins its second season, it remains one of the best examples on TV today of adult-oriented storytelling that maintains the delicate balance between high fantasy and familiar reality.

The cast of The Magicians, with Sera Gamble, Lev Grossman, and John McNamara (center).
The cast of The Magicians, with Sera Gamble, Lev Grossman, and John McNamara (center).

According to author Lev Grossman, the Magicians trilogy was written on the heels of the publication of A Game of Thrones, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and American Gods, novels he cites as setting the trend of grounding fantasy “in some kind of solid bedrock." The novels were also inspired by Grossman's childhood reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Grossman wondered "what it would be like to be a young person suddenly placed in charge of this magical kingdom with all these inhabitants," which Lewis glosses over as the book concludes. This question is the core of The Magicians and its sequels: how would familiar fantasy tropes play out in a real world, with characters as flawed and human as we are?

Season one of the show is primarily based on the initial chunk of Grossman’s novel, riffing on the Harry Potter franchise with Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like post-graduate university for magic, but with drinking, partying, relationship drama, and sex that feels truer to a real college than any of the dating drama going on at Rowling’s school. Season two moves to dealing with the real-world ramifications of the Narnia books, as the characters assume the thrones of the magical realm of Fillory. “I actually wanted to try to think about what’s [involved in] running a country,” said Grossman, “which seems an increasingly relevant topic these days.”

“We were extremely focused on what was happening during the election in a season that is a lot about the responsibilities and pitfalls of extreme power,” says former Supernatural writer and producer Sera Gamble. She and John McNamara created The Magicians for TV. They serve as executive producers, and have writing credits on all 16 episodes so far. “The show is always grounded in the characters,” she says. “Whether they're in Brakebills or in a bodega in NYC or they're literally on another planet, they're still themselves."

To that end, the show has taken considerable care in creating characters who feel genuine. While fans of Grossman’s novels often consider primary protagonist Quentin Coldwater particularly unlikeable, Gamble and McNamara view that as a strength. "One of the things that most threw us from the books is that sometimes something a character does is a little bit of a dick move, or they're just inexperienced, or they're selfish,” Gamble says. “But who among us isn't at times inexperienced and selfish?"

Another way The Magicians strives for authenticity is in its portrayal of characters with a wide range of sexual preference and gender, which Gamble credits as a result of simply trying to portray an on-screen world as diverse as the one they see in real life. Asked about new aspects of the show that interested him when compared to the original novels, Grossman said he found the addition of a love story for Elliot in season one "very affecting and very powerful," and something he himself had failed to do in the books.

“The books are primarily from Quentin's point of view. It's a deep dive into Quentin Coldwater,” Gamble says. “And a lot of the other characters, they're reflections in many ways of his relationship with them. But a TV show is different, especially when it's set up to be a kind of ensemble show. We get to spend more time with each character. We are required to flesh them out.” That means that instead of sidelining female characters, viewer get a truer sense of them as book characters Alice, Julia, and Margo get to tell their side of the story of their relationships with Quentin and other characters. It’s a welcome change from the narrow focus of the original novels.

"We always try to make sure that when we have more magic, we have more problems," McNamara says. In the world of The Magicians, it’s not enough to wave a wand and wish your issues away. Magic is less of a deus ex machina and more of a trigger for trouble, which feels like a realistic result to expect when placing phenomenal cosmic power and stewardship of a world in the hands of normal — that is to say, irresponsible and flawed — 20-somethings.

The desire to ground the show in realism extends to the production design and effects as well. One of Grossman's major goals while writing the series "was to present a more grounded, kind of technical version of magic," instead of the more "cartoony" representation often seen in films.

“It's important to us to capture the feeling that the magic is real and in the room with the spellcaster, and that it is affecting the atmosphere," said Gamble. She and McNamara ran with that goal, developing a visual language with Grossman for spell-casting on the show through a rhythmic hand-gesture system known as "tutting," along with a reputation for sending back FX shots countless times to ensure that the results look real. One example Gamble cited was the house-of-cards scene from the pilot episode, where the pair spent days trying to make sure that small details like dust particles in the air or creases on the cards were present to help ground the CGI effects.

"It will not do to just type up the books."

McNamara and Gamble essentially have free rein to do as they please in the series, although Grossman is still heavily involved in it as what McNamara calls the show’s "god." Grossman’s Brooklyn residence is on the opposite side of the continent from The Magicians’ Vancouver sets, but he’s briefed on almost every step of the development process of each episode, from initial outlines to final drafts. But McNamara and Gamble aren’t beholden to his original vision. McNamara says the most important thing to him in developing an adaptation is in finding the truth of a character or storyline, and that diverging from the books’ "facts" is sometimes necessary to make the best possible version of the show. Ultimately, the two are very different media forms. "It will not do to just type up the books," he says.

As a show, The Magicians is still relatively young, and there's plenty of room for it to grow, both in Grossman's source material and the new storylines the creative team is adding. But as the opening episodes of season two have already shown, even as the plot turns toward fantastical quests and magical realms that would fit right in alongside Middle-earth or Hogwarts, McNamara and Gamble have a firm handle on the story’s real-world foundation. Magic stands out most when it’s surrounded by the mundane.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 6 minutes ago Not just you

Emma Roth6 minutes ago
Starlink is growing.

The Elon Musk-owned satellite internet service, which covers all seven continents including Antarctica, has now made over 1 million user terminals. As Starlink looks to expand to cruise ships, planes, and even school buses, Musk recently promised to bypass sanctions to activate the service in Iran, where the government put restrictions on communications due to mass protests.

External Link
Emma RothTwo hours ago
We might not get another Apple event this year.

While Apple was initially expected to hold an event to launch its rumored M2-equipped Macs and iPads in October, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman predicts Apple will announce its new devices in a series of press releases, website updates, and media briefings instead.

I know that it probably takes a lot of work to put these polished events together, but if Apple does pass on it this year, I will kind of miss vibing to the livestream’s music and seeing all the new products get presented.

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.