After early and well-received previews, Syfy's' live-action adaptation of novelist Lev Grossman's Magicians debuts Monday evening with a two-hour premiere.
Grossman’s revisionist take on what it would really be like to attend a school for magic – and what happens afterward – has had a long journey to the small screen, through a few different attempts at TV and movie adaptations. But this series both adapts and expands the original story, mixing the tale of Quentin (Jason Ralph), a depressed young man who gets to go to the magical university Brakebills, and his friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who doesn’t get in, but finds herself on a dangerous quest for magic in the “real” world. And their journeys will bring them romance, rivalry, danger…and a whole lot of evil moths.
Newsarama spoke with Grossman on the eve of the show's debut, getting sense of what it’s like to see your book come to life, the changes made along the way, whether he stole anything good from the set, and much more.
Newsarama: Lev, first off – congratulations! The show’s getting good reviews, it’s advertised all over the place, and ratings-wise, I understand the pilot preview got better ratings than The Expanse with Tom Jane’s space hat. That’s very difficult to beat.
Lev Grossman: Thanks! That space hat is a victory all on its own.
I can’t let myself pay attention to the ratings! It’s like how I can’t let myself look at sales figures. This is like that. Only ratings.
Nrama: Seriously, though – I’m not in New York, but I’m assuming there’s Brakebills posters on the subway…?
Grossman: I’ve been holed up in my house writing for a couple of weeks, but I need to go out and see if there are posters on the subways. If so, I can check off one of my major bucket list items by seeing a poster for one of my own things on the subway.
I should go before someone does that thing of tearing out part of the poster, so the poster before it is visible and it looks kind of funny. I need to go out and get a picture before that happens.
Nrama: How much have you had input into the show? I understand they’ve been sending you scripts and things like that, but it is more of a case of, “Okay, okay,” or are you suggesting plot points or dialogue or anything like that?
Grossman: You know, Sera [Gamble] and John [McNamara, the show’s co-developers and executive producers] really got into the habit – when they were turning in a script or even an outline – they would cc me, and I would get to give it a look.
I have reviewed a large number of documents related to the show while the episodes were in progress. And I of course am extremely opinionated about the show, so I’ve given feedback on a lot of things. And they’ve listened, which is extremely amazing – that they’d sit still for all of that.
Nrama: Without getting into any spoilers, what are some examples of your input on the show?
Grossman: Let me think – it’s all sorts of things. Sometimes, it’s “Oh, I think this joke would be funnier if you cut off the last beat,” but others involved key emotional or thematic beats. If I felt they weren’t clear, or I had a different sense of what they meant, I’d let them know. In some cases, I’d even tinker with the wording a bit.
There one moment, this is from the book – the characters have returned to Brakebills from being geese, and they’ve turned human again, and they’re talking about what it was like being geese, and I remember I wrote a long note about what it meant to Quentin to be a goose. And I think they rewrote a bit of that from what I said.
Nrama: Also – did you get to keep anything?
Grossman: From the set? You mean like objects?
Nrama: Yeah, I’ll admit it’s kind of an obsession of mine.
Grossman: Oh, it’s an obsession of mine too! And so far, I’ll admit that the only object I managed to steal from the set was…the stuff that takes place in the Neitherlands, between the worlds, there are these enormous libraries.
And they actually built this colossal set that’s full of towering card catalogs. And I pulled open one of the drawers, and they had actually made cards about these books about how to find magic, complete with copyright information and everything. And I stole one of these cards from the card catalog, from the Neitherlands.
That’s the only thing I’ve stolen from the set so far. But if there’s a second season, I’m going to set my sights higher a little bit.
Nrama: When it comes time for contract renegotiation, see if you can get their set decorators to remodel your place. They’ve got some good taste!
Grossman: Oh my God, it took us two years to renovate our bathrooms – they built the cottage at Brakebills in like two weeks! So I’m definitely going to employ them if at all possible.
Nrama: It’s a fascinating look they have for the show, though, because it has that lived-in, Ivy League, academia look to it. I live near Duke University, and the first look at Brakebills gave me a major sense of déjà vu.
Grossman: Definitely. When I first went to the set, I thought – “They’re not going to have enough booze in the cottage, there won’t be enough bottles.” There was enough booze, and more than enough bottles! I don’t know how they did it, but they did it. A lot of actors wound up hanging out there, probably because it was the most comfortable part of the set…though it probably wasn’t real booze, though.
Nrama: In terms of keeping things, surprised you didn’t nab one of those moths! That’s a great effect they’ve got for the Beast.
Grossman: Yeah, they did really well with that! And it was a case where they reinterpreted it from the book. The moths are a mixture of real moths and CGI, and I remember I saw some early concept drawings and just went, [sighs] “Man, that’s cool. If I had thought about it, would I have conceived the character that way?” Because it is clearly a good effect, genuinely creepy.
Nrama: It’s very unsettling – it makes you ask, “What is going on here?”
Grossman: Exactly. I accidentally blundered into a special effects meeting where they were looking at the moths, and they had just decided there weren’t enough moths. So there’s going to be a lot of moths in there.
Nrama: One thing that’s interesting about the show is that it’s kind of a remix of the trilogy – you’ve got Julia’s subplot from the second book mixed into the main narrative, and the characters aged up slightly.
And I had feelings about that initially – the first book is very much about that experience of going to college, and the excitement and sense of personal growth from that, and then the crash afterwards.
But the theme of the trilogy is about being uncertain, and figuring out how to be an adult, and by having the characters already in their early 20s and doing Brakebills as a graduate program, they have that sense of stress and uncertainty already hanging over them. They’ve already hit that point in their real lives, and now they have a sense of, “My future can be different, but this can be something positive or negative.”
Grossman: Yeah. It’s interesting about the aging-up thing – they came to me with that with, I think, a lot of trepidation about it. And it didn’t seem like a huge deal to me! I kind of forget about it when I watch the show – though for college students, they certainly live a lot like undergrads, like Quentin and Penny being roommates. I don’t remember anyone having roommates in grad school.
But it’s not really a problem – it probably has to do to more with the actors and knowing the characters have to age up, until the characters are about 30 in terms of the course of the books. And TV can’t hold a major character back until season 3 or 4 when it feels ripe and ready to introduce her – you kind of need her on Day One.
And on that note, it works well to have Quentin and Julia running in parallel. They balance each other out; she’s a good contrast to Quentin, and her story has its own internal logic to it.
Nrama: In the first few episodes, Julia’s a more active character in a lot of ways. Quentin’s unformed – he’s being bounced around these potential friends and mentors, and not initiating a lot of the action.
Whereas, Julia’s actively trying to find magic, and trying to get into this world, and dealing with different obstacles along the way. It’s a more action-based narrative to the storyline.
Grossman: Yes, and that’s good – it’s good to have that dynamic person running around, and then cut to Quentin having an emotional crisis during Potions Class.
Nrama: The arc of the overall series is Quentin’s evolution – seeing him rise and get knocked down repeatedly, so you need him in that place when the TV series starts.
Grossman: I think, by the end of three novels, Quentin is in about the place Julia is at the start of the first book.
Nrama: And I want to keep this vague, but you have your acting debut in the series…
Grossman: Yes, I did! That’s true. I always imagined myself making an appearance as one of the Brakebills professors, but they went a different way with this.
Nrama: Without spoiling things, there’s some discussion of the Fillory books within the series, and when I read the novels, I saw the author’s name as “Christopher PLO-ver,” and here’s it’s pronounced “Pluvver,” which I kept hearing as “Christopher Plummer” and wondering, “What’s Captain Von Trapp doing in Fillory…?”
Grossman: That would be a great reveal, actually. Christopher Plummer is behind everything.
I learned a painful lesson – English people don’t say “PLO-ver,” the correct pronunciation is “Pluvver.” It’s a “Smog/SmOWg” thing for “Smaug” there.
Nrama: [grumbles] The cartoon Hobbit used “Smog” and only took 75 minutes instead of 9 hours…
What was the most impressive thing you saw brought to life from your books in the series?
Grossman: A lot of stuff impressed me – you know, when you’re a novelist, you kind of have to be an actor in a way. You have to write your way through the books imagining how Quentin would say this, or how Julia would say that, and add on the appropriate adverbs.
But it’s all coming from one person. And, you know, Walt Whitman aside, there’s kind of a limit to how many people can come out of me, and how different from the baseline me they can be.
When you see actors doing readings of your dialogue – they go places you would never imagine in the dialogue. It’s Pollyanna-ish, I think – watching the actors take your dialogue and just finding all kinds of nuances to it.
Hey, you know what else is impressive? The magic’s impressive! The way that I had the practice of magic in the books was the twirling of fingers and these linguistically-elaborate incantations, which probably falls under the heading of, “Things that are easy to write, but aren’t that easy to do in real life if you’re an actor.”
There’s a scene in the second episode where you cut to Alice, and she’s doing magic, and you can see she’s really doing magic – she’s working at it, trying to make it happen. I was really impressed with how the actors did the magic. They committed to it, the hand-motions – they had a hand-choreographer to teach the actors the motions.
It could seem so silly, doing magic in front of a camera, but they commit to it. It’s amazing to watch.
Nrama: It’s a good visual element – it keeps that unknown aspect of magic going, but at the same time, there’s a sort of science and practice to it.
Grossman: Yeah – it was something I was actually afraid wouldn’t work. But it does – and I was very pleasantly surprised.
Nrama: Do you have any plans to write an episode of the show if it goes into a second season?
Grossman: It’s pretty tempting! The first season, I didn’t know much about what goes into writing for TV. But when you see it written on the page, and how it translates onto the screen…I had no idea how it works, but that I’ve seen drafts of the episodes and the filmed versions, it kind of makes me want to give it a shot.
And I definitely understand their take on the characters better than I did before. I’m strongly tempted to pitch them a script.
Nrama: What are some pop-cultural things across different media that you’ve enjoyed recently?
Grossman: Well, I just saw and enjoyed the latest Sherlock. Sherlock only gets to happen like once a year, so I was very pleased to have my Sherlock fix.
What else…I reread Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes from a few years ago to try to figure out how he does what he does, which I still can’t. But it’s great.
Sometimes I get books a few months in advance – I got a copy of one by the Australian fantasy writer Daniel O’Malley, who did a book called The Rook, and he’s got a sequel called Stiletto, which is just impossibly good. The book is about a branch of British Intelligence that is devoted to finding supernatural threats – sort of H.P. Lovecraft meets Kingsman. Reminds me of Charles Stross a bit, but has its own flavor.
I’ve been trying to write some kind of knights-in-armor fiction, which has led to my reading a lot of material about longsword-fighting techniques, and functioning of 13th-century medieval castles. So I’m a bit behind on contemporary stuff! I finally saw several episodes of Broad City over the weekend, and I hadn’t known about it, and I just found it incredibly funny and smart.
My daughter has become so obsessed with Doctor Who, and in order to understand what comes out of her mouth, I’ve been gorging my way through Doctor Who. And there is a lot of Doctor Who – I knew the old-school Tom Baker stuff, but I have to get through all the newer stuff, and it’s brilliant.
Comics-wise, I am very behind, but one I really liked was Porcelain, from the British collective Improper Books. It’s about a man who makes living beings out of porcelain, and it’s very mysterious and cool – I remember thinking if they did a Magicians comic, I wanted it to look just like this. And they came out with a new volume of Porcelain, and it’s pretty amazing.
I just got a volume of Suicide Squad, and it’s really quite good. It’s the more recent one, by Sean Ryan, but I need to go back and check out the previous incarnations.
As a Christmas present to myself, I got several volumes of The Complete Peanuts, and I’m working my way through them and enjoying them. And there’s a new Dan Clowes book coming out, and I’m really looking forward to reading that.
Nrama: It’s a strange time for popular culture, because there’s just so much of everything, it’s kind of overwhelming.
Grossman: Yeah, look at TV! There was like no fantasy on TV a few years ago, and then there was Game of Thrones, and now there’s not only The Magicians but The Shannara Chronicles and Shadowhunters and more coming.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to say about The Magicians series?
Grossman: It’s been interesting watching fan reaction to it, which has run the complete gamut from really enthusiastic embracing of the show to “That Penny is not my Penny!” and people turning it off. I consider all those responses valid, but I say – stick with it. It’s a transition, and I’ve had a couple years to make that transition in a gradual way.
I can understand if people are shocked by a reinterpreted version of The Magicians on screen, but like I said – stick with it. There’s a lot of stuff from the books, and a lot of new stuff they came up with for the show, and seeing it come to life has just been amazing.
Nrama: Well, hope this does well for you and you make a million bucks and get to sell out and develop a cocaine addiction.”
Grossman: God, I hope so. That’s also on my bucket list – along with seeing my stuff on the subway, a crippling cocaine addiction is right up there.