The TV adaptation of Lev Grossman's best-selling fantasy trilogy isn't afraid of the dark

By Danielle Nussbaum
Updated January 25, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Syfy
  • TV Show
  • Syfy

For The Magicians exec producers Sera Gamble, John McNamara, and Michael London, turning Lev Grossman’s best-selling trilogy, often described as “Harry Potter for adults,” into a pilot was no simple trick.

Complicated and, at times, totally twisted, the gritty coming-of-age show interweaves the tales of twentysomethings Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Julia (Stella Maeve) with a pack of friends: Penny (Arjun Gupta), Eliot (Hale Appleman), Margo (Summer Bishil), and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley). As they move through many types of realms — including Brakebills, their Hogwarts; a Narnia-esque alternate world Fillory; and an underground magic network — they develop their supernatural powers and fumble through life. “Fantasy stories exist because human beings were looking for a way to talk about why people have the impulses that we do,” explains Gamble. “There are very dark scenes in this book. They’re not comfortable.”

So when Syfy acquired the series, the writers braced themselves for script notes … that never came. “On the first day of prep, they actually told us we were not going to have to abide by the typical standards in terms of sexuality, violence, and language,” McNamara tells EW.

One particularly delicate subject: The sexual violence in the novels. “We’re going there with the series. There’s violence that feels quite sexual as early as the pilot,” Gamble says, referring to a chilling bathroom scene in which Julia, whose story runs parallel to Quentin’s in the series, is assaulted while being forced to acknowledge her latent powers. Adds McNamara, “I’m going to quote Jeremy Irons when he decided to play the role of Humbert Humbert in the Lolita remake. He was asked about that book’s political firmament. And he said simply: ‘To portray something is not to condone it.’ If you decide to play Oedipus Rex, you’re not going to rehearse by having sex with your mom — I hope. If you’re playing Macbeth, you’re not encouraging others to go out and kill for power. You’re portraying something. And by the way, in the spirit of Lev’s books, we’re just as tough on men as on women. We’re equal-opportunity offenders.”

But if the show’s depiction of sexual assault raises some eyebrows, Gamble and McNamara understand that comes with the territory of making a show in the modern age. The freedom that the network has given the showrunners is rare, but the trust pays off: The pilot is as dark and spectacular and true to the novels as it should be. It helps that the three EPs optioned the books with their own money and were able to start their brain trust to create a first draft free from limitations or distractions. “I really believe strongly that scripts should just be developed in as much of a vacuum as humanly possible, so the writers have a clear understanding of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” McNamara says. “Then after you have a first draft, then it’s great to have studios, networks, actors, directors — notes up the wazoo.” And though they did make several (Grossman-approved!) variations from the books, including aging up lead character Quentin and his classmates, they’re hoping fans will still embrace it.

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In an era where there are so many scripted shows to choose from, it’s hard to stand out, but the series could benefit from TV viewers willing to embrace their dark side. “It is a great time to be making shows that explore a lot of facets of human experience,” Gamble says. “It’s also a side effect of the fact that television has become a little bit more niche — you don’t have to appeal to 100 percent of Americans with every TV show you make.” Adds McNamara, “Nothing is more boring than universal acclaim. We would have just pleased everyone and that’s not art. That’s not even compelling entertainment. If some people don’t get really f—ing pissed, you failed.”

Still, fans and audiences are fickle. The show’s creators have done a great job with the seemingly insurmountable project of mixing the mythology of all three books into a detail-packed pilot — not an easy task considering there are multiple worlds to set up simultaneously, a cinematic vision to consider, and viewers who won’t be familiar with the books at all. And they’re hoping their passion for the project will shine through.

“We’re presenting it to the world from the perspective of being fans of the books ourselves,” Gamble says. “We understand that some of the choices we’re making might be controversial. But our intention is to bring the spirit of these books to life. We’re just grateful that the fandom exists, and they are interested to see the show.”

The Magicians kicks off with a two-hour premiere Monday at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.

Episode Recaps

The Magicians

Based on Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, this fantasy Syfy series follows the adventures of students at Brakebills University, a graduate school specializing in magic.
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  • Syfy