As a huge fan of author Lev Grossman’s imaginative, insightful, and surprisingly dark trilogy The Magicians, I approached the Syfy TV series adaptation with a mix of excitement and trepidation. The key to Grossman’s books is that, at heart, they’re not really about fantasy or magic—they’re about life, depression, sex, love, heartbreak, and everything that comes with being a human being on this planet. Could the show possibly capture that brutally honest tone? How does source material with such a singular point of view adapt into an ensemble TV series? Basically I had a lot of questions, but thankfully showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara were able to stick to what made the books so great while also expanding and remixing the source material in a way that makes sense for television.
Season 2 of The Magicians is now underway and our characters have found themselves stepping into the shoes of royalty in the presumed-fantasy world of Fillory to wildly entertaining results. These first few episodes show much more confidence from both the writing team and the actors, as the show continues to solidify itself as something separate from the books yet worthy all the same.
I recently got the chance to speak with showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara for an extended, exclusive interview about all things The Magicians, as well as their unique production company Fabrication. Our wide-ranging discussion covered how they first became involved with the material, what aspects of Season 1 they wanted to improve upon for Season 2, how the writers inject a lot of their personal lives into these stories and characters, and how their original idea for the battle in the Season 1 finale evolved into something quite different. Given that they’re working from source material, we also discussed their plans for future seasons, including whether they’ll be tackling the ocean-set stories of The Magician King, and if their current plans involve a dragon (spoiler alert: they do!).
If you’re a fan of The Magicians—either with or without having read the books—I think you’ll find what they have to say interesting. Running a TV series is no easy task, and running one this complex, with this many moving pieces, is a herculean challenge, so it’s fascinating to get some insight into how Gamble and McNamara pull it off. Check out the full interview below. The Magicians airs on Syfy Wednesdays at 9pm ET.
COLLIDER: I hate to start with something so broad, but I’m genuinely curious, how did this project first materialize for you two? I know it had previously been developed at a different network with a different team.
SERA GAMBLE: Yeah, in that previous iteration it was developed by our executive producer Michael London, who is a friend of Lev Grossman’s, the author of the books. John and Michael London were together producing his feature film Trumbo, which came out last year, and John had passed him along a totally different script that he and I wrote together. So that’s how I came to meet Michael London. After that meeting about something else altogether, Michael mentioned offhandedly to John, ‘Oh this book just came back to me,’ basically the rights had expired on the previous project. John mentioned it to me very offhandedly on a phone call and I completely freaked out because I was a massive, massive, massive fan of the books. And had in fact been watching the project, hoping that I could jump in there at some point and write a script or something. So John went off and read it, and then I think we were on the same page about what we loved about the material. Then we optioned it with our money. Michael, John and I went to Lev and said, ‘Look we’ll pay you for this option. We really wanna write this with no studio executives in our ear, no network executives in our ear, and do—forgive me—the most pure version of the script as we see it. And so we did that and we took it out and we shopped it, and it landed at Syfy.
I’m a huge fan of the books, so I was curious and excited to see how this would be adapted because they’re not easily adaptable books. And I’ll admit it took me an episode or two to get into the first season and accept it as something different. I had to get used to the fact that the show was a separate entity from the books. What would you say was your biggest challenge or obstacle in adapting the books back in Season 1?
JOHN MCNAMARA: I think the ongoing obstacle is how beautifully Lev writes the world of The Magicians from Quentin’s point of view. And how much readers enjoy being inside Quentin’s point of view. TV and movies and plays can’t really do that. They have to be about the external goals and obstacles and conflicts of more than one character, unless it’s a one-man-show on stage. So immediately you have to begin to sort of break down what he’s feeling and experiencing and thinking internally, and ask yourself how do you then externalize and dramatize that? And that’s an ongoing thing, because the books are very, very specifically internal in a wonderful way. And TV, by its nature, is more driven by external conflict.
Definitely. I kind of saw that, and saw that show evolving. Again, as a big fan of the books, you totally got me with the head-fake in the Season 1 finale, where it felt like you maybe had just done your twist on the ending of that first book. Did you always plan on continuing to adapt the first book in Season 2? Was Julia running off with the Beast always your plan for how Season 1 would end?
GAMBLE: We weren’t sure exactly where within that fight we would end the season. That was something we went back and forth on throughout the season. We always knew that this is where we were headed—the structure of Season 1 is very much a classic Big Bad structure, just with all the quirks and weird nooks and crannies of this particular story. But you meet The Beast in the pilot, all season long the threat of The Beast is hanging over our characters’ heads, so it felt right that we would meet him again in the season finale. Along the way, Julia’s story changed quite a bit because as you know, we were pulling from her storyline which happens chronologically at the same time as Quentin’s in Book 1, but it happens in Book 2 of the book series. So it was actually really fun to put them side by side and see what happens, especially once we felt that we kind of had permission from ourselves and also from Lev to let things evolve a little bit differently, because that’s a necessary byproduct of shuffling the deck the way that we did.
It’s interesting because, as you said, Julia’s story happens further down the line in the books and she’s the character who arguably was the most pleasant surprise in this show for me, because I was curious to see how you guys were going to deal with that. So when you started Season 1 you weren’t exactly sure where Julia’s story was going to end up at the end of the season?