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

In the 2000s, the fantasy genre experienced a box office boom largely caused by the resounding success of the the Lord of the Rings movies and Harry Potter franchise. However, the willingness to cash in hasn’t worked for everyone. This produced many costly failures and failed franchises: Eragon, The golden compassthe Chronicles of Narnia movies, the Percy Jackson series, etc.

But the fantastic returns to television. The iron ThroneThe success ushered in a second era of fantasy adaptations, with two key differences: the stories are much more mature now, and instead of big-budget stand-alone films, the modern fantasy revolution is happening in more serialized, longer-running TV series. . And so we get shows like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Once upon a time a Weatherand Foreignwith adaptations by Neil Gaiman american godsby Stephen King The dark towerand Patrick Rothfuss Kingkiller Chronicles books all currently in preparation. In short, American television embraces a tougher realism in our fantasy fare, basing magical elements on a solid foundation of real-world issues and problems.

Syfy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman magicians is part of this new wave of fantasy shows, and as the show enters its second season, it remains one of the best examples on television 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).

According to author Lev Grossman, the Magicians trilogy was written on the heels of the publication of A game of thrones, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrelland american godsnovels he cites as defining the tendency to ground fantasy “in some sort 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 youngster suddenly charged with this magical kingdom with all these inhabitants”, which Lewis glosses over at the end of the book. This question is at the heart of magicians and its sequels: How would familiar fantasy tropes play out in a real world, with characters as flawed and human as we are?

The show’s first season is mostly based on the first track of Grossman’s novel, riffing on the Harry Potter franchise with Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like post-college college for magic, but with booze, parties, relationship drama, and sex that feels more real to a real college than any dating drama that gets takes place at Rowling’s school. The second season tackles the real-life ramifications of the Narnia books, as the characters assume the thrones of the magical kingdom of Fillory. “Actually, I wanted to try to reflect on what is [involved in] run a country,” Grossman said, “which seems like an increasingly relevant topic these days.”

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

To that end, the series has taken considerable care in crafting characters that feel authentic. While fans of Grossman’s novels often find main protagonist Quentin Coldwater particularly unlikable, Gamble and McNamara see this as a strength. “One of the things that drove us the most from the books is that sometimes something a character does is a little dick move, or they’re just inexperienced, or they’re selfish,” Gamble says. “But who among us is not sometimes inexperienced and selfish?”

Otherwise magicians strives for authenticity lies in its depiction of characters with a wide range of sexual and gender preferences, which Gamble attributes to simply trying to portray a world on screen as diverse as the one they see in the real life. Asked what new aspects of the series he was interested in compared to the original novels, Grossman said he found the addition of a love story for Elliot in the first season “very moving and very powerful”, and something he himself hadn’t done in the books.

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

“We always try to make sure that when we have more magic, we have more problems,” McNamara said. In the world of magicians, it’s not enough to wave a wand and wish your problems would go away. Magic is minus one Deus Ex machine and more of a trigger for trouble, which seems like a realistic outcome to expect when placing phenomenal cosmic power and the management of a world in the hands of the normal – i.e. irresponsible and flawed – twenties. .

The desire to ground the show in realism also extends to production design and effects. One of Grossman’s main goals when writing the series “was to present a more technically grounded version of magic”, instead of the more “cartoonish” portrayal often seen in movies.

“It’s important for us to capture the feeling that the magic is real and in the room with the caster, and it affects the atmosphere,” Gamble said. She and McNamara ran with that goal, developing a visual language with Grossman for the spell. -casting on the show through a system of rhythmic hand gestures known as “tutting”, with a reputation for bouncing back FX shots countless times to ensure the results look real. An example cited by Gamble was the house of cards scene from the pilot episode, where the pair spent days trying to ensure that small details like dust particles in the air or creases on the cards were there to help anchor the CGI effects.

McNamara and Gamble are essentially given free rein to do whatever they want on the show, though Grossman is still heavily involved in it as what McNamara calls the show’s “god”. Grossman’s Brooklyn residence is across the continent magicians‘ Vancouver is unfolding, but it’s briefed on nearly every step of every episode’s development process, from early drafts to final drafts. But McNamara and Gamble are not beholden to his original vision. McNamara says the most important thing for him in developing an adaptation is finding the truth about a character or storyline, and that sometimes it’s necessary to deviate from the “facts” of the books to make the best possible version of the series. Ultimately, the two are very different forms of media. “It’s not enough to type the books,” he says.

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

Brian L. Hartfield