The Magicians’ Sera Gamble on Bringing Lev Grossman’s Novels to Life

We spoke with The Magicians' showrunner Sera Gamble about fandom, nerdy heroes, and adapting a best-selling novel.

Now 12 years after author Lev Grossman says he began conceiving what would turn into a New York Times’ best-selling series, The Magicians comes to Syfy on January 25th. The story of Quentin Coldwater, a high school student (a college grad and masters student as far as the television series is concerned) who enrolls at Brakebills, college for aspiring Magicians, nearly vanished as the pre-production stage proved to be an arduous trick to crack.

Fox made script commitments back in 2011, but decided not to move forward. Soon after, The Magicians found its way into the hands of Supernatural writer Sera Gamble, who was a fan of the books long before she took a meeting that would ultimately lead to her involvement on the project.

Gamble, along with Grossman and producers John McNamara (Aquarius, Lois & Clark) and Michael London (Sideways, Milk), revamped the concept for the adaptation. The spec script for a series that is routinely described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups” landed at Syfy, a network in the midst of its own overhaul. Syfy said the darker and sexier, the better. Gamble and crew obliged, and The Magicians hit Syfy during an advanced preview following the network’s Childhood’s End mini-series in December.

During a visit to the Vancouver set of The Magicians, Den of Geek spoke with showrunner Sera Gamble about the adaptation process, paying homage to the books, and listening to fan feedback.

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This project has been in production since Fox had it in 2011. How did it fall into your hands?

I read the book because Amazon recommended it to me. I called my agent and asked if it was available and he said no, someone else has it. I said if it goes to series let me know, I’d love to take a meeting and be on staff at least.

Years later, John McNamara and I were meeting with Michael London, the producer, who had the relationship with Lev and had been trying to produce this for a long time. When they asked me if I had heard of The Magicians I completely freaked out. I didn’t take any convincing.

When you sat down to begin plotting out what a Magicians show could look like, did you lean on Lev Grossman for advice on how to walk the line of not only being respectful to his novels, but also to the world of Brakebills that you’re trying to build?

It’s been a constant process of communicating and bouncing ideas back and forth. We tried to create an atmosphere where everyone speaks freely. Lev reads the scripts and he gives amazing notes. He has some very good, very specific ideas on how magic works. We invite it because we want more input from the guy who knows the trilogy.

After shopping the script around, how did it end up at Syfy?

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We wrote it on spec. John, Michael and I optioned the material from Lev. We had a lot of conversations with Lev about how were going to bring it to life. My understanding is we took a different road than the previous iterations had. And then we had a finished script to shop around.

When we sat down with Syfy, they had a really strong vision for what they want to do with their network right now. They said we will not only let you do this dark material, we’ll encourage you to go there and be as edgy and real and dark about this stuff as you want to be. That sounded like home to us. 

Do you need a show bible, considering there are three books to go off?

Yeah, we do. It’s the nature of the beast that over time, we’re doing additional world building beyond Lev’s books. We’re also changing things as we have to. We’re trying to stick to the spirit of the books whenever we possibly can.

[The books and show] are kind of these fraternal twins at this point. They’re like siblings and they live alongside each other. Our writer’s assistant and script coordinator do a lot of checking back to the books and our series bible to make sure the rules of magic have not changed.

Lev has talked about how it’s energizing to borrow from or spar with other written works or films in his writing. Are there any films or novels that influence the TV series that might not necessarily be a part of the novels?

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There are a lot of touchstones we talk about in the writer’s room. Pans Labyrinth we touched on a lot. Guillermo del Toro made a really beautiful, dark fantasy tone. It had so much integrity in the creature building and the story telling.

From there, you spiral off into the world of classical fairy tales and mythology from around the world. We’re all geeks. We watch a ton of science fiction and fantasy. 

Fans are notoriously picky when their favorite books are adapted for screen. Did you listen to fan feedback and/or concern for how the show would be handled?

I find that people happen to have a lot of questions. With the aging of the characters, people ask us why. I think people are protective of the idea that Quentin is not a perfect hero. He’s flawed and he has a steep learning curve. He’s the dude you go to Comic Con with. It feels like he was plucked out of fandom to star in a novel.

People are protective of that. They want to make sure we’re not turning him into a cookie cutter superhero guy. We don’t want to. We want to keep them flawed and real and as nerdy as we are. 

As someone who was never able to get into the Harry Potter books, I found Lev’s novels to be more engaging for readers who aren’t necessarily smitten with magic and fantasy. They’re fantasy, but they’re deeply rooted in reality. How did you look to find a balance that would bring in the Harry Potter crowd, but also appeal to casual viewer?   

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We start by asking the question: How would this character react to this situation?

We tell a lot of stories about a lot of different kinds of magic, good and bad. We have a lot of those tropes. We spend a lot of time in the writer’s room talking about the worst thing that ever happened in a relationship in our 20s. There’s a deep well of personal experience so we’re as interested in telling those coming of age stories as we are about the magic stories.

I think we have something for you if you’re coming from Harry Potter and we have something for you if you’re coming from Girls. The magic is kind of a fun aspect, but it’s a metaphor for art or sports or whatever it was for you. It will be relatable for people who might not necessarily be watching Game of Thrones, although I think that’s crazy. Everyone should be watching Game of Thrones. We might eventually have a Dragon, but first we’re going to have a lot of parties in Brooklyn lofts.