While those unfamiliar with the books may dismiss Lev Grossman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy, The Magicians, as “Harry Potter for adults,” those who have become obsessed with the works know otherwise. And they should be pleased with Syfy’s series adaptation of the books, which begins Jan. 25.
The concept of the series does sound Harry Potter-esque — it is set at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, a secret upstate New York university specializing in magic. Here, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) and other 20-somethings soon discover that the magical fantasy world they read about as children is all too real, and poses grave danger to humanity. But as the Harry Potter stories showed children growing into their powers, The Magicians tends to use magic almost as a metaphor for young adults coming into their own lives.
“We would all expect magic to be the thing that would change our lives for the better,” Ralph told me at a recent press conference, “that it would make our lives easier. I think in the show it really explores what would the actual, real-world consequences of that be, and what would it be like to actually have those powers, and how is the fantasy of that different from the real-world version of it? And how is that disappointing, or not?”
“I think [in the show] magic is almost its own character,” costar Stella Maeve, who plays Julia, added. “Magic is a metaphor for life. It is art imitating life. … Magic is such a huge part of the show, and it plays such a huge, huge factor in all of these characters’ — especially Julia’s — turning points, for better or worse. … [The Magicians] has got this Bret Easton Ellis element to it which is why I love it. It’s dark and real and these human beings are flawed. That’s what life is.”
While Harry Potter generally tended to stay within the confines of Hogwarts, The Magicians finds the characters interacting much more with “average” folks.
“The show follows two different journeys,” Ralph explained. “It follows the journey of Quentin and the journey of Julia. Quentin’s is a little more isolated in the school setting, and Julia’s takes place in Brooklyn, so she’s learning magic on the streets. Through her perspective you get more of the rest of the world, and [Quentin’s] is a little bit more concentrated and more about his emotional life inside of this place, and hers is kind of about how the world is shaping her emotional life.”
In this world, too, magic is kind of a secret to the everyday populace. “People don’t really know about it,” said Ralph. “And the people that do know get their memories erased. it is kind of a secluded society, but I think what [the show] explores well is that there are different kinds of magic. it’s not just one blanket thing, it’s not just the Ministry of Magic like in Harry Potter. There are the aristocrats who are kind of what Quentin is being bred to be. Then there are what we call ‘hedge witches,’ which are people who are just on the streets, got rejected from these schools for whatever reason, and are having to learn magic on their own, using the Internet and using the darknet to find places, and stealing spells from these places.”
In a fantasy show like The Magicians, you would expect plenty of special effects, and you’ll get them. Many of the effects were done practically, including strapping actors into harnesses to simulate flying. For her part, Maeve enjoyed the experience.
“The physicality of it, I actually really loved,” she said. “I enjoyed it a lot. I love anything where I’m active and can use my body as my instrument and my tool. It’s so much fun to get to experiment with that and play with that. I find that almost a perk.”
Ralph also found it cool to be part of some of the practical effects, and pointed out one intense scene in particular.
“There was this scene where we summon a black hole and it starts ripping apart the building that we’re in,” said Ralph. “I thought it was all going to be CGI and a lot of gasping at things that aren’t there, but the art team did such as amazing job at doing it practically, so the lights changed and the environment just started crumbling around us. Then they had this crazy wind machine. So it did feel, for the first time I felt like a superhero. I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m doing this.’ So [it was] a no-acting required situation, which was cool.”
Maeve sort of has previous experience with magic in our own world, as she told me about a time she worked as a magician’s assistant.
“That was one of my first jobs,” Maeve said. “I grew up in New York, and I would, above a Sbarro — it was right over by Madison Square Garden and I would work as a magician’s assistant. I remember we would do these videos, these instructional videos, and I would sit there and help the guy with the box or help him with card tricks. It was pretty cool.”
Speaking of card tricks, Ralph apparently became proficient with cards through his work on The Magicians. But he is still leery about busting out his tricks in front of friends.
“I get really nervous,” he said, “because I had to learn them all very quickly. On camera you’re allowed to mess up and do it again. I’m certainly not a magician myself, but there’s this kind of code that comes along with it. You don’t want to give away the trick, so I’m very trepidatious about doing it in front of people because I don’t want to give away the trick, because I don’t feel like I’m quite good enough.”
Both Ralph and Maeve are good enough in The Magicians, though, and it’s worth watching not only for fans of the books, but fans of fantasy and dramatic storytelling in general.
The Magicians airs Mondays at 9pm ET on Syfy beginning Jan. 25.
Jason Ralph and Stella Maeve photo at top: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Syfy
Other photos: Rodolfo Martinez/Syfy