Brow Beat

Why Did The Magicians TV Show Change Lev Grossman’s Setting from College to Grad School? A Producer Explains.

Arjun Gupta and Jason Ralph in   The Magicians.

Photo by Syfy/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Syfy - © 2014 Syfy Media, LLC

The Magicians trilogy follows protagonist Quentin Coldwater from his glum existence in Brooklyn to a magic school, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. As he and his oddball classmates learn magic and choose Disciplines, it can all feel very “Harry Potter Goes to College,” but there’s a stark difference: The Magicians is existentially bleak. As Grossman drops Proust references and people’s hands get eaten off by monsters, the distinction becomes quite obvious. But SyFy’s TV adaptation might go even darker. It takes Grossman’s source material and kicks the maturity up a notch further—by making the school, renamed Brakebills University, a grad program, rather than a 4-year college with magic on the side.

According to executive producer Sera Gamble, Brakebills was originally an undergraduate campus in the show, just as it is in the books. “Then we took it out into the world to sell it,” Gamble said. One of the first things SyFy pointed out was the practical challenge of depicting characters who would have to age so drastically as the series progressed. Over the course of the three books, the central characters age from their late teen years into their ’30s. “That was sort of our practical production consideration: We want to be able to tell a story that takes place over 10 to 15 years,” Gamble said. And the difference between an actor who looks 17 and one who looks 22, Gamble said, is very dramatic. So, why not swap the college out for graduate school? They brought it to Lev Grossman, who served as a creative consultant for the show. “He embraced the idea immediately,” Gamble said.

Changing it up so that the protagonists were getting advanced degrees freed up writers up to play with the story structure in ways that a more stringent 4-year university setting wouldn’t allow. Even in the books, one gets the sense that Grossman is anxious for his characters to graduate and hurry along to the adventures ahead—he advances the three youngest central student characters, Quentin, Alice, and Penny, a year ahead of the rest of their age group in school.

So overall, the change feels natural, as all of the internal struggles Quentin and his friends face—the growing pains associated with becoming an independent adult, and the relationship struggles that follow—make just as much sense for someone in their early 20s as they do for a late teenager. And The Magicians feels like nice counter-programming a lot of supernatural and genre fare, which often features people in their 20s and 30s struggling to look like teens.