HOW IS WRITING a book different than writing a TV show? How is reading a book different than watching TV? It’s a commonplace now that the current moment is not only a golden era of TV, but also a golden era of television criticism. But how does the making of TV align with the discussion of it — and what should critics know about the medium they discuss?
Sarah Mesle, LARB’s Senior Humanities Editor and a writer for LARB’s “Dear Television” column, recently sat down with Emmy-nominated TV writer Henry Alonso Myers to discuss exactly these questions. Myers, who has previously worked on shows such as Ugly Betty, Covert Affairs, and Charmed, is a writer and Executive Producer for SyFy’s new show, The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s critically-acclaimed 2009 novel of the same name. Grossman’s novel famously crosses the bounds of literary and genre fiction, telling the story of Quentin Coldwater, a young man in contemporary New York who suddenly discovers that magic is real. As Myer discusses, the novel, lauded for both its riveting story and its sophisticated prose, posed both opportunities and challenges for adaptation.
SARAH MESLE: Henry! I’m excited to talk about two things. First, as someone who writes about TV but doesn’t know a lot about how TV is made, I’m interested in what you, as a maker of TV, think I should know. And secondly, I’m interested in using The Magicians as a gateway into that larger topic, specifically around the process of converting a book to television. As a literary critic I obviously have thoughts about how stories work, but I think my vocabulary and conceptual framework for describing that process is likely very different from yours.
HENRY ALONSO MYERS: Well, as a literary critic, you’re probably used to thinking about a book or a story as a single entity. And television is a collaborative medium, where you’re working with a lot of different people who are making a lot of different things.
So for instance The Magicians was developed for television by John McNamara and Sera Gamble, and they do everything in conjunction with Grossman, which is unusual —
Stop right there! “Developed for television” — I know roughly what that means, but what exactly does that mean?
The title “developed for television” just means that they took the property — the book — and made it into television.
And therein lies all the questions! Before we get to the specific structure, let’s start more generally. Do you have a specific maxim or principle that helps explain the difference between the two media? A book is this, while a TV show is that? When you read The Magicians did you think about it as being a potentially great television show?
I think a TV show probably has more specific requirements. A book gets to be a lot of different things, whereas a TV show has a lot of very specific expectations. Our show, for instance, is on advertisement-supported cable, so we write around ad breaks and commercials — commercials structure our drama, and our viewers’ expectations of how the drama will work.
In terms of The Magicians, I read the books for fun a few years ago, after the third volume came out, and loved them. I looked into it and heard that John and Sera were developing and so I figured I wouldn’t get the chance to work on it, but I called my agent and said, “Look, I know this may never happen but I love these books and I’d love to meet on this show.”
And yes, The Magicians had some of the qualities I think are important in a story for TV: strong characters; interesting setting; specific point of view —
Now, what does that mean? “Point of view” is a phrase I hear a lot from TV people — and maybe creative writing people — but that literary critics don’t say.
Well, in the case of Lev’s book, there’s a specific vision of what magic is, what it can do; the character’s on a specific kind of journey, and the books give you a sense of the tone of the story you would tell. We would always know, in the writer’s room, the maxims from the story that would serve as the kind of “True North” of the story and would guide us when we made decisions: “magic comes from pain,” “magic will not solve your problems, it won’t make you happy,” “there are no true villains.”
Not all books have guides like that though; some books just have a strong plot! The Magicians is not hugely plot driven, at least in the first volume, which made it a bit of a challenge in some ways.
When I came on to The Magicians, some major decisions about the story’s crafting had already been made; the most important one was the way they reorganized the story to take, say, a plot line from the first book with a story from the second book and make them happen simultaneously. And I thought that was a brilliant decision.
What I loved about the books is the sense of both the author and the character growing — by the end, you see Quentin as a real adult who has experienced real suffering. But he’s not like that at the beginning, and it’s hard to make a television show around a character who is particularly unlikable. So we partly dealt with that by making The Magicians more of an ensemble show.
And that’s another thing that helps television: when you have a strong ensemble, you can reach into the depths of their lives to tell stories. I got to write some episodes with Alice, for instance, that were drawn from scenes in the book where we meet her family, but the TV show focuses more on her experience and her perspective, which is less important to the book.
So when you came on to the project, the basic story had been set and the cast had been determined. What happens that first day when the writers are together? Are there notepads, chalkboards, laptops? Who is there? How did you prepare?
Typically we sit in a room around a table — for this show, there’s five us, and some assistants. We all had a strong sense of the books and the story we wanted to tell. Before my initial meetings about the show, which were basically a job interview, I reviewed the books to make sure I could talk about them with some facility, but fortunately I loved them so much I had internalized a lot of them. And because I was coming in as an executive producer and writer, a lot of the things we discussed in those early meetings were production side — for instance, how are we going to do the foxes!
Right! How are you going to do the geese!? That’s one of my main questions for you!
Well, the geese we were less worried about, but the foxes really mattered — whenever we talked to fans, we realized there was no way we could avoid that scene. So there are a ton of questions: are we going to use real foxes? Are we going to use CG? If we’re going to use CG, how are we going to do that? How are we going to go to Antartica and what is that going to look like? And the foxes at least I had an answer to; I can’t tell you what that is, but I can tell you that there will be foxes this season.
The label “Harry Potter for grown ups” that’s always stuck with this story was helpful to us. We wanted magic to look real, so as much as possible we did practical effects — which means, not CG. Everything was going to look like it came from real life.
Here’s a specific example from the first episode: Quentin’s first card trick. As soon as I heard there would be a TV show of The Magicians, I was eager to see what would happen with that scene, which is so visually spectacular but also — in the book — so deftly drawn psychologically. You really have a sense of Quentin’s anger, and his frustration that he’s not good at this in the way he wants to be, and then this huge swell of recognizing his own power just as he’s realizing that the power isn’t fully in his control.
That’s a pretty good scene to talk about the perspective of the show as well: the adults are just adults; no one is Dumbledore. The dean yells at Quentin but doesn’t help him put the pieces back together so he can go on a magical journey of specialness.
Ha! That’s interesting: I think The Magicians is and isn’t a “chosen one” story.
I think — and this is very much Lev — the show is about people who’ve grown up in a world of “chosen one” narratives, who all assume that they’re the chosen one, but who grow to realize that there really is no chosen one. As the show goes on, you see many characters grappling with that. That’s part of the book, but it’s a little more front and center in the show because of how we’ve structured it.
A lot of what we found as we were breaking the story —
— wait, “breaking the story,” what exactly does that mean? Is that what you do on the first day, when you’re there with your five people and your notebooks?
It’s a TV expression that literally means outlining the story, and breaking the story into parts and episodes (we use note cards rather than note books, so we can arrange them). And yes, that’s exactly what we do on the first day: we talk the story out in a broad way. For this show we had a pretty clear sense of where we were going and where we wanted the conclusion to be, and we knew that story lines from the first and second book were fair game.
But because we were telling the Quentin and the Julia stories together, we needed to find ways for them to intersect. Our Quentin and Julia, in some ways, have a stronger relationship than in the book because Julia doesn’t drop out. So we were telling a different story: one that’s much more about this friendship.
In the writer’s room we had a lot of ideas for scenes from the books we really wanted to pull. In my first episode of the season, episode three, there are moments and even lines that are pulled exactly from the book — which is easy to do because Lev is such a super funny writer. But some of the book is super not, or really changes form. For instance, the story of Charlie, Alice’s brother, and Charlie’s girlfriend who changes her face — in the books, that’s this sort of gossipy story that Alice hears third hand. But television often requires characters to be active. So we told that story but flipped, so it was Alice going in search for this story about her brother, and meeting the girl who tells about deforming her own face.
I will say that, watching that, I was really impressed by her face! The deformity is withheld at the beginning of the scene and you start to think to yourself — how bad can it really be? But then when you just catch that glimpse, it was really like — aaaah! Completely horrifying!
We had a lot of versions of it! My whole thing was: you know, this is a show, a visual medium, let’s show it.
So as a writer who is also an executive producer, you get to be involved in those decisions? Make the face more like this, more like that?
Oh yeah — it was a lot of us, the writers and the producers and the effect editors — sending notes to each other. I got a lot of creepy images! It was a lot of trying to find the uncanny valley, where it’s scary enough to be horrifying but we still have a sense of her as human.
There’s a story in the book about how the library’s books are enchanted because someone had the idea to make them like birds so they could line themselves up, but then become too much like birds — really violent with each other — and it makes the library unusable. And so we found a way to use those books in episode three, although in a different way! When I was writing that scene, trying to imagine what these books would do, it seemed both obvious to me, and very funny, and very new, that of course these books would want to have sex with each other. And then, I was doing the rewrite the weekend of the marriage equity ruling so I really thought the “love wins” mantra was a perfect thing for the character Elliot to say.
The book love really works in that scene because it’s the books that bring Quentin and Julia together, and yet the books can come together in a way that Quentin and Julia can’t.
Right, and then we staged a big fight between the two of them, that doesn’t happen in the books! But all of us — me, Sera, Lev, the actress who plays Julia — all had very strong perspectives on that scene. Lev was great because he was very involved and gave us great notes, but really understood and was comfortable with the fact that we were fundamentally telling a different story. But he had a very strong perspective on some amazing details. He would tell us things like “the font in this is wrong!”
It’s interesting because partly what I like about the books is how very college-y they are — the sense of settling into a routine, wandering around campus, having good classes and bad classes. And although there are some classroom scenes, that routine’s a bit less present in the show.
You know, it’s hard to represent visually grinding, penetrating boredom — it’s hard to see the pain of work!
But one thing we are able to represent is the intense finger work that the book casually explains as being a part of spell casting. In the books, spells involve these elaborate finger movements and awareness for how they fit into other languages, but in the books he never really describes what they look like. But we realized we had to show something! So John came up with using this kind of dancing called finger tutting — and we had a choreographer who would choreograph each spell! We’d get these little youtube videos explaining all the different spells. And they’re hard! And hard to shoot; it took us a while to figure how to include them.
We realized that there needed to be a real variety — some spells needed to be really quick, some more complicated. There’s a spell in episode six that involves two people tutting simultaneously in mirror image, and it’s a really cool fucking sequence. It’s one of my favorite in the whole series.
How else did you manage the adaption, narratively?
One thing we tried to do for viewers who were also readers is to take things that the readers know are coming but come at them a different way so they’re still surprising when they arrive. When the goose scene happens, you will not see it coming!
Several characters are composites, too — our character Katie, for example. You’ll be surprised, I think, where she goes. And in the pilot there’s a mention of the third year class disappearing — that’s not from the book, but solving that mystery let’s us stage some things from the book in a different way.
It seems like, online, there’s a split between people who are angry that the show isn’t more faithful — and I get that! They’re good books, they’re beautiful, and none of us would have gotten involved if we didn’t love the story. But what I would say to those people is: give us time to explain the story we’re telling, and I guarantee you’ll like it. This show goes to a really interesting, awesome place by the end of the season.
There’s just such a pleasure in being judgmental about adaptations.
True, but it’s just also hard to offer up what people have in their minds.
One of the things we’ve been able to really run with is: the same people who would go to Brakebills are the same people who would be reading Lord of the Rings. So fantasy novels become a sort of shorthand for us and the characters.
Well, let’s take that to another level: you’re talking about your characters, but externally, the people who are watching your show are the people who watch Game of Thrones, or Buffy, or Battlestar Gallactica or Xena.
If you liked Buffy, you will like our show! Also, we have a character dressing up as Daenerys in an upcoming episode.
That is extremely excellent! But also a great point. The Magicians was written before Game of Thrones became such a phenomenon, but the show is taking place after. I’m curious how you think about how genre expectations shape what you do?
I think Lev was very conscious about that, because he was so preoccupied with the psychological question of what would happen if you put real people into a world of magic. But it’s hard for a TV show to be so powerfully orientated around a single question; it’s so collaborative, and it depicts relationships in a more complete way. And then the relation to other genre norms happens a lot through visuals — and visual directors and fabricators have their own ideas and intentions about what dialogue should take place between this show and others.
I’m curious what you think of the prestige economy of a show like this. The Magicians was famously one of several important novels written right around the same time — Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One is another — that were written in a literary fiction mode but employing genre tropes.
So there was this move of literature embracing genre — which was immediately followed by Game of Thrones, a genre novel series, becoming a huge prestige show for HBO. But now, The Magicians is airing on SyFy — a home of genre.
SyFy is in the midst of rebranding, which is complicating things a bit. Battlestar Gallactica was a critically acclaimed show but it wasn’t a hugely popular one, so after making that, SyFy sort of shot for the middle, becoming infamous for jokey movies like Sharknado. And currently what they’re trying to do is to win back viewers who appreciated Battlestar — who see themselves as genre viewers, and who appreciate genre done well. So our mandate is to be the sharp, smart, fantasy show.
I also think the structure you’ve made really pushes back against one of the criticisms of the books, which is the books’ treatment of Julia. And the restructuring of the story — as well as the casting, and the way the actress channels a sort of presence and authority around her own beauty — makes Julia more central, less ancillary to Quentin’s “quest.”
It helps that there are women in our writing room — a variety of perspectives, really! The thing I really love about Julia, actually, is all the shit she goes through. The tone between the Julia and Quentin sections of the book are so amazing, because you see Julia gloss over some truly terrible shit — you see her strength, the thing that makes it possible for her to survive. And some of that subtext in the books has to become text, has to be dramatized, to be on TV.
When I write about a TV show — and this is particularly important when I’m writing about something controversial in a show — I typically refer to “the show” as an active presence: “the show does this, the show does that.” That’s my way, as a literary critic, of talking about intention: I personally don’t believe that a book is fully in an author’s control, let alone a TV show being in the control of a director or writer. So my question is: do you think that’s a fair way of talking about a show?
Well: sure. What you’re seeing is a defined perspective, a series of affirmative choices. In some ways, far more choice goes into a TV show because, you know, we chose the face and we chose the shot, and we chose to put the music under it. That’s all real.
But things don’t always turn out the way you imagined. You cannot control a show, and you really can’t control what people react to.
True, and to my mind, even when you make a series of affirmative choices, you’re always going to be showing things about your fundamental ideas, and the way your own perspective is structured, of which you might not even be aware — race, gender, etc.
That’s one thing that’s nice about a writers’ room, where you have more than one perspective shaping the story — as well as an actor and a director. We have a lot of different people who chime in along the way. So, as a writer, it’s less that I type a sentence and then it happens — it’s that I type a sentence, and then a lot of people talk about it and think about it, and it takes on ideas as it goes.
As I’ve said above, if we’re in a new golden age of TV, we’re also in a new golden age of TV criticism. I’d like to give you the chance to fill the critics in: what else do you wish critics better understood about television?
I don’t think TV critics should have to worry about what it took to make TV; I don’t think that’s what it’s about. But here’s what I wish: there’s very different rules when you write or produce for different channels. Budgets, aesthetics, commercials, demands — all that depends on where the show is being aired. The difference between Game of Thrones and The Good Wife — in terms of resources available and production demands — are completely different. So I get frustrated when TV critics — and I don’t mean this to sound mean — will lazily praise a show that appears on HBO or Showtime and be hesitant to praise something on network or cable, specifically genre shows. I don’t want The Magicians to be judged because it’s on the same channel as Sharknado.
But the main thing I would want critics to know is that we read them!
Sarah Mesle is the Senior Humanities Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.