The Expanse

Courtesy SyFy

The Expanse

Courtesy SyFy

The Expanse

The Magicians

Courtesy SyFy

The Magicians

Courtesy SyFy

The Magicians

Courtesy SyFy
Fill 1
Fill 1
January 19, 2016
Online Originals

Novel Ideas

Translating a book to the small screen is no easy feat.

Iva-Marie Palmer

There’s an inherent difference to writing fiction and making a television show. Or, at least, there should be.

“If you write a book thinking it also needs to be a TV show, you will fail at both,” said Ty Franck, a producer on The Expanse who, with fellow producer Daniel Abraham has written five books in book series of the same name (under the shared pen name James S.A. Corey).

Already a hit on Syfy, The Expanse is a Bladerunner-esque vision of a not-that-distant future where a, yes, expansive universe is filtered to the audience via the stories of the everyday people who live and work there.

Meanwhile, The Magicians, a series based on the best-selling trilogy by Lev Grossman (and which premieres on Syfy on January 25) is set in a time very much the present, but with a story that lifts the veil on a dark magical world just beneath our own (and in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s treading in Harry Potter territory, in case you were going to ask).

They’re big shows from big books with many characters and deeply built worlds – seemingly intimidating stuff for any TV producer to take on.

But that’s a siren song to any sci-fi or fantasy lover. Franck knows firsthand, as he actually spent six years prior to writing The Expanse handling George R.R. Martin’s business affairs (and who noted that with Game of Thrones, Martin – tired of hearing “no, we can’t do that”/”too expensive”/”too big” from the film industry -- actually set out, Franck said, to write “something unfilmable.”)

Yes, the glorious paradox of both The Expanse and The Magicians is, in creating such rich, big worlds in the books, the authors essentially have created stories that – while potentially challenging to film -- are impossible to not want to. Nothing is unfilmable when it ignites the right imagination, it would seem.

The Expanse, which premiered in November and has already been picked up for a second season, is a five-book series so far, and should stretch to nine.

And “expanse” is the right word for the scope of the story, which puts us 200 years in the future, after humans have colonized the solar system.  You want to ask, and will get to, “How the hell did we claw our way out there?” according to executive producer/showrunner Mark Fergus.

But ultimately, where it really starts, is with a tiny incident. The case of a missing girl brings together a hardened detective (Thomas Jane) and a rogue ship’s captain (Stephen Strait) but ultimately pulls the thread of a solar-system-wide conspiracy.

“We let the story start from something small and personal and then unfold into this massive canvas,” Fergus said.

Fergus and his writing partner, executive producer/showrunner Hawk Ostby (the pair cowrote the script to Iron Man together, among other things) came up with the pilot and then with exec producer Naren Shankar, sat down with the books’ authors.

“Before we brought on our writing staff, we came to a consensus on the right number of events, the characters and laying out the season,” Shankar said. Franck and Abraham now also write for the show – while staying very busy working on the remainder of the book series.

Franck said the transition to TV writing is only hard in finding the time to do both.

“You have to come in knowing you’re not telling the same story,” he said. “One, it never happens and two, if it did, it would be terrible. What’s important is we stay true to the spirit of the series and the ideas within it.”

One of the luxuries of adapting the books for TV rather than film is enjoying unfolding things with a bit more mystery. The viewer is trying to sort it out: “We like the kind of stories where you’re brought into a world and you don’t quite know where everything is – it’s like being a tourist and having to figure out what’s where,” Ostby said.

And while there’s a lot to see, it ultimately comes down to the people. “The books are a guide in terms of focus and spectacle but the first image of the show is a woman in a tiny shoebox locker. So we are really about the individual people of the universe, and the small people at that – not the admirals and the generals but essentially the truck drivers of this world,” Shankar said.

The Magicians, on the other hand, is set in a time very much the present but in a magical world alongside ours, the center of which is Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a school which – to the characters – had previously only existed in the pages of books they loved as children.

In the pilot, we meet Quentin Coldwater, a college student who is quite frankly a tragedy at parties and who we learn recently left a mental hospital.

Interestingly, that he was a patient at such a facility is not in the books, but when executive producers/showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara wrote it into the pilot, McNamara said author Grossman asked, “How did you know he was in a mental hospital?” Gamble said that as a reader, she suspected Quentin of battling clinical depression so “we named it and that made it part of the show.”

To bring it to the screen, Gamble and McNamara optioned the book trilogy from Lev Grossman themselves, without the network attached, as they wanted to write it in their own way. Gamble was a fan of the books and McNamara, who’d written the film Trumbo had been recommended them by its producer, Michael London.

The approach worked for author Grossman, who’d met with several networks about developing the trilogy for TV but kept meeting with people who did not quite understand his vision.

By optioning it directly to Gamble and McNamara, Grossman got to “work with people I instantly trusted whose vision I liked, and I was part of the package that went to the networks.”

While at times Grossman admits some anxiety about the way things were being translated for TV,  Gamble and McNamara both praised him for being very savvy in the ways of television versus books.

Said Grossman, “I’m 46. It took me 20 years to figure out how books worked, so coming in I realized I had no idea how TV worked. When I write a book, I play all the parts, design all the costumes and dress all the sets. But for TV, as I watched John and Sera make it all happen, it’s like being the mayor of a small town. I had no illusions that I needed to be in charge.”

Gamble admitted to being nervous to cast with Grossman, but ultimately “he found it amusing,” she said. And Grossman wrote in an email that “A couple of the cast members look spookily like my mental images of the characters, in particular Hale Appleman as Eliot.”

But beyond the characters and the worlds of the books, what ends up being the texts’ best gifts, or invitations, to the show producers are the little things.

Mark Fergus, said of The Expanse series that – besides the obvious world building of a galaxy – Abraham and Franck’s best offerings are “the little corners of the story world to burrow deeper into.” Some of these come from a set of novellas Abraham and Franck wrote that are “like little two-person stage plays” that offer treasure troves of “nuanced character detail,” Shankar said.

Likewise, The Magicians producer Gamble spoke of the “little pearls” author Grossman drops into the books, all of which lend themselves to television and allow producers to honor the spirit of the story while also unearthing new parts of the mythology.

For example, “something that happens to a family member of Alice and is just a line that someone says at a party in the book,” Gamble said, “we turned into a whole story. There are lots and lots of nooks and crannies to explore.”

For the authors, what’s best is getting to see the magic wrought by their spells. Quite literally.

“There’s an image of Julie standing in the corridor of the spaceship, looking over her shoulder,” Franck said of a recent scene in The Expanse. “When I saw that it was like they had plucked that image right out of my brain.”

And for Grossman, it was getting to see what he thought unfilmable that’s been the biggest treat.

“There’s a beautiful shot in the first episode where Quentin sprays a deck of cards into the air, and they fly around the room in a cloud and then settle on a table and form a house of cards. That's not something I ever thought I would see onscreen, or anywhere else, but they did it exactly right,” Grossman said.

“And there's the magic. Actual practical magic, the casting of spells, is almost never done well on screen. Or at least it's not done the way I picture it in my head. When I wrote the books I described spellcasting as a lot of really torturous finger positions and linguistic acrobatics. That stuff is easy to write, but I had no idea whether it would actually work visually.

"But there's a moment right at the beginning of the second episode, when Alice is working magic to fight off the Beast, and you see her snapping out these hand positions and spitting out the words with this incredible concentration on her face. When I saw that I thought: yes. There it is. They got it.”

For more on SyFy's new series, see "High-Stakes Hunting" from emmy magazine.

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