As TV’s adapted properties regularly prove, deviating from a narrative’s original chronology and character development can be a contentious move. Conversely, it can signal new and exciting storytelling possibilities. In the case of Shadowhunters, Freeform’s adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments book series, that means delivering a series in which even avid readers remain surprised and the progressive elements of Clare’s narrative have room to expand. The latter especially holds true for Magnus Bane (Harry Shum, Jr.) and Alec Lightwood (Matthew Daddario), the series’ bisexual and gay characters whose wildly popular romance, known as “Malec,” not only stretches across Clare’s vast book universe but also took center stage for an entire episode during the TV series’ first season. For two characters whose journey is so beloved—despite much of its initial development occurring off-page—an adaptation that honors their essence may be just what fans are looking for.
But is it possible to remain true to the spirit of the source material while simultaneously diverging from it? And how will this Freeform hit, which returns for its second season tonight, use its young adult urban fantasy origins to carve out a compelling arc for its LGBT characters? Shadowhunters executive producer Michael Reisz took a break from writing Season 2B’s premiere to speak with Paste about how the writers room is honoring Clare’s novels, and the ways in which the art of adaptation will move two of the series’ characters onto new terrain.
Paste: The last time we spoke, you described the show’s characters as “multifaceted human beings,” whose stories the writers work to tell authentically. So what does authenticity look like, specifically for Magnus and Alec, who have so many facets to their character makeup?
Michael Reisz: Authentic stories are essential for the entire series—with all of our characters, but particularly with respect to Magnus and Alec. And what I mean by “authentic stories” is, “to tell the truth”: What people are really going through, as opposed to what people may assume or expect people should be going through. Magnus has lived for hundreds of years. He is a bisexual man. He is multiracial. [Being] the High Warlock of Brooklyn has had a huge influence on his life. Over the hundreds of years that he’s been alive, there have been people that—and I can’t quite say who—he has taken under his wing. People, separate and apart from a romantic relationship, that he has mentored and guided. All of those elements are important to acknowledge, honor and respect. That’s sewn into the story because that is a unique person, a unique character that Cassie Clare created and we want to honor it.
Paste: What are the writers doing to develop these characters in an authentic way?
Reisz: So Alec, as a gay man who comes out later in life—for want of a better phrase—his story is unique. Alec was evolving over the course of Season One, moving from a closeted, by-the-book, do-everything-that-I’m-supposed-to-do-for-my-parents-and-my-culture character to who he became up to the wedding. In what ways does the culture in which he grew up impact him? How does his family’s acceptance—or lack thereof—of what he’s going through and who he is becoming affect him? Those are questions that we ask and that we talked about in detail in the writer’s room. We also reach out to resources. We have been working hand in hand with GLAAD. They came in and spoke with us for a couple of hours and everybody in the writer’s room asked every question that they wanted to. We have many people come into the writer’s room and tell their stories. I told my coming out story, I’ve told terrible dating stories. I’ve even talked about relationships I’ve had with people from my personal life before I came out. It’s super important for us to not just tell a quick story about your typical person or relationship. This is about two unique individuals coming together to make their lives work.
Paste: The flip side to this is creating characters whose experiences are universally relatable to everyone in your young, diverse audience. Is that something you and the other writers are thinking about as consciously for a couple whose distinctive identities are so entwined with their personal and relationship development?
Reisz: I think the emotions behind their relationship are universal. Taking the risk and making yourself vulnerable to someone that you’re falling in love with is a universal emotion. Feeling that rush of excitement when you get into that first relationship that makes you go “Wow!” is a universal emotion. Dealing with cultural impact and family impact as it relates to your personal life, that’s a universal emotion. In Season Two, Alec has his career that he’s focused on, his parabatai relationship with Jace, and what his role is at the institute. Similarly, Magnus is the High Warlock of Brooklyn. So we’re going to focus on them and then the relationship aspect of that couple just as we do with the various other couplings we’ll see in Seasons 2A and 2B. They’re fully rounded human beings—human beings? Can we say that about characters in a mythical world? [Laughs] They are full -rounded characters, and while their stories are told through unique perspectives, the true emotions behind their evolution and the evolution of the relationship—I think everyone across the board will be able to identify with what these characters are going through this season.
Paste: The books and show feature LGBT characters in an urban fantasy targeted at a young adult audience. That’s a Russian doll of storytelling opportunities. Are there themes or issues that this demographic and genre allow you to explore with Malec that more adult-oriented or realism-based dramas don’t?
Reisz: I think it’s been important to Cassie [Clare] and all the writers that the urban fantasy element of this show allow us to be incredibly real. It’s an opportunity to ground the characters’ development in human emotions while interweaving it with a fantasy construct. As far as the YA aspect, I think many young adult readers and young adult viewers are really grown up, quite frankly. They’re incredibly savvy and incredibly wise for their years. I treat them not as young, but as adults who are making their own decisions and figuring out what they want for the rest of their lives. When you treat traditional YA audiences with respect like that, I don’t think you have to play anything particularly young. This story is about people discovering who they are. Though this all comes from a series of YA novels, I think that idea isn’t YA. It’s perfect for what we want to explore.
Paste: An interesting facet of writing any fantasy is the direct and roundabout conversations that unfold, like those about LGBT rights and identities you’re having through a warlock and shadowhunter. Are the writers interested in expanding those conversations outside of the show’s gay and bisexual leads in Season Two?
Reisz: Well, we’re diving into each down-world culture that we’ve met and you’re going to see a lot more and learn a lot more about the vampires, the warlocks, werewolves and seelies throughout all of Season Two. We were able to tell the story very heavily from the shadowhunter point of view through Season One, and while it will still be from the shadowhunter point of view in Season Two, we’re going deeper into each world. As it relates to LGBT issues, there’s going to be unique perspectives among all of them. Going back to your authentic question, there will be much of what we discussed when we met with GLAAD. Much of that pertains to the many different situations and many different, authentic stories we plan to explore.
Paste: It’s been teased that Season Two is diverging from the source material, but obviously you can still honor the spirit of the books without creating a word-for-word adaptation. How did the writers decide what to keep, what to let go of, what to add and what to elevate when developing Magnus and Alec for the screen in the second season?
Reisz: In terms of what stays and what goes, it’s not so much what goes but in what order it gets told. When do Alec and Magnus come to the forefront? When do they recede because we’ve got other stories to tell? We have to map out what organically comes next. When a character point will move the story forward, add a complication or an enhancement. What may have happened in book three could happen in Season One because organically it pushes the story forward—which is why we did the moment on the battlefield when Alec and Magnus kiss for the first time in the books during the wedding in Season One.
Because we have a television series now with 20 episodes per season, we are able to take characters who had major life experiences happen off screen and show that step-by-step evolution of them. So you take a character that you want to see who did not fully exist earlier and you say, “We now have room to build it out sideways, what happens with these people?” Then we talk about it. For example, [last season] Lydia became the face of Alec’s evolution and the struggles and nuances of what he had to deal with in order to figure out who he was becoming and who he wanted to be. In the upcoming season, we’re really going to examine with [Malec] what the true evolution of a relationship is, from the dating stage to further. You talked about universal themes earlier and a universal theme is what everybody goes through when they meet the person that takes their breath away. How do they explore that, especially as they are figuring themselves out?
Season Two of Shadowhunters premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Freeform.
Abbey White is a freelance entertainment and identities journalist who has written for USA TODAY Network, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, ScreenSpy and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. She currently lives in New York City where she works as an editorial intern covering the arts, culture and LGBT issues for The Nation magazine.