My husband heard of the new SyFy show The Magicians and decided to record it for me. We’ve been together for 16 years so he has a pretty good idea of what I might like, and this show he thought would be up my alley. It had magic in the name! I was dubious. Admittedly, I was in a rotten mood when he decided to turn it on for me. It opened with two people on a park bench, and I was ready to roll my eyes and make a snarky comment when suddenly something happened – I was hooked. This show was good. The characters were believable, complex, flawed. It reminded me of college – some of the best years of my life, but darker and gritty.
When the credits rolled I almost jumped out of the couch.
“Did you see that?” I asked my husband. “It said based on the book by Lev Grossman. You didn’t say it was based on a book.”
My husband looked at me, perplexed as to why I was accusing him of withholding such secrets.
I ran to the library and checked out The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I found it under the adult Sci-Fi section. I’m not quite sure why it is classified as Sci-Fi over Fantasy, but who am I to argue with the Dewey Decimal system?
Reading The Magician after seeing a couple episodes of the show was an interesting treat. The show captures the essence of the book but is so different, so fast paced compared to the text on the pages.
To boil down the story for you: Quentin, the kid who never really fit in or was happy in high school, finds himself mysterious whisked away to a bizarre college entrance exam where he is tested as a magician. Not the David Copperfield/Chris Angel kind, but the real kind. He thinks his high school crush Julia is also at the exam, but before he can confirm if she is he begins magician school at Brakebills. He quickly finds himself at the top of his class with fellow classmates Alice and Penny and eventually joins the Physical Kids: Eliot, Janet, and Josh. The novel alludes to Alice’s missing brother and her true reason for being at Brakebills is to find him. Quentin also plays a prank on a teacher causing a creature called The Beast to enter campus and kill a student.
That all sounds awesome, right? It is. But The Beast doesn’t show up until over 100 pages into the novel – and then is gone. Nothing concrete is learned about Alice’s missing brother until an additional 100 pages in. And Julia desperately approaching Quentin about Brakebills is about half way through the novel. Basically, there is very little plot throughout the first half for The Magicians. Nothing happens. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing the book. I truly enjoyed the first half. But Grossman takes the reader on a slow, world-building journey as if Hogwarts was a raucous college and the villain isn’t one magician who went horribly wrong, but anyone capable of magic and their unethical, human choices. Magic itself is a villain.
But if a TV producer were to allot sixty minutes of watching college kids get drunk on wine and manipulating their fingers in front of their faces while waxing philosophical about magic consuming you, SyFy would probably lose viewers.
The show’s creators made a great choice in speeding up the plot while keeping certain elements (like what the connection to Fillory – the equivalent to Narnia – is all about) a mystery to gradually unveil to viewers. A tactic certain other shows could learn from. (Cough cough, Shadowhunters)
Instead of Brakebills being a romanticized look back at college, which is how it read to me, it becomes the backdrop for major plot points. In the first episode Quentin, Alice, and Penny choose to cast a spell to communicate with her lost brother, but the spell goes horribly wrong – as if we doubted it wouldn’t.
This spell is what causes The Beast to enter Brakebills. Remember, in the book this happened over 100 pages in and was a prank Quentin plays on a teacher, causing the teacher to momentarily become distracted. It works in the novel to show how messing with magic even on an innocent level can cause a horrific outcome. But the practical joke won’t register on screen. The show’s creators knew this and made the smart choice to up the stakes and also tie in the search for Alice’s brother early.
In the novel The Beast is a creature from another dimension with the ability to freeze everyone in the room while it explores its surroundings. The show accomplished this well. However, they did change the look of The Beast. In the book he has a tree branch of sorts in front of his face.
There was something odd about the man’s appearance – Quentin couldn’t seem to make out his face. For a second he couldn’t figure out why, and then he realized it was because there was a small leafy branch in front of it that partially obscured his features. The branch came from nowhere. It was attached to nothing. It just hung there in front of the man’s face.*
Not exactly terrifying to the SyFy viewership who are used to sharknados and the dark void of space. Therefore for television, the tree branch was replaced by swarms of moths – creepy and obscuring The Beast’s face with the manic flutter of wings.
Also viewers immediately follow Julia’s storyline, which parallels Quentin’s, one choosing the dark, urban hedge witch magic, the other the Ivy-league magic – both equally dangerous. If they had waited until halfway through the season to start Julia’s story, we’d be scratching our heads wondering who this girl was.
The Magicians has already been picked up for a second season. (Yay!) This show is a great example of taking a novel, finding the strengths that will play well on screen, and creating a show around those strengths, keeping the integrity of the characters and theme.
I also have to give a shout out to the cast. The actors have brought dimension to these characters. Jason Ralph (Quentin) reminds me of Ed Burns’ grungy, younger brother. Stella Maeve (Julia) makes you sympathize for her character’s predicament even when you want to ring her for almost killing Quentin.
Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice) and Arjun Gupta (Penny) are entertaining to watch as they’ve proven they can bounce from one extreme to the next. But Hale Appleman (Elliot) is my favorite. He has not only embodied how Eliot is written, he has gone beyond the pages and made Elliot even more colorful. I truly love watching these characters, and cast, interact on screen and can’t wait for more from The Magicians. Catch it Monday nights 9/8pm on SyFy.
*from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians