[reprinted from Onder Magazine Issue#1]
When adapting a story from one medium to another, the writer is faced not with the question of whether changes will be necessary, but with the question of what changes to make. Some writers will choose to remain as close to the original as possible, wielding their pen like a scalpel, cutting only where necessary. Others treat the source material as mere suggestion, a jumping off point for their own creative expression. With The Magicians, an hour long show on the SyFy network based on Lev Grossman’s book series of the same name, the writers have found a nice middle ground between staying true to the source material and making the story more accessible to a TV audience.
Lev Grossman’s novel has a unique structure, one that isn’t particularly suited to the serial format TV demands. The book reads like two, or possibly three, larger books compressed into one. The first half of the book (around two hundred pages), follows Quentin Coldwater’s acceptance into Brakebills, a university for magicians, and then through the entire length of Brakebills’s five year undergraduate program, which Quentin completes in four. Here Quentin meets Alice, Elliot, Penny, and others while still being reminded of his old life in the form of Julia, his friend from high school who failed the Brakebills entrance exam. There are several books worth of material here, and I often found myself wishing Grossman would slow down.
The second half of the book involves Quentin’s time in New York after graduation, the revelation that Fillory, a fantasy world from a book series Quentin is obsessed with, is real, and then a quest in Fillory that is enough to fill another book unto itself. In short, there is a lot more story than what can fit on the page, which leads to problems like major villains coming across as mere footnotes in Quentin’s overarching tale. This is clearly Grossman’s aim, to focus on how quickly youth is spent and how seemingly small things incidents can be symptoms of world shaking events.
For television, the writers smoothed the plot out into a more traditional pace. Brakebills is now a three year graduate program, which makes Quentin older and more able to deal with the challenges in front of him while also giving his character more weight for an adult audience. The Beast, presented in the book as one of many one-off incidents that take place over the course of Quentin’s education, is introduced in the first episode and is a clear and present threat to the characters. He also returns in later episodes, whereas in the books the Beast doesn’t appear again until the very end of the book.
Fillory is seeded throughout the narrative as being a real place through the use of dream sequences and the major plot points that will take place in Fillory are foreshadowed in scenes that make Dean Fogg a more important character and introduce Penny’s power to travel between dimensions. This power is key to traveling to Fillory, something that again has been moved from the later half of the book to earlier in the season.
Julia, whose story is told mostly in the second book, is featured as a second protagonist in the TV show, with her story told in parallel to Quentin’s. It’s a smart choice, one that allows the viewer to see just how fortunate Quentin is to be at Brakebills and to feel the weight of the consequences of being expelled from Brakebills. Compared to Brakebills, a university with bright green grass and buildings that ooze life, the New York Julia finds herself in is dull, and cold. We can’t help but feel for Julia as she struggles to find magic her own way, even if she comes across as frustrated and angry.
Overall, these changes give the show the feel of a more conventional narrative, one which is easier for an audience to follow from week to week and has the added benefit of making certain events seem less like deux ex machina and more like natural parts of the plot.
Despite these seemingly huge changes, the television version of The Magicians doesn’t feel all that different from the book. Brakebills feels like the same upper crust college it was in the books, complete with lush, green grounds and eccentric professors. Important buildings like the Physical Kids Cottage seem pulled directly from Grossman’s imagination. Characters remain largely the same. Quentin is gloomy, though now he has an official depression diagnosis to make him seem like less of an angsty teen and more of a man with actual problems. Alice is still the upper class girl from a magical family who would give anything to get away from magic. Penny is still gruff and antagonistic, but with more insight into his character he becomes a full person instead of a plot point.
In short, The Magician’s pulls off an impressive start to the season, with high hopes for the rest. Fans of the books will find a show that manages to bring their favorite characters to life in new ways. Those not familiar with the books will find a fresh look at the ‘wizarding school’ trope and a much cleaner plot. The first few episodes are available to stream on SyFy’s website with or without a cable subscription, so there’s really no reason not to check it out now.