Anyone who’s read my FAQ page already knows that I’m a huge fan of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. Seriously, they are the shit. A whole mess of spoilers are about to follow so if you haven’t read the books, stop reading this post and go directly to a library, bookstore or Kindle and acquire them. Now.
Being a fan of the books, I was both psyched and apprehensive when I heard that Syfy would be making a series based on the trilogy (this is after Fox flirted with the idea of a series and ultimately passed some years ago). I was excited about finally seeing an onscreen version of one of my favorite stories, but more than a little hesitant considering Syfy’s less-than-stellar track record. The series premiered with two episodes this past Monday and the reaction from critics and book-fans thus far has been, overall, cautiously optimistic.
Though I’ll admit those first two episodes could have been far, far worse, I was kind of horrified. In addition to being rushed to the point of ridiculousness, the show deviated from the books in ways that seemed not only unnecessary, but indicated to me that the writers and showrunners had either missed or chosen to ignore some key points of the novels.
And it wasn’t just the show that bothered me, but also many of the responses from critics. Reviewers who had read the books (or read about the books) acknowledged some of the differences and shortcomings but then shrugged and laid down a blanket excuse of This is a TV show, not a novel. Waddaya gonna do?
On his website, Lev Grossman himself said, “Some things from the books don’t happen, some things happen differently, and other things happen that are nowhere in the books. When you see this stuff you may find yourself asking, why, great triple-horned god, why? The answer to all of this is basically, because of TV. It’s a different medium, and you tell stories differently there. Not everything translates directly.”
Lev, I’m so sorry, but as a serious TV fan, I’ve got to call bullshit on that.
Okay, I’m not really calling bullshit on Lev (because he’s awesome), but underneath all this but-it’s-TV excuse-making, I feel like there’s an insidious lingering belief that TV fans are dumber and more impatient than readers and need to be pandered to. And in the new golden era of television, there’s no place for that kind of thinking.
I know that we all grew up with sitcoms and episodic police procedurals and problem-of-the-week dramas and cheesy made-for-TV movies. And I suppose there’s still room for all that somewhere in our bloated channel guides. But we’ve also crossed into the era of The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Homeland, The Affair, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black…need I go on?
These shows are sometimes referred to as “prestige” television, and while being “prestigious” and having a bigass budget is no guarantee a show will actually be entertaining, there are a number of things these literary-leaning shows do well that all screen-writers and showrunners could learn from. When they’re at their best, they show instead of tell. Like a good novel, their primary characters are three-dimensional, well-developed, and follow arcs that hit deep emotional and philosophical beats. They engross, entertain, and make viewers think. They’ve made clear that television can be just as artful as film when it comes to storytelling, if not more so, and have demonstrated just how well the format of television lends itself to novelistic storytelling. When you have ten or more hours per season, there’s room to breathe. There’s room to build whole worlds, provide seriously amazing character insights that feel true to life, and weave breathtaking plots.
Perhaps most importantly, the writers and showrunners responsible for the new golden era clearly presume that their fans are smart, thoughtful people who are perfectly capable of picking up on subtle cues and references and piecing together complex themes and plotlines. They know their fans are in it for the long haul and don’t need breakneck pacing and explosions and boobies at every turn to stay interested (Except maybe Game of Thrones fans…I’m kidding, of course. Sort of. Seriously, if anyone is watching GoT primarily for the boobies, he or she deserves a punch in the mouth.)
I’m certainly not saying that there’s no difference between writing a great show and writing a novel, or that a TV adaptation of a novel needs to adhere strictly to the source material. But in this day and age, translating a novel into a TV show should never equal dumbing down. It should never mean smacking viewers over the head with content that is gratuitously titillating and/or easily understood, digestible, or predictable.
The writing team behind The Magicians probably did the best they could with the constraints handed down by the powers that be at Syfy. But the first two episodes of the show fall into the aforementioned trap over and over. They take Lev Grossman’s brilliant storytelling (which includes fantastic elements and devices that should translate across ALL media) and make it flat, tropey and conventional. And not in a good way. In a way that is booooorrrriiinnnggg.
I’m not going to cover every example here, just the ones that irk me the most. Let’s start with the difference between book-Penny and TV-Penny. Book-Penny was a pale, moon-faced, know-it-all gutterpunk. He, Quentin, and Alice were placed in a special fast-track group that made them eligible to skip a year at Brakebills. While Quentin and Alice bonded, Penny was secretly pissed off that the three of them hadn’t become BFF, which resulted in him randomly punching Quentin in the face somewhere in the first third of the first book. Penny then spends the rest of his mostly-friendless years at Brakebills meditating himself into another universe.
At no point is book-Penny described as conventionally hot, smoldering, having levitating sex with goth chicks, or a classic mind-reader psychic. But us impatient, horny TV fans won’t keep watching unless there’s eye-candy, right?
Book-Penny’s simultaneous similarities with and differences from Quentin are what make him such an effective and nuanced literary foil. Penny is who Quentin could have been if he’d failed to connect with anyone at Brakebills and remained an insufferable pill. And book-Penny’s funny but unwavering unlikability is exactly what makes Alice’s decision to sleep with him post-graduation cut so deeply. She doesn’t do it because she’s attracted to Penny in any way; she does it to get back at Quentin.
TV-Penny is still a foil for Quentin, but in the most obvious way possible. He’s a foil because he’s the polar opposite of Quentin in every way, which implies the writers thought us TV fan dum dums wouldn’t get a more nuanced portrayal.
My other big complaint about TV-Penny involves his classic mind-reader abilities. You know the kind—he hears people’s thoughts. You know the kind because this unworkable and ridiculous trope has been done and done and done to death. It’s silly and boring and, at this point, it’s the kind of thing I’d expect to see on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or some godawful cliche-fest on The CW. So why make TV-Penny a mind-reader? I have a feeling it’s because the writers assumed us TV fans would go, “Oh, he hears people’s thoughts. I get it. I’ve seen this before.” It’s something familiar and simplistic. Conventional. Perhaps they thought TV fans wouldn’t get interdimensional travel via meditation. Whatever.
Penny isn’t the only character I take issue with. Most of the characters on the show, including Quentin, are disappointingly flat. But I think much of that has less to do with the way the writers chose to depict them and more to do with the show’s breakneck pacing and minimal attention to meaningful character development. Dear Syfy: Did you think we would lose interest if you took a second to delve into some poignant dialogue or a flashback? Did you think we would roll our eyes, grunt about touchy-feely bullshit, and change the channel if you weren’t shoving plot plot plot down our throats? I mean, have you seen the The Walking Dead? That show has been almost painfully slow at points but still remains one of the most popular shows on TV. Even TV fans who like gore and bloodthirsty zombies appreciate character development.
Then again, there were some attempts at character development that weren’t quite up to snuff. The convo between Alice and Janet…er, I mean Margo…did nothing for me. Neither of them transcended the teen-movie types the show has thus far established them as. Alice remained a one-dimensional hot girl with glasses and a troubled past (read: Hollywoodized nerd) and Margo remained a hot and icy mean girl who appears to exist primarily so she can serve as Eliot’s requisite fag hag.
Not good enough, Syfy. Try harder. Go watch some Mad Men for inspiration. The very first episode of that show instills Don, Peggy and Pete with so many layers it’s awe-inspiring. Pay attention to the drunken, sad-eyed, and yet curious look that Pete gives Peggy when he shows up on her doorstep. It takes up only three to five seconds of airtime and it speaks volumes. Or, go read the scene in The Magicians where Quentin and Alice are walking across the Sea and she explains the desperate way she gatecrashed the Brakebills campus (by taking a cab to the middle of nowhere, hiking through miles of dense forest and sleeping in the cold woods). Her words, the way her body language and facial expressions are described—it’s all pitch perfect. That was the moment book-Alice became more than just a classic, type-A smart-girl for me, and I’ve also always read it as the moment Quentin falls for her. Seriously, it’s beautiful.
The insane pacing of the show doesn’t just impact character development. The world-building and theme development suffer as well. The show spends very little time introducing us to the world of magic or covering the fascinating ins and outs of Brakebills. Instead, it clumsily ruins one of the most interesting, thematic, and subversive aspects of the books. Instead of introducing us to the Fillory and Further series as a collection of amusing children’s books and allowing both us and the characters to discover later that Fillory is a very real and very dangerous and sometimes horrifying place, it establishes right off the bat that Fillory is real and apparently full of bigass moths.
When TV-Quentin reads to the audience via voiceover from one of the Fillory books, the last line is, “This adventure is no mere children’s tale.” I almost choked on my own spit when I heard that. Because in the books they were, in fact, children’s stories and that was the whole goddamn point. The fact that they were sunny, comforting, not-too-scary stories about English school kids that turned out to be based on a truly disturbing true story about English school kids speaks very deeply to the themes of the entire trilogy. But TV fans don’t care about themes, right? We’re too dumb for that shit and we’d rather our shows not delay gratification.
And in the same way that we TV fans feel safe with Penny’s tropey mind-reader abilities, we just love us some golden-son-chosen-one-prophecy bullshit. One could make a very thin argument that Quentin was chosen in the first book of the trilogy, but he’s really one of many and he’s actually more used than chosen. Again, this speaks to the trilogy’s themes of growing up and acknowledging you’re not a unique and beautiful snowflake but you can still have a satisfying life if you stop whining and pull your head out of your self-indulgent ass. In the show, Dean Fogg and grownup Jane Chatwin (calling herself Eliza) are on a mission to prepare Quentin and Penny for something that’s to come. And the Beast calls Quentin out by name and apparently has been “speaking” to Penny since he was a child. Ugh.
It’s possible the series is setting up this trope just so they can subvert it but, again, doing so presumes that TV fans aren’t as savvy as readers. It presumes we need to be reminded that prophecies are a thing if we’re going to be in on the joke when that thing gets turned on its head.
All that said, not everything in the first two episodes was awful by any means. The actor playing Eliot grew on me by leaps and bounds by the end of the second episode and his character had one of the few snippets of dialogue (the story about wishing a bully would be hit by a bus) that worked for me as effective character development. The story itself was predictable and we’ve seen that kind of thing before, but the actor played the scene with a great deal of depth. I also thought the judiciously-used CGI was surprisingly high quality and the level of care and thought that went into the hand movements that are so integral to the books was impressive (they actually hired professional choreographers). Though I’m still not convinced telling Julia’s story simultaneously with Quentin’s is the smartest move (most reviewers will probably disagree with me on that one), her storyline, which deviates significantly from the books, has potential. And I’m sure every book-fan who saw the first two episodes loved Lev Grossman’s cameo.
I don’t know whether it’s too late for Syfy to step up their game with The Magicians. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by the coming episodes. Either way, right here, right now, I’m declaring that, as both a reader and a smart and serious TV fan, I’m not pulling any punches. If you’re going to adapt a brilliant novel or literary series with a rabid fan base, you’ve got to do better than predictable tropes and one-note characters and levitating sex with goth chicks.
If you don’t, you’re hereby banished to The CW.
18 thoughts on “One TV Fan’s Manifesto: My Reaction to Syfy’s The Magicians”
OK, so we’ve been talking about the show and book and you wanted my take. Sorry it’s kinda rambly and all over the place.
As a fan of SyFy’s Defiance and someone who’s lamented Fox’s handling of so many series, I’ve been excited for the show since its announcement. And I’m loving the series so far. You’re being way too hard on the show.
You mention Game of Thrones as an example of brilliant television, yet your complaints closely mirror so many A Song of Ice and Fire fans ranting about Game of Thrones dumbing down brilliant literature. Thrones has combined characters, added sex scenes, changed character names to avoid confusing audiences (Asha becoming Yara to avoid confusion with Osha, similar to Janet/Margo), Thrones also presents chronological narrative just like mashing up Julia’s storyline. Otherwise, we would have gone two seasons with Theon and been reintroduced to him as Reek and Arya and others would have sat out a season.
Are there any TV shows that don’t cast good looking actors as anything but the creepy neighbor? And in this day and age of TV being 99 percent white, is it such a shame that Penny was cast by an Indian actor? AND one without a stereotypical accent! Hurray!
Agree on Hale Appleman. He’s 100 percent how I always pictured Eliot. There are no other words. Check him out in Teeth as an example of his talent. I need to check out Private Romeo at some point, too.
I read the whole Chosen Thing completely differently. “Eliza” says there is no destiny, and keep in mind *SPOILERS* she’s a time traveller, so I think she’s seen them involved and so are trying to prepare them so there’s no prophecy or anything *SPOILERS* which seems to fit what I remember from the books.
There’s a lot to love in the series. Quentin’s akwardness, the Beast’s scene, like you said the hand choreo and Lev’s cameo.
It’s super obvious Fillory is real. Any TV viewer will know it’s real. To build up the mystery of ‘is it real or not’ would be to take time from another already rushed storyline. I do like that Eliot referenced Harry Potter, keeping them in a ‘real world’ where magical fiction is common place.
Also, keep in mind The Walking Dead season 1 was lambasted for being super slow and had a creative shake-up that added action and threw in more plot plot plot.
BTW, your CW bashing is kinda outdated. The Arrow, The Flash, iZombie, Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are all extremely popular, well-recieved shows that are 100 times better than the CW of old. Also, there’s a reason Supernatural is still holding a rabid fanbase after eleven years with no end in sight.
I think we’ve known each other so long that a tiny Troy Gardner lives in my head. Because, as I was writing this post, I imagined you saying all of these things. 🙂 But I wrote it anyway and I’m sticking by it for now — like I said, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
And I wondered as I was writing the post if how I feel about The Magicians is how some Song of Ice and Fire fans feel about GoT. Sounds like some of them are just as rankled as me and, even though I’m a GoT fan who hasn’t read the books, I’m more than willing to agree that that show is far from perfect and they’ve made some unfortunate missteps along the way. That said, I still think GoT is in a different caliber. Like, I highly doubt The Magicians is going to get any Emmy nods (not that the Emmys are the end all be all, but still). I’m guessing the same probably goes for those CW shows. I know I’m probably unfairly harsh on Syfy and The CW and I’m sure some of those new CW shows are good. But my guess is they’re not GREAT by new golden era standards.
Also, for the record, I have absolutely no problem with Penny being played by an Indian actor — I’m all for boosting diversity when the source material is overwhelmingly white. I have a problem with him being depicted as a hunky badass. There are plenty of Indian actors who would have made a more effective Penny. Hell, Aziz Ansari would make a great nerdy, insufferable Penny (just finished Master of None so I’ve got Aziz on the brain). He might also add some much needed comic relief considering they ditched my favorite secondary character, Josh. 😦
Even though he doesn’t have a snaggle tooth, Hale Appleman really is great as Elliot. He might be enough to get me to keep watching. Thanks for the rec on Teeth, I’ll have to check it out.
And thanks for reading and commenting!
I’ve been largely enjoying the show, so I bought the first book and have been devouring it every spare moment I have (thanks to a serious bout of the flue, that’s quite a lot of spare moments) . I’m up to the bit when Penny first shows up in New York the morning after Quentin’s, ahem, misadventure at the party.
I was getting curious to know how book fans were reacting to the show, so a quick google lead me here and I started reading until… ALICE DOES WHAT NOW?!?
I *really* have to learn how to take spoiler warnings more seriously.
Oh noes!!! Fear not though – there are still oodles of delicious book details I didn’t mention. Happy reading and thanks for commenting!
Hey there. Found this post on a Google search for “Eliot magicians snaggletooth.”
Spoilers ahead up to Episode 8:
Speaking here as someone who just devoured the first book and was retroactively bothered by some of the stuff on the TV show that you mentioned, I have to say I (mostly) agree. The actress who plays Alice is way too conventionally attractive, and Eliot comes off as a gay stereotype rather than the complex character he is in the book (I’ve only read the first one so far). The snaggletooth is an important part of his aura in the book, IMHO. While it’s pretty much unavoidable that TV characters will be played by conventionally attractive people, The Magicians’ cast are ridiculously attractive even by TV standards. And they’re playing people who in the book are portrayed as awkward-looking in general, with a few exceptions.
I also totally agree that the book’s main message about how happiness needs to come from within is not really coming through in the TV series (although there are some hints of it, which will hopefully be fleshed out).
On the other hand, I would never have started reading the books were it not for the TV series. I think the Quentin-Alice romance is particularly well-done as TV romances go, although it definitely pales on comparison to how Grossman does it in the book. I actually cried while reading about Alice’s sacrificial death.
I also really like the side plot about Quentin’s dad.
Ha! That Google search is hilarious. Can’t believe it led you here.
I’m on episode seven, so not quite caught up to you, but close. Many things have continued to grate on me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by others, including the romance between Quentin and Alice. Though not nearly as nuanced and true to life as their romance in the books, it feels believable enough to me and I find myself rooting for them. I’ve continued to enjoy Julia’s storyline, and I agree that the side plot with Quentin’s dad is well done. Quentin’s distant relationship with his parents was one of the few aspects of the books that I found lacking — I could never quite get a grasp on it. What they’ve done with him and his dad on the show feels more tangible and relatable.
And I had high hopes for show-Eliot, but I feel like he and Margo just continue to get worse and worse. Aside from a few clever lines and Margo’s “that’s the universe deep-dicking you” speech, they’re just awful. I mean, Eliot and Janet were obnoxious in the books but in a way that was clever and funny and often endearing. On the show, Eliot and Margo come off as a slithery duo straight out of Cruel Intentions. They literally make me cringe.
But if the show is getting people to read the books, well, I can’t argue with that. I hope you enjoy the next two. In my opinion, each one gets progressively better. As a writer, I was in awe of the way Lev Grossman developed Quentin’s character and tied everything together in the third book.
And thanks for reading and commenting!
I agree with your review, I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people saying the same thing!
I think what I’m most dismayed about is the tv show skimming over most of what was so smart and wonderfully nerdy about the books, and making it all seem too easy. You don’t really get the sense that the students are working very hard to acquire their magic skills. Except a little bit in the episode with Mayakovsky but that was still a pale shadow of the intensity of that period in the book. And it bothers me that they’re skipping over all that stuff because, for me, so much of that stuff WAS the story. It wasn’t just boring filler, and I hate that the makers of the show seem to think that it was.
I actually hate the Julia story line in the tv show because it seems like magic just keeps falling in Julia’s lap, without showing the extent to which she had to search it out and all the tests she had to pass in the book, and the importance of the fact that she clung to her recollection of having taken the Brakebills test for so long, and how smart she was to have figured it out. She was so obstinate in her conviction that magic MUST exist, even when she had so little to go on. I’ve only gotten through the show to the point where Julia meets Richard in the mental institution, so maybe it gets better? I really hope they don’t completely gloss over Free Trader Beowolf but I suppose it’s too late for that, given that Julia’s already discovered (been led by the hand to) the safe houses. I so so so wish that they could have moved slower through the story and just savored the things in the book a lot more instead of rushing rushing rushing through and giving us silly sex scenes and party scenes and gory heads getting ripped off of bunnies scenes instead. It’s not that the latter stuff bothers me, but I resent it insofar as it replaces the smart nerdy stuff. And they keep saying “this is Harry Potter for adults” but the tv show is making it into Harry Potter for teenage Gossip Girl fans.
So yeah, I’m pretty disappointed because it seems that all the things that I love best about these books are not important to the makers of the tv show at all. And like you, I hate seeing those things replaced with clichés. And I agree that they’re making Eliot and Janet (Janet/Margo in particular) awful and cringe-worthy by dropping so much of what was intelligent and quirky and human about them in the books, and retaining merely two-dimensional cliché snarkiness.
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Not going to spoil anything, but I think most of the initially disappointing (for book fans) stuff ends up getting better, getting resolved, or being revealed to have a specific purpose towards the end of the season. Eliot and Margo, in particular, become WAY more fleshed-out as characters in the last few episodes.
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Hallelujah! If that’s the case, I’ll look forward to the last few episodes. Thanks for reading and commenting!
And they keep saying “this is Harry Potter for adults” but the tv show is making it into Harry Potter for teenage Gossip Girl fans. — LOVE this. Couldn’t possibly have said it better.
Sounds like we’ve had very similar reactions to the show (glad I’m not alone). I agree it’s weird that there hasn’t been a stronger reaction, but I think a lot of book fans probably aren’t watching or already stopped watching. Critics, for the most part, also seem to have given up. Vulture was doing weekly recaps and stopped about six episodes in with a review literally titled “Is Anyone Watching?” Not a good sign.
I fully see your point about Julia’s storyline — it has nowhere near the depth and nuance of her struggle in the books. But I still find myself enjoying at least some it, if only compared to most of Quentin’s storylines. I still haven’t watched the whole season but I’ll say I’ve been minimally impressed by the Free Trader Beowulf stuff so far. Again, it lacks the depth of the books but at least they kept the name (it’s such a great reference).
On another positive note, I thought episode nine (which involves a trip to Plover’s house) was truly solid. Very little of it was pulled from the books, but Margo made zero appearances, Eliot finally got some pitch-perfect Eliot dialogue, and it began to draw out some of the books themes, albeit without most of the quirky, subtle cleverness of the books. I’d like to think it’s proof that the writers could at least make the series watchable if they stopped trying to please everyone and focused on their strengths.
That said, episode ten was one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever seen on TV sooo…
Do you plan on watching season two? I know I shouldn’t torture myself but the show’s kinda like a train wreck and I can’t look away from.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Personally I think both Eliot and Margo get a lot better in the last few episodes. The whole Cruel Intentions thing just shatters and is revealed to be both of them covering up some serious shit.
Overall, I really liked the last few episodes, particularly the twist on Julia’s and Alice’s storylines which was a nice surprise even for book fans.
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Another commenter said something similar, so now I’m really looking forward to the last few episodes. Though I have to wonder if it was really necessary to depict Eliot and Margo as shallow, one-note assholes for ten episodes just to reveal their put-on personas are a defense mechanism.
Actually that was me both times 😛 I was told I had to log in to WordPress after entering the first comment while not logged in, and I thought my initial comment wasn’t posted, so I re-wrote and posted the second one. Oops.
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LOL. I thought it was just a hilarious coincidence that two people posted similar comments in quick succession. Oh, Word Press. 🙂
Yep, I’ll keep watching. I’m working very hard at trying to divorce the tv show from the book while I watch it, and just enjoy it in the way that I might enjoy watching Arrow or something. I’m watching it alone though. My husband generally loves sci-fi and fantasy shows but he got bored with this one pretty quick. He hasn’t read the books. I’m not sure if he got bored with it because of the flaws in the show, or because I kept pausing it every few minutes to pontificate about how the book’s handling of such and such character or theme or event was way better.
Sigh. Probably mostly the latter?
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My hubs is still watching with me but frequently rolls his eyes, mostly because I do the same thing. 🙂
Don’t know if anyone’s still checking this comment thread, but I wrote a post covering episode three thru the finale. https://erinpcallahan.com/2016/05/31/erin-vs-the-magicians-an-update/