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.