Andrew Gross

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“The Magicicans” on SyFy network

Last night, The Magicians debuted on SyFy network.  The show is an adaption of a trilogy of books by the same name, by author Lev Grossman.

Mr. Grossman’s trilogy is a seminal work of fantasy.  I consider it to be one of the ten best fantasy books (or series of books) of all time, alongside entries such as Steven Eriksons’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber,and Little, Big by John Crowley.  My one-sentence description would be, “Mash together The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, then set them in an adult world with realistic characters and themes.”  It is well (and tightly!) written, the protagonist is fully realized, the supporting characters are three-dimensional, and the story is interesting and often unpredictable.  The prose is assured and often times a pleasure to read.

In short, the source material kicks ass.

In a blog post about the show yesterday, Mr. Grossman assures us that “The people who made it are mega-fans of the books, and whatever changes they made, they did it to get as much as they could of the feel and spirit of the books on screen.”  Unfortunately, it is not possible to come to that same conclusion by watching the show itself.

Things begin to go awry before a single scene is recorded, with the casting choices.  While they thankfully nailed the main character, Quentin Coldwater,  played by Jason Ralph, other choices seem inexplicably wrong.  Alice needed to be played by a young Winona Ryder; an actress with a sleight build and pixie-like face, whose physical presence conveyed a sense of fragility.  Putting over-sized glasses on the conventionally beautiful Olivia Taylor Dudley and directing her to slouch and cast her eyes at the ground doesn’t work and could have easily been avoided.  Buffed Arjun Gupta as Penny makes even less sense, unless it was their intention to change the character from an awkward and petty loner into a commanding sex object… oh wait, spoiler, it was.  Stella Maeve as Julia seems only uninspired rather than truly poor.  I was mostly fine with Hale Appleman as Eliot, though Shira thought he was neither handsome nor preppy enough for the role.  I’m giving Summer Bishil a pass on Janet Margo for now because the character is supposed to be histrionic and affected, so it’s not yet clear whether she’ll succeed  or wind up coming off as overacting.

While I am willing to not only forgive, but actively approve of, changes to the plot when adapting novels to movies or television, some changes made in the pilot episode are inexplicable, while others are just clearly terrible.

They age all of the characters, both at Brakebills and the Chadwins, which makes sense if you feel the sexual content and violence done by and against the characters would be too offensive or controversial if the characters were children and in their late teens.  However, while they take advantage of that in trivial ways by adding a purely gratuitous sex scene involving Penny, as well as an equally unnecessary excuse to show Julia with most of her clothes off in bondage, they chicken out when it actually matters: instead of The Beast killing a fellow student, he kills the much older and mature Dean, thus robbing the scene of much of its emotional impact, as well as lessening one of the prime motivations for Quentin in the book.

In the pilot, Julia is scouted by a magician, who inducts her into the underground world of magic.  This shows what I can only consider to be a complete lack of understanding of her character and her role in the books.  The struggles that she goes through and the hardships she endures while demonstrating an almost frightening degree of resolve, driving herself to the edge of madness, in order to grasp even the smallest hints of the magical world, are not just important to her character; they are inseparable from who she is.  Without that journey, she is not Julia.  They have not changed her character; they have eliminated her and replaced her with an entirely different one of the same name.

But the most unacceptable change is perhaps more subtle: in this adaption, Quentin takes on the role of the classic archetypal fantasy hero, who has a Fate, a Destiny that only he can fulfill, with a villain who has already marked him as a threat.  From the opening scene in which two magicians sit on a park bench, through Jane’s exhortations in a dream-Fillory, to the cliffhanger where The Beast singles Quentin out, it is clear that Quentin is going to be The Hero.  Yet, perhaps the most important contribution that the books make to the genre is a protagonist who is neither a hero, nor an anti-hero, nor a blank slate meant for reader self-insertion; he’s a person, who ultimately needs to accept weighty responsibilities without the benefit of being the Chosen One.  By reverting to the standard Heroic Destiny trope, this retelling of the story loses a large part of what makes The Magicians worth adapting in the first place.

Despite all this, I see enough potential that I’m still going to follow the Three Episode rule before deciding whether to continue watching or not.  Quentin is a saving grace, and it may be that the creators are able to replace some of what they’ve lost with positives that are uniquely suited to the screen.  I’m not betting on it, but I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

 

Recent Travels

In mid-November, I went to Tokyo for a work conference, and stayed an three days for sight-seeing. It’s the second time I’ve been, I went about 5 years ago when I was president of the Seattle Go Center.

I really like Tokyo a lot. It’s very clean, the subway system is super easy to use, the food is amazing, the people are polite, and they take Pop Culture seriously in a way that we haven’t in the U.S. for several decades. Whether it’s J-Pop, Idols, Anime/Manga, or video games, they are neither self-conscious nor ironic in their production and appreciation of mainstream entertainment. I spent most of my free time in Akihabara, which is the mecca for Japanese otaku.

Some photos I took in Akihabara can be found here.

More recently, Shira and I spent Thanksgiving week with her family in Utah, where we visited Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Shira’s paternal grandfather, Bates Wilson, was superintendent of Arches, and basically created Canyonlands. This is a really beautiful part of the country, it’s not really possible to appreciate it without seeing it in person.

You can see some professional photos of the area here.

Update

Well, it’s been over 6 months since I updated this…

Shira and I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival again this year, and all of the plays were very good. We both were surprised by how much we enjoyed the musical Into the Woods, which apparently has a movie version if you want to check it out.

Work is going well. I’m constantly busy, which makes the days go by very quickly, which perversely has the affect of making me feel like life is going by faster.

Shira received her state certification that allows clients to receive out of network insurance reimbursement. The test was pretty rough, she spent many months preparing, but aced it with something like 15% higher than a passing grade.

I’ll probably throw up some Anime reviews for this season sometime soon.

Well, that was short

I’m back at Microsoft as a full time employee.  I was only gone for 3 months, I even wound up getting my old office back (they hadn’t even taken the nameplate off the door).

My new job is a 50/50 combination of the last two jobs (when I was previously full time and when I was contracting), taking the parts I liked most about both and squishing them together.  The only downside is that it won’t be as easy for me to work from home or travel while working, as I will often need to be available in case of an emergency.  Other than that, it’s just pure win. 

Currently reading The Golem and the Djinni, I’m about 2/3 of the way through and so far it’s fantastic.  I hope the ending lives up to the buildup, in which case I’ll definitely recommend it.

The new anime season is upon us.  So far I’m watching Noragami, Hamatora, Nobunaga the Fool, Sakura Trick, D-Frag, World Conquest Zvezda, and Log Horizon.  As per usual, I would expect to only follow one or two to the end.

New Job

After 17+ years at Microsoft, my last day was Sunday September 15th.  The next day on the 16th, I went back to the same hallway as a contractor.

My new job has the following benefits:

  • Pay is about the same, once adjusting for reduced benefits
  • The nature of the work is such that when I leave work, I don’t need to think about it or deal with it until the next day
  • Once I get the hang of it, on most days I should be able to get my work done in under 5 hours
  • I can do the job from anywhere that has an internet connection
  • It’s semi-interesting

It has some drawbacks:

  • Being a contractor is, by nature, less secure than being a full time employee
  • There is no career growth path– the job is what it is, and there is no “next step up”
  • About 1/4 of the work that needs to be done is pretty mindless/menial

Overall, I’m really excited and pleased.  I’ve started working on a computer game with a guy I know at work, and am looking forward to devoting some time and energy to that.  So far, I’m liking the work, and the days are going by pretty quickly– there’s no “down time” where I need to cast about for projects to work on, the way it’s been for the last few years.

My new work e-mail address is v-agross@microsoft.com.

Back from Ashland

Shira and I went to the Oregon Shakesepeare Festival last weekend. I think this is around the 10th year we’ve gone. We saw King Lear, Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream , My Fair Lady, and The Heart of Robin Hood.

We had seen OSF productions of three of the Shakespeare plays before; the only one we hadn’t was Cymbeline, which turned out to be our favorite of the four. The production of Midsummer that we there several years ago (featuring gay disco dancers as the fairies) was so outstanding that I’m afraid we’ll probably be underwhelmed by any future productions.

My favorite play overall was My Fair Lady, which was just fantastic. It’s fun to see actors that we’re familiar with from dozens of Shakespeare performances singing and dancing in a more modern piece. Shira and I are in disagreement about the ending; I contend that in this particular production, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle do not wind up romantically involved.

Next year’s lineup includes Richard III, which is another one that they’ve done such an amazing job on in the past that it’s hard to imagine another one measuring up. There’s also a World Premier of A Wrinkle in Time, which was one of my favorite books in grade school. Can’t wait!

Back from FSX

I spent the weekend in San Francisco at the Fantasy Strike Expo, a convention dedicated to the games of designer David Sirlin.  I had a great time.  I came in 3rd in the Yomi tournament; I actually had the same record as the guy in 2nd, but he beat me on tiebreakers (his opponents had a better record than my opponents).  I won the princely sum of $14.

I had a great time, and would definitely want to go next year if they hold it again.

Ni No Kuni

I finished playing Ni No Kuni over the weekend. It’s a video game made in partnership with Studio Ghibli, one of the most well-respected Japanese anime production companies. It plays sort of like an anime version of Harry Potter meets Pokémon. I enjoyed it and would recommend it, but it doesn’t have much replay value, as you finish most of the content in the course of the first play-through.

I started Skyrim last night. It’s supposed to be fantastic, but it’s 1st person, and I’ve never really been able to get into a 1st person game. I’ll give it another couple of nights, but if it doesn’t grab me, I’ll probably try Torchlight II instead.

I need to start getting into shape in preparation for a trip to Moab this summer. Shira, my brother in law David, and my father in law Alan, and I are going the first week of September, when there is no moon. We’ll go hiking and camping, and at night I’ll get to see the sky with no light pollution for the first time in my life. I’m super excited, but am definitely not in good enough shape at the moment.

Suisei no Gargantia is definitely the best anime of the Spring season, and the only one that has a shot of being a legitimate classic. Shingeki no Kyojin is pretty good, and Hataraku Maou-sama! is silly but fun; everything else is pretty forgettable.

Back from Boston

I went to Boston for a few days to visit Rob and Chad, two good friends of mine that I know from gaming. We play tested the spaceship-flicking game that I’ve been developing, and made a huge amount of progress. I’m pretty happy with the way the game is playing at the moment, now I need to get a wider group of people to try it.

Shira and I are both sick. She’s been sick for a couple of weeks, I started coming down with something a week ago. I’m feeling better today, I’ll probably be fine by the weekend.

January Security Webcast

I appeared in another Security Webcast.