“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.