In 1938, in an essay titled “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster coined the phrase “two cheers for democracy,” and that’s apropos here. As a novelist, Forster himself gets three cheers, I’d think. Evelyn Waugh should then get two cheers, and The Magicians, which is enjoyable enough but not, to be honest, a great work of art, would get one. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll give it two for the time being. When the commercial recap columns start appearing a day late, or not at all, and they start asking in their headlines what’s the point of it all (as the Observer’s did over the past couple of weeks), it’s fair to say that some people are wondering whether a show—albeit still in its first season—has jumped the shark. I’d like to take a moment, though, to point out some—possibly overlooked—things I like about it.
When, a couple of weeks ago, Eliot’s same-sex romance got hot and heavy, only to turn out to be an evil trick that would result in the boyfriend’s death, the Internet started getting antsy. This kind of thing turns out to be an actual TV Trope with an actual name, and as it turned out, some other show had used its apparently more usual lesbian version in what sounds like a somewhat worse way, so the Internet explosion carried over to The Magicians, as well. Even worse, in response, Eliot had to kill his boyfriend, and then he turned into a serious addict.
This, however, actually solved a problem with the original story. When we meet Eliot, in the book, he is already drunk or high all the time. Why he’s that way is never explained. He isn’t depicted as out of control in any way, just a heavy user of mind-altering substances. He isn’t depicted as explicitly gay, either (that I recall—I still don’t have my own copy of the first volume of the trilogy). But he is, after all, an obvious human allusion to Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. I hadn’t read that book until after I’d finished The Magicians, but the way in which Eliot Waugh is obviously alluding to a novel by Evelyn Waugh, which novel is about a middle-class boy enamored with Oxford University, country house life, and Roman Catholicism, all in equal measure, was . . . obvious. Now that I’ve read Brideshead, the way in which Sebastian’s and Eliot’s addictions are overlooked and underestimated, as much as their homosexuality and their inability to find what might be called “a spiritual outlet,” is even more obvious. Standing on its own, however, by the third of the novels, the question why Eliot drinks, especially years after the characters have all graduated, begins to be a question. The answer can’t be that he drinks because he’s gay, but the alternative—that he drinks because there’s nothing corresponding to Fillory in the real world—is too far-fetched and too subtle for television. And the Eliot of the books, a kind of seedy Holden Caulfield figure with a mysterious and possibly romantic background, would come off on TV as much too unsympathetic. So he’s presented as attractive and charming and relatively sober, . . . until something terrible happens to him.
And at that point, we’ve got the Eliot of the books. Because another change from the novels’ version of events is that on TV, Quentin pairs up with Alice right away, while Eliot and Janet are pushed to the margins for a very long time—while in the books, Quentin follows Eliot and Janet around like a puppy dog (the way Charles Ryder obsesses over Sebastian and his sister Julia in Brideshead Revisited), and only connects with Alice later. But why this is, isn’t really explained in the book. We believe it because Quentin is the narrator and he tells us that it's so. Television doesn't have a narrator, and so the television series spends eight or nine episodes getting both Janet and Eliot to the point where we believe they’ll follow Quentin and start hanging out with a group who are much less cool than the two of them. (As for Penny, the change is really drastic and only partly explained by the fact that he was given part of a story that, in the book, belonged to another of Quentin’s closer friends.)
This makes it sounds like I really dislike the show, and it’s true that it is very disappointing if it’s considered a straight-up adaptation of the books. It is actually not bad. It seems to want to be very plot-driven. The mystery-of-the-week type episode a couple of weeks back was really not too bad, even if it did move up an enormous mystery from the last third of the last book in the trilogy to before anything even had started. The themes are not quite those of the books, but they’re interesting. The biggest changes in the themes that are carried over from the books (as opposed to being entirely new) only take about a week to take hold and seem natural. But between providing background from the books, adding background to the books, running quickly through sequences from the books that aren’t to be fully dramatized, and humanizing the characters, there’s not much time left for plotting either mysteries of the week or the basic storyline from the novels.
I almost decided to stop watching the show when I saw the coming attractions set in the Neitherlands. I have a very clear mental image of what the Neitherlands should look like—like a Di Chirico painting, all proto-fascist neoclassical architecture and no people, cold symmetrical fountains with colonnades behind them—and instead I could see we were getting something Romantic and pre-Raphaelite, with moss and trees and overgrown ivy, lots of open space, and rolling hills, and no buildings at all. I was happy that the first ten seconds did give us something like what I thought it should be. It seems emblematic. I really am not certain what this part of the show is about anymore. I always felt that the novels were about Fillory and/or Brakebills as literature itself, or as ways of looking at life through a filter set by literature. The TV series heavily emphasized another possible subtext, that “magic is a drug,” and then seems to have dropped it, but doesn’t yet have anything to put in its place. Instead we’ve gotten a lot of people trying to get in touch with, or else to avoid, their emotions, . . . while the implications of the written characters’ investigations of other people’s lives (that is, the other lives themselves, the story within a story for its own sake) is being downplayed. There just isn’t enough time to luxuriate in the other-worlds aspects of the story. And without it, what’s really left?
As for Julia’s story, after a couple of weeks, as I said, I’d made my peace with each of the changes the TV writers made, one at a time. But I was dismayed to see how the “Free Trader Beowulf” group was handled (it can’t really be called a subplot: it constituted almost the entirety of Julia’s half of the second novel, and nearly all of it is gone). I should probably have guessed that Kady is the character screen-named Asmodeus, and I can almost see a very roundabout way in which she works as a replacement, but really this seems wrong. Asmodeus is Julia’s best friend online, in the books, and Julia is shocked to find out she’s an energetic seventeen year old who’s nevertheless been involved in the group for years and is way more senior in it than Julia is. If the show spent a couple of months getting Eliot and Janet to the point they were at, at the beginning of the first novel, and the same amount of time getting Quentin and Alice to a point about two-thirds of the way through, in that period it’s gotten Julia almost to the end of her entire storyline in two whole books (she has two different timelines in the second book, so this is taking her to near the beginning of the later one, but at the end of it she disappears). I can find some interest in seeing what the TV writers want to do with the novel’s own themes, but this seems to go beyond that. They’ve taken Failstaff and the other Beowulf figures and made them safe (to say the least), and they’re coming close to replacing “the goddess,” with its overtones of paganism, feminism, and pantheism, with a straightforward statue of the Virgin Mary. They seem to want to take the end result of her searching and get rid of all the dangerous stuff she engages in, in the book, to get to that place. I think I could get on board with a Julia whose life is totally different from what it is in the books, which is what we had up until a week ago. I am not thrilled with a Julia who has the same friends, in very similar situations, to what she has in the book, except that the friends also have lives that are totally different from the books, and the situations are just close enough to map cleanly but in fact are totally different. At least not like this.
Mad Men also had a kind of lackadaisical attitude to making all the episodes line up as a single, smoothly arcing narrative, and a large cast of characters. But Mad Men’s world-building was almost entirely visual, it had ten or twenty minutes more to play with, and it didn’t have to use the entire cast every week. Up until this week or the week before, I could see the series going in a direction where it got all the character development and world-building out of the way, and then concentrated on the adventure stuff. I’m not confident now that this is going to happen. I’m certainly not confident that it’s going to be good.