Sonya Saraiya’s review of the new SyFy series, The Magicians, begins as follows:
The smartest thing Syfy’s “The Magicians” does, right from the start, is putting protagonist Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) in a psych ward.
I disagree. At least I’m going to want to use a different definition of “smart.” It’s clever, or something. It’s insightful. And it’s a little disturbing in terms of what it suggests the series is going to do.
Lev Grossman’s description of Brakebills, in the opening chapters of the novel, is very precisely descriptive—and very evocative. It did, in fact, remind me of the opening of Susan Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted, which takes place in a mental hospital. Interestingly, the description of that hospital was written in a way that made it reminiscent of a scene set in a university.
That Grossman, whether deliberately or as a result of some dreamlike unconscious process of thinking about situations and images, created the scene he did, speaks to his skill and to the quality of the book itself.
That the writers of a TV series excavated some “real meaning” of the scene, and decided the story was better if Quentin was mentally disturbed, speaks to their arrogantly deciding that the book is only “material”—but even more than that—to their apparently deciding that they know the meaning of that material better than the person who originally wrote it down.
There are parts of many books—The Magicians among them—that I kind of feel their authors “got wrong” in one way or another. I’m not sure I have any curiosity about the ways the SyFy writers got it wrong.
(One thing I think they got right, in a weird way, is the casting of Penny. As I’ve mentioned, I’m strangely fond of Penny. Quentin and his friends don’t like him, and he returns the favor, but by the end of the novel he’s revealed as the one of them who really needs magic, really needs the structure and purpose integration into the world of magic gives him, and who really has the talent and drive to do something useful with it. He always struck me as lower-middle or working class and ethnic, and in fact I always thought of him as resembling an Asian-American friend of mine, and though the actor cast for the series is taller and a bit more buff, the clips I’ve seen seem right to me.)