Since writing my last post, I’ve watched the first hour of The Magicians, which has been available on-demand for a few weeks—it’s the first half of the pilot, which will be shown in full tonight. It looks like the changes are drastic enough to change things I’d felt were essential to the way the books worked, and only some of the time interesting enough to suggest an alternative vision of the series’ own. Some of the things I liked best about the novels are obviously going to be missing from the television show.
The show seems to shift the story’s genre to a kind of urban fantasy that I guess you see pretty often in this kind of show, from a different kind of religious science fiction/fantasy in which, it seems to me, the connection between the real world and the magical one are somewhat different. The Magicians was often called “Harry Potter for young adults,” but it really owed more to The Chronicles of Narnia. And to my mind the differences between Grossman’s world and Lewis’s are very telling.
C.S. Lewis associated his fantasy realm with the church. This suggests that what happens in Narnia is very important in our own world. Lewis’s society was, after all, a Christian one (Lewis seems to have believed that it wasn’t, really, not quite, but this does not come across). Grossman associates his with the university. This gives Fillory a more “optional” feel than Narnia has. A reader can disbelieve in Fillory without feeling the author would consider him a heretic or a terrible person. That generally isn’t the case with the Narnia books. Disbelieving in Narnia is like being the one person who doesn’t clap, in the theater, when Tinkerbell dies.
Disbelieving in Fillory, on the other hand, is presented as natural. Quentin does not believe in Fillory, which he believes is a fictional world, made up by an English writer decades ago, and published in books only children read, and not all children, at that. None of his friends believe in Fillory. They make fun of the idea that Fillory is real, as much as of the idea that Hogwarts is real. The faculty at Brakebills doesn’t believe that Fillory is real. They are relentlessly hardheaded, practical types who hope their graduates will do something useful in the real world, benefiting ordinary, nonmagical people, or at least support themselves adequately and be reasonably happy.
This is true in the novels, at least. The entire confrontation with the gods of Fillory is something the very young Quentin and his friends deal with on their own, without any help from the grownups. The TV series appears to be setting up a situation in which the head of Brakebills is fully aware of what’s going on, and is, in fact, involved in it.
To me, this feels like it collapses a very interesting fault line through the novels. The Magicians is really a book about a young man encountering the grownup world, and then also a book about a young man learning about evil, and the reality of the ideals and books he’d idolized as a boy. The Magicians ends with a very mundane (if in some way, even more ultimately, redeemed) fall into the everyday world of graduates of elite colleges who don’t know how to make themselves useful. Magic has meant very little to them, because they have to learn how to be human first.
The TV show feels like it’s setting up the confrontation with evil within Fillory as having a very definite effect on the real or mundane, nonmagical world, and as the center of the plot. This probably makes sense in a television series—and probably makes it more like the other series on networks like SyFy and BBC—but elides something I appreciated in the novels.
The biggest change, though, is that it brings forward the Julia storyline into the beginning of the narration. In The Magicians, the first book in the series, Quentin pretty much abandons his friends, Julia and James, when he’s accepted into Brakebills and leaves high school early as a result. We only find out what happened to Julia in the second book, in which she feels like the really central character (it turns out she’s had a breakdown, caused in some way by the Brakebills administration itself); Quentin’s Brakebills girlfriend, Alice (who destroys herself doing too much magic in an attempt to save him and others), similarly feels like a moral center of the third of the books—both suffer somewhat horrific fates, in ways that can’t help (whether they in fact are) feeling connected with their being women. (This feels uncomfortable, and you wonder why Grossman has chosen to make his female characters suffer so much more than his male ones, why they seem unable to achieve success as he imagines them, but in my opinion this is no reason to condemn the books. I’d take these books over something like the unwatchable About Time, which has similar issues.) In the books, then, the story of Julia’s education is told in parallel to a later narrative from Quentin’s life, while in the series it looks like it will more closely parallel the exact same period in Quentin’s life. This could have the effect of making the way Julia learns magic—basically, “on the street,” from other people who didn’t get to go to Brakebills, an experience that warps her psychologically for life—seem more respectable than it does in the books, where we’re made to believe that Brakebills is a legitimate gatekeeper.
(I’m also not expecting to see as much of the Internet as we saw in The Magician King, given, for one thing, that the part where it played a huge role has been rendered moot already by Julia’s weird encounter in the restroom of a bar.)
The other big change is that the characters are made older. In the books, they’re high school seniors when the story begins, and Brakebills is an undergraduate college. In the show, they’re apparently college seniors (though they appear to live like somewhat older people, for the most part), and Brakebills is graduate school. This has the effect of underplaying the coming-of-age aspects of the story. It also pushes aside some mild issues of class that do appear in the books, in which Quentin and his friends are decidedly middle-class, public school students, and exceedingly studious. The emotion in Quentin’s discovery of real magic stems from the fact that he’d only known this kind of thing from books. The heartbreak in what happens to Julia stems from the fact that she goes from “straight-A student” to “rebellious Goth” so quickly. Neither of these things is likely to happen in the TV show, because both of them are from the beginning gorgeous, well-dressed and blow-dried, sophisticated adults. Along the same lines, much of the effect of the books derives from the idea that there is a secret learning that even the graduates of the best mundane schools, such as Princeton and MIT (even those with graduate training!), don’t ever find out about. If Quentin and Julia are depicted as the kind of idealized, beautiful, well-off characters who invariably populate TV (and if the magical world is depicted as much more broadly intertwined with the ordinary one, which I suspect might be shaping up as the case), the idea that magic is an entrée into a truly elite and mysterious world is worn off.
One of my favorite passages in The Magicians describes the mind- and finger-numbing study the students undergo in order to learn what Brakebills has to teach them. Another describes the miraculous moment in which they realize they’re really thinking like another creature. It’s unlikely either of these could be the core image of a television show. Instead, we’re likely to get a battle to the death with the forces of evil, with cool special effects (and a fair amount of onscreen sex). What will be interesting to me is whether we can still catch glimpses of the vision Lev Grossman built into his books.