Debating SyFy's 'The Magicians' Season 1: Do You Have to Read Lev Grossman's Novels?

Two Inverse writers debate the merits and shortcomings of Syfy's book-to-TV adaptation.

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The Syfy show The Magicians wrapped up its first season earlier this week in a controversial finale, which left the fate of Quentin Coldwater and the Brakebills gang unresolved. The cliffhanger was highly divisive, even for a show that was already divisive among readers of Lev Grossman’s book series, the show’s source material.

Naturally, there were inherent differences between the books and the show from the beginning, but how did the first book and the first season of the show compare? A Magicians book-reader and Inverse writer Jack Crosbie, and a non-book-reader and fellow Inverse writer Sean Hutchinson, investigate.

Sean Hutchinson: The Magicians was burdened from the get-go because of its intricate source material, which is tough for any story existing in multiple mediums. But for now I’ll start by saying I think the show established its own confident pace very early on as a way to cover the ground it needed to cover to get to that ending, but also to kind of tread its own ground as a TV show.

The events of “The Mayakovsky Circumstance” or “The Writing Room” and its aftermath might have happened in the book, but it seems like the show took its time to tell those stories without glossing over them. The worst part of that was the finale, which basically packed in about three episodes worth of plot into one. It gave it a manic energy, but it was also kind of confusing.

Still, The Magicians constantly surprised me by its pacing. As a book-reader, what was it like watching the frantic adventures of Quentin on the whims of the show’s creators instead of at your own pace flipping through pages of a paperback?

Jack Crosbie: The pace of the book is unlike anything I’d read before as well — unlike the oft-compared Harry Potter, which spends an entire book on each school year, Quentin’s time at Brakebills comes and goes in a little less than half of the first novel, with the plot jumping through time and only flitting down on important moments in his education, relationship with Alice, and the overarching plot with the Beast.

I think The Magicians’ experimentation in structure and willingness to “go for it” served it well in this case, to some extent. “The Mayakovsky Circumstance” was both not only a great episode but one of the ones that stuck closest to the source material, while “The World in the Walls” was a great addition to the source material. But somewhere along the way of telling varied episodes, the writers missed some huge opportunities toward the end of the season, where crucial plot and character development got lost in the noise of filler episodes and wastefully unnecessary side-plots (Margolem? Seriously?) The finale of the show was always going to be fast-paced, but the writers wasted so much time in earlier episodes that it came out as a rushed, flimsy mess of deus ex machina workarounds to get the characters where they needed to be for the final showdown.

SH: To me, the most consistently entertaining aspect of the show was the fact that it didn’t seem to shy away from just throwing everything you thought you knew or expected to happen directly out the window. They’ll turn into geese and fly to Antarctica in one episode, then they’ll all be figments of Quentin’s imagination in another. It was daring because it was confident.

While the filler material was there, the show seemed to indulge in narratively experimental genre tropes while still sticking to the main story quite well. It kept me as a viewer on my toes, and also allowed viewers to get a larger sense of the magical world of Brakebills. Unfortunately, rapidly covering all that ground that could have been patiently explained in the books was one of the show’s unfortunate setbacks. It was great to populate the show with an ensemble, but too many character came and went to serve individual narrative purposes or none at all — I’m thinking Alices parents and brother, Mayakovsky, Josh Hoberman, Richard, Victoria, Quentin’s dad, Alice’s master magician mentor aunt Genji, and more. What was the multi-character world like in the book?

JC: The world Grossman created is a chaotic, crazy, unexplainable one where anything is generally possible because the rules of magic aren’t completely defined. I think the show did a good job of this, especially with Alice’s parents, showing how even expert magicians can still be just generally lazy human beings who don’t want to do anything ambitious (orgies are just more fun). Some characters landed, some didnt (Genji especially). Josh and Victoria should have roles to play later on in the series, so I was okay with them not getting full development this season.

The biggest flaw, for me, was Fillory. Maybe you can blame the budget, maybe you can blame the rushed finale, but when the characters finally get to Fillory it felt like a hokey, lifeless B-movie set. Fillory needed time, and extrapolation, and to be treated by the showrunners with the same reverence that their characters treat it with. The main four’s places as Kings and Queens of Fillory are a major, central part of the trilogy’s world, and I feel like the first season completely failed to set up those roles in any way.

SH: I’ll give you the fact that Fillory seemed like they just kind of wandered into a ren fair — even though the Beast-ridden Fillory of 2016 was kind of cool — but I think they’re definitely saving that full-fledged setting in season 2.

Moving on to Julia, who has been the most contentious part of the general book vs. TV show discussion. I’m a non-book-reader, but I know she swiftly exits the first book only to appear at the very end leading into the second. It would have made for a batshit crazy but ultimately way too confusing ending for a TV show. That kind of rug-pull just can’t be done correctly in this medium, and I think the show’s creator’s knew that from the very beginning. But maybe it might have been worth it?

I found myself not caring about Julia for large swaths of the first season. She was hopelessly removed from the main Brakebills action in a non-engaging way. The Free Traders angle was borderline incomprehensible, and I wished the show would have stuck with her hedge witch black magic stuff a bit more. Ironically the Free Traders led her to deal with something crazier than black magic, but that was saved for a 30-second moment in the finale. Unfortunately this was just an inherent problem from Grossmans first book that had to be dealt with. Would you have covered Julia’s plot differently?

JC: I love that they brought Julia into the series early, as her storyline is by far one of the most compelling in the books. Unfortunately, I think they really messed up the Free Trader Beowulf angle. The FTB crew are all very important to Julia’s life, and I think that the devastatingly brutal final scene would have resonated much more emotionally for viewers if the FTB characters had been more developed. I think that Julia’s conflicts with Marina (and Marina as a character) should have been cut entirely; if they were planning on including Reynard the Fox in season one then her storyline needed to focus on FTB much more heavily. I would have loved to see Julia blowing through the hedge leveling system by episode 3 or 4, before being contacted by FTB, and then beginning her real journey into magic, always with a foreboding edge that would have made Reynard’s reveal at the end that much more terrifying.

SH: What about the ending? It was a doozy. When I spoke to co-creators and executive producer Sera Gamble and John McNamara they said it was the ending point of Season 1 regardless if they got cancelled or not, which is surprising. It takes an unreal amount of confidence to end on such an open-ended cliffhanger, which is why it might have made some people angry.

The show teased the showdown with the Beast all season and it didn’t specifically pay off. The way that five minute end scene played out made me question the entire show, but I came to the conclusion that it sufficiently shifted what must have been more than a handful of book plotlines around. The Magicians hasn’t been about the ends of actions themselves but how the characters try to get there. The illuminating scene for me was that one with Quentin realizing that he’s always been a secondary character in his own story, and admitting that to Alice because she’s been the one destined to resolved this mess based on her ability alone. You were not a fan, correct?

JC: The finale was terrible. The show had some really brilliant episodes and I was content to let it be a different beast (sorry) from Grossman’s books, but the finale was just a rushed mess that completely botched the emotional impact of the finale of the first book.

First off, cliffhangers — don’t do it. Just don’t. It went terribly for The Walking Dead, and there’s no reason to think it would work here. Without going into spoilers, the finale with the Beast both completely changes the dynamic of the core group of magicians and opens up an entirely new world for them to exist in, which is part of the narrative of book two. The cliffhanger should never have been “Oh, no, are they gonna die,” it should have been, “Holy shit, how are they going to recover from this?

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