The Magicians TV series on Syfy is so much more than I thought it would be. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The Magicians TV series is based on three novels by Lev Grossman. In the first book, The Magicians, we meet Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant grad student chosen to attend Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy, a secret upstate New York university specializing in magic. He and his 20-something friends soon discover that the magical fantasy world they read about as children is all too real – and poses grave danger to humanity.
Magic in The Magicians is nothing like the magic in the Harry Potter books. When The Magicians was first published, some marketing guru put out the message that it was like the world of Harry Potter, if the students had been adults. That marketing guru clearly didn’t read the books. Not only is the magic in Harry Potter nothing like The Magicians, neither is the message.
A more apt comparison for The Magicians might be Girls on HBO. These 20-somethings are rich, entitled, insecure, and almost insufferable. They spend their days looking for themselves and whining about how hard everything is. But just like Girls, something about these flawed characters keeps me coming back.
Quentin is at the center of this group of spoiled Millennials. He is the most insecure of them all. Getting to know Quentin in The Magicians TV series is much more entertaining, however, than reading the book, which is told from his point of view. If you think he’s hard to like on TV, try living inside his head for a while.
Penny is his roommate. In the book, he comes off as a lunk-headed bully, easy to hate. In The Magcicians TV series, I root for him every time he brings a smackdown on Quentin. Penny seems to be the only one who isn’t having an existential crisis. Perhaps he’s so likable because the actor who plays him, Arjun Gupta, is so charismatic.
The other Brakebills students we get to know are Alice, the shy prodigy; Eliot, the cynical man-child; Margo, the mean girl; and Kady, the rebel. (God forbid anyone spell their name traditionally.)
The Magicians TV series doesn’t follow the books faithfully. So far, it’s hitting all the big plot points, but the fourth episode, for instance, is a stand-alone episode that has nothing to do with the books. However, it’s the episode that has the most cohesive plot, and the most entertaining use of Penny’s abilities.
Another way that The Magicians TV series veers away from the books is how Julia’s story is told. Julia is Quentin’s best friend, and also the object of his unrequited love. Like Quentin, she gets invited to take the entrance exam to Brakebills. But she fails the test and gets sent back into the “real” world. Unfortunately for her, the school’s memory-wiping doesn’t work, and she’s tortured by the idea that there is a magical world to which she was denied. She winds up finding a group of “hedgewitches,” who teach each other magic.
In the first book, Julia is an important character, but we don’t see her for most of it. The first book is told from Quentin’s point of view only, so she only pops up a few times. In those scenes, we get a glimpse at her torment, but we don’t find out everything she’s going through.
Julia’s story is slightly different in the TV series. In the books, Julia is on a journey, but there’s no powerful antagonist, like there is with Marina in the TV series. Marina is a lovely villain, and terribly entertaining.
After the first two episodes, I wondered if The Magicians TV series was going too fast for its own good. Having Julia’s arc play out alongside Quentin’s seems to emphasize the speed at which the TV series is tearing through the books’ plots. A lot of characterization and backstory is getting lost in the dark and glossy TV series. It seems to be more of a visual companion to the books than a show of its own. If I hadn’t read the books, I might not understand why any of these characters are making these choices.
Speaking of dark and glossy, the show is gorgeous to watch. I imagine Syfy threw a decent budget at The Magicians, knowing it would be a tentpole show for them. It shows. The effects are subtle, but impressive. The locations are gritty or lush, as needed. My only complaint about the look of the show is that Alice’s skirts are way too short; that girl can hardly walk.
The Magicians is getting good, not great, reviews. It’s averaging a B with the AV Club, and Entertainment Weekly gave it a B.
I’m enjoying The Magicians, mainly because I love supernatural TV shows, and I’m curious to see where it’s headed, compared to the books. Thankfully, the TV series is livelier than the books.
Easter Eggs in The Magicians
The last few episodes of The Magicians TV series had a few Easter eggs from the books.
While the gang is exploring Christopher Plover’s house, Quentin says he’s not good at big magic, only mending small things. In the books, they discover his kind of magic is mending magic.
When the gang goes to the library in the Neitherlands, the librarian addresses Margo as Janet. Margo says, “My name is Margo,” and the librarian says, “This time.” In the TV series, they’re talking about how time has been repeating. But in the books, the character’s name is Janet, not Margo.
How the End is Different
The end of The Magicians TV series first season was very similar to the end of the first book, but it didn’t follow it exactly.
What was the same as the books
- Penny’s hands are cut off.
- Alice dies.
- They discover Martin is the Beast.
- There is a dagger that can kill gods, but it isn’t mentioned until the third book.
- Julia is raped by Reynard, a god, but the setting is different, and Reynard is actually a giant fox. We don’t know that happens until the second book.
What was different in the books
- Julia has nothing to do with defeating the Beast and doesn’t travel to Fillory.
- Alice defeats Martin, but she does so by lighting a magical fire, that destroys her and turns her into a niffin, a demon. Her brother killed himself doing the same thing.
- Eliot doesn’t have to marry anyone.
You might recognize The Magicians cast from other TV shows movies.
- Jason Ralph (Aquarius, Madam Secretary) as Quentin
- Stella Maeve (Chicago PD, Golden Boy) as Julia
- Olivia Taylor Dudley (The Vatican Tapes, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” as Alice
- Hale Appleman (Teeth, Smash) as Eliot
- Arjun Gupta (Nurse Jackie, How to Get Away with Murder) as Penny
- Summer Bishil (Lucky 7, 90210) as Margo
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