Reflecting on “The Magicians” Season 1: Change Isn’t Always Bad

It’s hard to believe that the first season of Syfy’s adaptation of The Magicians aired two weeks ago – we spent so much time anticipating the show that it seems too soon for it all to be over. But now that it is, and we’ve seen a little bit more of the direction the show’s creators are taking, we can talk about how the show is faring as an adaptation of the books we love so well!

Before we begin, here is your friendly reminder that this post will contain spoilers for both the Magicians book series and the first season of the television show. Now let’s get to it!

Upon viewing the first episode, I was a little puzzled at a few of the ways in which the show was departing from the books, but since author Lev Grossman had endorsed the adaptation and worked closely with the production team, I was willing to keep my instinctual fan-protectiveness response at bay and see how the changes would play out, rather than despairing from the very beginning that the show could never live up to my expectations. This attitude served me well as I watched the rest of the first season, so I adopted the perspective that the show was a kind of fan fiction playing out in Grossman’s world rather than a straight book-to-television adaptation. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the changes the show made in telling Quentin’s story.

First off is Quentin himself. While I was a little uneasy about the fact that our main boy here, primarily characterized by the fact that he is perpetually un-chosen, was singled out for attention from an otherworldly terror right from the beginning of the show, I actually don’t mind how it played out. I can see how this kind of trajectory was necessary for bringing the somewhat slow-burning novel to television, and the fact that Quentin is still very Quentin-y kept this change from seeming too drastic. I really liked how much they played up the fanboy aspects of his personality, and his character came off very similarly to the way it does in the books: a well-meaning, smart but naïve young man who’s hungry to be greater than he suspects he actually is. And he can really act like a stupid ass. Quentin Coldwater makes the transition to TV relatively unscathed.

Since we’ve covered Quentin, we might as well move on to his hedgewitch parallel next, Julia Wicker. I couldn’t believe it at NYCC 2015 when the producers of the show said that Julia’s path would be even darker in the show than it is in the books. Her story was already one of, if not the, saddest and most tragic parts of the book series – what else could they possibly do to her? I’m relieved to say that I don’t agree with that original assessment. Although Julia of the Syfy show definitely has some battle scars and horrible experiences (including her cataclysmic encounter with Reynard the Fox), it seemed sort of diluted to me, maybe just by the fact that it all takes place in so much less time. In the book, she scrounges around the hedgewitch community for years before hooking up with Free Trader Beowulf and spends months bonding with the group before everything goes to hell. In the show, all of this takes place in just a few months, resulting in (for me) less emotional resonance.

BUT the upside of that is that the showrunners have, as promised, lined up Julia’s timeline with Quentin’s, which adds a totally new dynamic to the overall story. By the time we hear Julia’s story in the novels, she’s already lost much of her humanity to her impending demigod-hood  and is relatively stoic in the face of both everything that’s happened to her and everything that’s currently going on. In the show, it’s happening in real time, which really invigorates the telling. I’m not quite sure how I feel about her double-cross at the end of the season finale, which not only steals some thunder from Alice but also draws out Martin Chatwin’s time on the show. But one thing’s for sure – they definitely won’t be drawing from the book for whatever happens between Chatwin and Julia next, so that will be interesting to see!

And while we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Alice. So smart, so loyal, and so, so much has her shit together when compared to her erstwhile pals. I don’t think all of that comes across quite as well in the show as it does in the book, but that might be another issue of many things that take years in the book getting squished together for TV – there’s simply less time for us to see how much better she is than Quentin. This plays out most obviously in their short-lived television relationship. In the books, not only is this relationship years in the making, building up some serious tension, but the pair has also been dating for years by the time Quentin has his ill-advised liaison with Margot (Janet) and Eliot. The betrayal in the show isn’t as striking, because there’s just not as much history and trust between two people who have been dating for three months as there is between people who have been dating for five years.

Her character is altered, too, by the simple necessity that television needs drama, so some of what book-Alice handles internally and with aplomb (like her brother being a niffin), show-Alice kind of wigs out about and makes into a big deal. The only time that all this really bothered me beyond some residual book-loyalist pangs is in the last episode, where the group confronts Martin Chatwin. Man, this is the time for Alice to shine in the books. She freakin’ DESTROYS. In the show she’s cast down in about two seconds as Julia’s betrayal is revealed. Of course, since Chatwin is still alive, she almost certainly (almost? I’m almost certain.) will get her chance to be a BAMF in Season 2. I think. But as a fan who had been really excited about seeing this part of the book come to life, I was kind of disappointed with the bait and switch. I guess I’ll just have to be patient instead!

I think that brings us to the wonder twins, Margot and Eliot. I think these two allow for some of the most fun and/or intriguing departures from book cannon – remember Ibiza? The whole djinn/gin debacle? That was a fun little glimpse into Brakebills debauchery that we miss out on with the hyper-focused emphasis on plot in a television narrative. Plus, Eliot’s doomed romance was perhaps one of my favorite inventions – it really put a lot more meaning behind his careless substance abuse and (forthcoming) redemption. I did feel that Margot/Janet wasn’t as developed as I would have liked her to be – I don’t think I would have understood her character in the show as well if I hadn’t brought my knowledge of her character from the books with me. But there’s a lot of great things left for her still to come, so I’m not too worried about it. Team Eliot/Margot forever (although why did he have to marry a Fillorian peasant? I guess we’ll see…)!

That just about brings us to the best change of the whole show – Penny! Let’s be blunt: Penny sucks in the books. I mean, it’s his purpose to suck. He is supposed to suck, and his suckiness brings about a lot of important plot points. But how refreshing it is for him not to be a total asshole! The Penny of Syfy’s adaptation is not only a badass with empathy, he’s also often the most reasonable one of the group, getting Quentin and the gang out of trouble over and over again. He’s delightful! He’s my favorite part! That’s all I have to say about Penny. Keep on keepin’ on, dude.

Before we close, I’ve got just one quick word for our most sadly under-represented character of all (I mean, besides Josh. Poor Josh.): Brakebills. Ah, Brakebills of television, I hardly knew ye. I mean, yes, obviously, I have a particular affinity for magic schools, but still! First, the program is shortened from five years to three, and then with everything else going on, there just isn’t too much time to bask in magic-fueled drunken genius school that Brakebills is in the book. In the show, they go to Fillory long before graduation is in sight, which begs the question of whether they’ll graduate at all, and if it could possibly matter now. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but I’M JUST SAYING, I would really like to see some cool demons tattooed on everyone’s backs. Just saying.

Really, that’s barely brushing the tip of the iceberg – we haven’t even talked about Kady – but I think taking a look at the series’s main characters is a pretty good place to start when analyzing the book-to-television success. All in all, the show has played pretty fast and loose with the plot points of the books it’s adapting, but it’s managed to do it in a way that still feels like we’re getting a glimpse into Grossman’s world. Since The Magicians series of books is over, leaving no more chances to read anything new about these characters, I find that, as a fan, I don’t mind at all seeing their story re-imagined for television. Bring on Season 2!