Does Season One of ‘The Magicians’ Hold up as an Adaptation?

syfy lev grossman the magicians tv series season one analysisSyFy

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman has recently been adapted into a television series on Syfy. Following a group of college age magicians—consisting of Quentin, Alice, Penny, Eliot, Margo (Janet) and Julia—The Magicians explores a magical world that we have never seen before. One that is full of surprises and pain. This isn’t your normal school of magic.

After a successful first season, the fantasy show is nearing the start of its second season, which begins on January 25. As we move closer to the start of the second season, I think it’s time we take a better look at the first season. What makes an adaptation successful? How successful is The Magicians as a television adaptation?

All adaptations are different

While some adaptations are accurate and well-received, others miss the mark. Often times, too many things are changed: characters don’t fit their initial descriptions; events are altered or left out, and the visual images of objects and places don’t meet our expectations. When we look at adaptations, there are a number of things to keep in mind. The media in question being the most important.

When an adaptation of a novel is made into a movie, the budget is often higher, but the length of the movie is limiting. Events need to be altered in order to fit a suitable time frame. However, there is more freedom when it comes to finding actors who fit the role, as well as sets and scenery involved in making the world of the novel come to life. Unless of course, multiple movies are to be made. In which case, they are still pretty limiting, especially if there are multiple books involved.

On the other hand, when a television series is made, things change. The budget is smaller, but it leaves room for more events to take place. You can cover a larger portion of the events that take place in a novel, especially if the television adaptation is to have more than one season.

In the end, one form of media could turn out better than the other. However, in actuality, the success of an adaptation depends on the individual viewer. Everyone imagines things differently: one person might hate the way a character turned out in a visual adaptation, while another might praise this. The important thing is to make sure that the events that occur in the novel take place, while characters, objects, and scenes match their descriptions as much as possible.

Adaptations often fail when too many things are changed. They might be successful as a whole, but to fans that have read a novel, the adaptation might fall short. When it comes to adaptations, there are often mixed reviews. An adaptation might be considered successful to a large audience, but might fall short with dedicated fans. One such adaptation is The Magicians TV series.

This feature includes spoilers from this point on.

How does The Magicians hold up as an adaptation of Lev Grossman’s trilogy?

I have watched the first season of The Magicians twice now. It is one adaptation that I have a love-hate relationship with. When it comes to adaptations, I am typically the person who either loves it or hates it. There usually isn’t much of an in-between. Most people generally tend to be this way. Others hate adaptations in general, claiming “The book is always better.” Which isn’t exactly a lie. A book will always capture more than a movie or television show will. You can put more detail into it, while at the same time, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. It’s honestly a difficult subject to talk about.

Regardless, if you are a fan of The Magicians series, it’s likely that you didn’t care much for the television adaptation. A lot has been changed, so much so, that the two can almost stand alone: characters have been altered and omitted; the setting and backstory have been altered slightly, and some themes are no longer implied but have become the main selling point for the events of the television series. Instead of having three separate books with stories that eventually intertwine, you see two different sides of the story emerge in the first season of the show. It’s a little jarring. At first, it was strange; after watching the first season twice now, however, it was a smart choice.

Let’s talk about the characters, hmm?

One of the most notable differences between The Magicians trilogy and Syfy’s adaptation involves the main characters of the series. One of the characters, Josh, is missing entirely; albeit he does give a small appearance later, but is an entirely different character. And then there’s Janet, who appears under the name Margo in the adaptation for whatever reason. Moreover, a new character by the name of Kady is introduced, whom we come to find isn’t actually a new character but one of the members (Asmodeus) of Free Trader Beowulf, an organization mentioned later in the trilogy.

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At first, these changes were annoying. One character missing, one under a different name, and another that we don’t learn about until the last few episodes of the first season of the show? However, SyFy does something clever to make up for these changes: they mention them. And they fit in with the events of the book perfectly. An example of which comes towards the end of the season, where we see all of the (main) characters in the library. This library, in particular, is special; it holds books of everyone in existence that provide details about their life. A person could, if they wanted to, read the novel written about them and learn everything: life events, relationships, careers, the cause of death, etc.

One of my favorite moments of the adaptation involves the brief visit to the library. The librarian refers to Margo as “Janet” as if it were her actual name; it’s a wonderful nod to the original trilogy that shows the audience that changes have been made.

While there were certainly large changes to some of the characters, there were so many things that were done right. Eliot is absolutely perfect. His personality and relationship with Janet (Margo) are spot on. I loved his character! Eliot is troubled but maintains his characteristically quirky attitude and snobbish nature.

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Another character that was changed in appearance was the Beast, who plays a very prominent role in the series as a villain. In the novels, the Beast is described as mutated in appearance. The best way to describe him is distorted—disturbingly human, yet un-human. His face remains hidden, covered by a large, single leaf that hangs in front of him. In the show, his appearance is changed drastically. Whenever the beast appears, his face is surrounded by moths. His presence remains ominous and his manner is slightly off-putting, which can be seen through his strange manner of walking that includes a short slide after two steps. In altering the Beast’s appearance, the television adaptation manages to make him more sinister—and it’s amazing!

About the timelines…

The most drastic changes involve the story told within The Magicians. The timeline is skewed, and some events are taken out entirely; others are considerably changed.

To start, we are introduced to Fillory early. We actually see a door to Fillory in the first episode. Not to mention the fact that the Fillory storyline is altered drastically. Quentin goes from being an exceptionally average person to being the chosen one—and not in a good way, either. The conditions around which the Fillory story play out are very different from the novels. Quentin goes from being a normal, yet depressed young adult, to being an object of the Beast’s desire. Why? Who knows. Hopefully, the Quentin-Beast story line plays out early on in season two. I am extremely curious to see how this will fit into the parts of the story that remain to be told.

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In addition to changes with the Fillory arc of the novels, the overall timeline of The Magicians is revamped. We are introduced to Julia’s story a lot earlier. While we hear of Julia every now and then in The Magicians, we don’t get the details about her journey as a hedgewitch until the second novel, The Magician King. Although this change was unexpected, it makes sense, as Julia’s backstory takes place at the same time that Quentin is attending Brakebills, as is revealed in The Magician King.

It’s interesting to note that The Magicians television series covers the events of two of Grossman’s novels: The Magicians and The Magician King. However, the conclusion of the first season does not coincide with the ending of either novel. In fact, we are missing a lot of important events that occur not only within Fillory, but the real world as well. Despite all of the changes made in the adaptation, none bothered me as much as the final episode of the first season, which, in my opinion, was terrible. Without giving away the details, a rather large and significant event occurred that could drastically alter the events that occur in Fillory.

It will be especially interesting to see how events play out in the second season, which, based on the trailer, seems like it might be focused on Fillory. If that is the case, the adaptation might move farther away from novels in terms of being a true adaptation of the series.

Miscellaneous Perfection

Despite all of the changes, and there were a lot of them that went unmentioned in this feature there are so many things that this adaptation gets right. Fans of the novels will recognize and appreciate the events that take place at Brakebills South, along with those that occur at Alice’s house. Furthermore, Welters, the Physical Kids’ Cottage and the Neitherlands are perfect representations of places as they occur in The Magicians series.

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Finally, the tone of the series is great. The Magicians is very much a part of sorts on magic and fantasy culture that includes a lot of dark humor. It takes apart traditional fantasy tropes. All of the ideas are there—magic, quests, talking animals, a new world—but they aren’t as great as they seem. Furthermore, Grossman, and the adaptation, often make small references to fantasy in popular culture (Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, Doctor Who), not to mention the direct comparison between Fillory and Narnia.

While Syfy’s adaptation of The Magicians isn’t perfect, it’s a good adaptation. It shows that not everything has to be perfect and that things can be changed (to an extent) while maintaining the same feel that the original did. In the end, it’s important to actually think about what makes an adaptation successful. Instead of picking apart the things that are done wrong and hating an adaptation, appreciate it for what it is. Am I saying that all adaptations are good? No. I don’t expect everyone to like this adaptation, as it’s quite different from the original, but there are so many things that are great about it. As it stands, despite popular opinion, the first season of The Magicians was a great adaptation and really brings out some of the darker aspects of the book. At the same time, it incorporates fantastic elements of fantasy and maintains a similar tone that fans of the series have grown to love.

How do you feel about The Magicians?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Melissa Ratcliff
the authorMelissa Ratcliff
Senior Staff Writer
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.