Magicians SyFy Cover

SyFy’s ‘The Magicians’ Pilot Evokes Mixed Feelings

Entertainment Television

Magicians SyFy Cover

As someone who has read and reviewed all 3 books in Lev Grossman’s Magicians¬†trilogy for this site, I was psyched to learn that we were going to get a TV adaptation. When I thought about the books, it seemed ripe for adaptation into a visual medium. Watching the pilot episode tonight, however, I realize that I wasn’t prepared for the amount of adaptation that was done to the story.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying it was bad. It’s simply too soon for me to be able to make any real value judgements. There was so much that was changed, from the very first moments of the show, that I was momentarily wondering if this show would even follow Quentin Goldwater or if it merely existed in the same universe.

To start with, the differences. Quentin, our protagonist, is the biggest change. Not only is he significantly older, graduating from undergrad and accepted into Brakebill’s “graduate program,” but he’s also a notably different character than in the books. Both versions of Quentin have some issues with depression, with the show’s Quentin starting the episode in a mental hospital, but their reactions are very different. Book Quentin sometimes came off as whiney while television Quentin comes off as dismissive, disinterested, or just distant. In a way, this is an improvement. If we were given the Quentin from the books without the benefit of his internal dialogue, he would be a difficult protagonist to like.

Quentin aside, the pacing and plotting of the show leaves a reader of the book confused. Moments that aren’t supposed to be revealed until later in the book, or even in the second or third book, are revealed in this pilot. For example, Quentin knows for a fact that Julia took the test and, before the end of the pilot episode, Julia has overcome the mind-wipe, remembered Brakebills, and been courted by the underground schools of magic. While this undoubtedly leaves more plot-threads for the show to follow, ensuring the viewer doesn’t get bored, it does leave the readers confused. Especially because Julia was not intended to enter the picture until after the events in Fillory that are clearly the plot of this first season.

To hit on some positives, the acting is well done and the casting is actually pretty great in spots. Eliot, while not exactly how I’d mentally pictured him, looks pretty spot-on to the character in the book. Likewise, Alice and Quentin both are convincing in their roles. I was initially uncertain about Julia, but the actress, over the course of a single episode, has impressed me enough to lay my concerns aside. The only casting and character issues I have are Penny and Margo (who is apparently supposed to be Janet from the novel). Not only is it strange for these characters to be so close to one another and in a relationship, but Penny does not in any way reflect the character from the book, physically, characteristically, or in terms of his role in the plot. It feels as if the showrunners decided to simply rewrite him to suit their purposes.

Magicians SyFy Eliot
A bit of great casting. He works as Eliot

To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the show yet. If I was judging it based on the books, I would hate it, but there are enough differences to convince me to give the show a shot as a standalone product. The foundation is there, the plot lines appear to be similar, but the showrunners appear to be taking the same tactic as the writers for the most recent seasons of Game of Thrones–related but different. I’m willing to give the show a shot, but its got an uphill battle to win over the fans of the books.

Magicians SyFy Penny
This isn’t even close to how the book described Penny.

If you’ve read the books, or even if you haven’t, and you’ve watched the pilot, let me know what you think in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “SyFy’s ‘The Magicians’ Pilot Evokes Mixed Feelings

  1. I watched the pilot and immediately wanted to start reading the books. While I liked the pilot a lot, I felt there were a lot of things that seemed rushed to get into the story and thought the book might help clear them up. I will watch this series, so now I have an internal debate on whether to watch the first series and then read the books or read the books, then watch the series.

  2. As someone who has read all three books I was not excited about the show. This is a series I would label as not lending itself to a screen adaptation. I am not at all surprised by all the alterations that have been made. I’m even thankful for them as I’m sure I would have hated any attempt at a straight adaptation. the first hour seemed to be trying to do too much too soon, but it was solid enough that I’ll watch episode 2.

  3. That wasn’t Margot/Janet sleeping with Penny – it was a member of Quentin and Penny’s class, not mentioned by name in the pilot (I wondered if it was supposed to be Amanda Orloff.)

    I’m concerned about how fast everythig seems to be happening. I think it’s smart to tell Julia’s story from The Magician King alongside Quentin’s – after all, chronologically they’re happening at the same time – but both of their stories felt way sped up. The appearance of the beast happening in the first episode and Julia remembering Brakebills right away didn’t leave me feeling optimistic.

  4. Read the first book several years ago and then recently re-read it and then the other two. I too was excited to see how SyFy would handle the complex, somewhat meta aspects of the books and Quentin’s character. My first reaction after watching the pilot was rather… meh. After the beginning made it clear that the show was going to play fairly fast and loose with the plot and pacing, I tried pretty hard to push the books out of my brain and just try to judge the show on its own merits. I failed. I had the same problem with Game of Thrones and never made it past the first season for that reason. I don’t consider myself a pedant or “defender of truth” type when it comes to adaptations, and I didn’t get upset or annoyed, but clearly I struggle with being able to just relax and enjoy instead of running a mental fact-check. Oddly, despite the many changes that are likely more materially important, the differences in the character of Penny was the one I found most jarring and perhaps most disappointing from an unnecessary “hollywood-idization” standpoint.

    As a note to the author: as Jill mentioned above, Penny’s girlfriend/sex buddy is not the same person as the Janet character (that has been renamed Margot). As best I can tell she is a completely new addition. One source I read is that she will take the place of Josh – at least initially – to better balance the male/female quotient. Again – like changing Penny from an annoying, unlikable, punk-dork to a quirky, smoldering, “mindslut” hunk – I think the character has more to do with SyFy wanting to up the sex appeal and have more eye candy.

    I am hoping that the show slows the pace a little and dials back the forced titillation a bit in the coming episodes. I’ll give it a few more before I throw in the towel.

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