by: Lev Grossman
Plume (Penguin Group) New York, NY 2009
The Magicians is currently playing on cable television. I binge watched the first season on the recommendation of several friends. I enjoyed it enough that I thought I should probably read the book. This is the first in the series, of books. The first book pretty much is the first season of the TV series, and even leaks a little into the second season.
It is rare that a visual media is successful at capturing the nature of a book. Even when both are excellent work within their genre, there are compromises that must be made. I was incredibly impressed with the choices the series producers made as they brought this book to the small screen.
One of the first things that often goes by the wayside is the physical description of the characters. You have to go with the actors you can get. In this case the casting was very close to perfect and all of the actors have gone above and beyond to incorporate the specific character quirks into their characterizations. Q. is mopey, Elliot is trying too hard but very successful at it, Alice is too smart, too good, and too shy.
One of the differences that really works is the shift in setting. In the book much or even most of the action takes place after Brakebills. In the series the action is centered around Brakebills. This works both because of the Harry Potter context most viewers are bringing to the table, but also because it facilitates the exposition of the magical system. It’s easy in writing to take the time to explain how and why things work. We’re not going to sit in for an entire episode that constitutes a class on basic magic. We get to watch the relationships being built so that we will accept that these “college chums” will band together.
The difficulty of moving the story to Brakebills is that some of the action must truly take place in New York City. This is where the series has expanded the scope and involvement of the Julia character. The girl who was Q’s friend growing up, who “should have been accepted” at Brakebills, and wasn’t, is the catalyst for the “real world” impact of the threat to Magic. I honestly found myself missing Julia as I read the book. She wasn’t necessary, but I really liked that character.
I’ve been told she does have more to play as the story goes on, and I suspect that’s also why the series producers made the decision to bring her in at the start. I may continue reading in the series (it’s easier than trying to keep up with a season on TV) but I suspect I will find myself binge watching again as the television seasons make their way to Netflix.
The story is simple. The fantasy world that Q was enamored of as a child is a real place in the multiverse. Magic exists, and people who are smart enough are tested, welcomed, and trained at magical colleges throughout the world. Then they are set free to make whatever “grown-up” lives they choose. Q finds Fillory, the world of his childhood fantasy, is the source of all magic in the multiverse. That magic is threatened and it is Q and his peers that must become the rulers of Fillory and conquer the foe before magic is gone for good.
The way the story plays out, however, is not simple. There is a lot of exploration of sexual abuse (in various forms) and the impact that can have. There is the theme of “what if everything is too easy?”, do we every grow up if we are never challenged. What ways must we be challenged in order to reach our true potential? There is Elliot’s storyline about growing up gay, or bi, in a small conservative town. There are real consequences to taking on the crowns of Fillory. There is some debate about what is a God and what constrains them. Big themes in a small story.
I found both the television series and the novel thought provoking, well told, and genuinely entertaining.