When it comes to adaptations of beloved books, fans often have a hard time separating the new iteration from its source material. Books, particularly a book like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, have the sort of imagery and internalized thoughts and conflicts that work best with a literary flourish. Trying to get these words to translate accurately to the screen — especially when CGI is involved — is tricky and sometimes impossible.
The Magicians came in with this inherent problem. The story, which has often been simplistically described as “Harry Potter for adults,” seemed like it would be perfect for a television series. It involves a heavy dose of sex and drugs to go along with its magic. It features a story within a story, providing endless opportunities for visual trickery and unforgettable settings. It explores relationships, fallen heroes, and some weird-as-hell narrative arcs that fly off in all sorts of directions but can be somewhat neatly contained in a series of episodes (though perhaps a little more easily with a season that expanded beyond 13 episodes). Yet, within Syfy’s adaptation, this didn’t really work quite as well as everyone hoped.
This isn’t to say that The Magicians had a bad first season — far from it. It was just a bumpy ride to Fillory, albeit one that got more interesting as it went along. It worked in the familiar shadow of the source material; some episodes played as if a Brakebills student had moved their hands just slightly to the right instead of the left when casting a spell, resulting in episodes that were just slightly off in a ways that are impossible to ignore. At its worst, The Magicians‘ first season was a confusing mess of pacing issues that struggled to pack too much into short episodes, making it frustrating for viewers. But at its best, the show strayed from the original narrative and became a strangely beautiful rumination on everything from addiction to mental illness — all through the lens of fantastical magic.
The best episodes of The Magicians are the ones that deviated most from Grossman’s novels. They didn’t radically alter the story, just tweaked the original formula, adding nice surprises — the Taylor Swift party in the mental hospital being one of the most fun highlights of the entire first season — and provided mysteries even for those who are obsessively familiar with the book trilogy. Aside from some smaller basic differences to make the series more acceptable for television (our heroes are aged up, with Brakebills taking the place of graduate school rather than undergrad), the biggest change is that Julia’s story now runs concurrent to everything adapted from the first book. Julia is arguably the best character in the trilogy, the sly hero (sorry whiny Quentin) who disappears for nearly the entire first book and then returns as a bonafide goth god who turns everything upside down. In the television show (which mostly follows a speeded-up version of first book), she’s bumped up to one of the main characters and we get to see her breakdown, her inner demons (and outer, tangible demons), her desperation to get back to Brakebills, her failed relationships and heartbreak, and everything in between.