‘Lucifer’ & ‘The Magicians’ make big changes from the books, but only one wisely

Let's talk some more about adaptations.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that AMC's “Preacher” will make some pretty big deviations from the beloved comic book on which it's based, but noted that the most faithful adaptation of a story isn't necessarily the best adaptation. If you can capture the spirit of the original, or take a few ideas from the original while doing something new but interesting, that's okay, too.

Tonight sees the official debut of a pair of literary adaptations: “Lucifer” on FOX, based on a long-running DC/Vertigo comic series where Satan has abdicated his throne in Hell to explore other interests(*); and “The Magicians” on Syfy, based on Lev Grossman's trio of novels about the students (and, later, alums) of a magical university in upstate New York.

(*) The idea, and this version of the character, was introduced in Neil Gaiman's “Sandman,” while Mike Carey wrote the “Lucifer” comic itself.

Both series (I've seen two episodes of each) take significant detours from the work, in large part because of the difference in mediums. Which, again, is fine. But the “Lucifer” detours render it an early contender for Worst Show of 2016, while it remains to be seen whether “The Magicians” has changed for the better or worse.

Much of “Lucifer” the comic book takes place on a scale so cosmic – at one point, he creates his own universe, in order to prove he can do better than God – and has interests so esoteric, that it would be impossible to make a faithful live-action TV show about it. So I've got no beef with the show taking the character in another direction. Unfortunately, that direction is the same one FOX takes all of its non-“Empire” dramas in: turning a colorful literary character into an unofficial cop. Worse, the execution is both so predictable and so over the top that it plays like a parody of what NPR's Linda Holmes has dubbed “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic” sub-genre: You think Detective Beckett's got it bad working with Castle? Imagine if she had to work the Devil! He's the original partner from Hell!

Everything is done with a smirk and frequent elbows to the ribs as Lucifer (Tom Ellis) decides he's not satisfied running a hot LA nightclub, and would rather tag along with humorless cop Chloe Dancer (Lauren German) because she seems the only woman on Earth who doesn't pant like a dog at the thought of having sex with him. It takes every cliché of this kind of show and quintuples it, all the while seeming as convinced of its own charms as Lucifer is.

It's not impossible to take a dense, supernatural comic book property and make a good police procedural out of it. That's essentially what the producers of the CW's “iZombie” have done; the writing and acting are sharp enough to make the transformation work. (And even there, the Murder of the Week stories are almost always the least interesting part.) Turning “Lucifer” into “The Mentalist” with slightly more CGI seems a waste of the character Gaiman and Carey made so vivid, but it still could have led to a decent show. This is just awful.  

As for “The Magicians” (whose first hour sneak previewed last month; Syfy is pairing it tonight with the second episode), it's based on a series of books that was fundamentally about other series of books, and about the reading experience in general. Its central character, Quentin Coldwater (played here by Jason Ralph) is obsessed with a group of Narnia-esque fantasy novels about a place called Fillory (which turns out to be something other than fictional), and winds up enrolled at Brakebills, a kind of mature readers version of Hogwarts where the students spend nearly as much time fooling around with each other as they do learning how to cast spells. (Grossman threw in a few explicit nods to his inspirations; in the second episode tonight, one of Quentin's friends jokes about using the “Avada Kedavra” killing curse from the Harry Potter books.)

The meta aspect of the books doesn't particularly lend itself to a TV version (though there are, of course, live-action versions of Harry Potter, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” et al), so creators Sera Gamble and John McNamara largely ignore that. Which is fine. But they also, at least in tonight's episodes, don't seem to have much use for the actual school for magicians aspect. Quentin winds up at Brakebills and makes a group of strange new friends, but the focus is much less on his education than on diving straight into the Fillory of it all, with lots of talk of monsters and conspiracies and mysterious artifacts that none of the students should be handling.

This makes sense to a degree. A television show doesn't necessarily have a novel's luxury to build slowly to the big action of the story, so I can see why the creative team wanted to just get down to business – to borrow an “X-Files” metaphor for a moment, to start right off with some mythology episodes rather than slowly building up to them with Spell of the Week stories. For the same reason, it's smart of them to be telling the story of Quentin's best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) – who gets rejected from Brakebills and travels down a dark path to learn magic on her own – in parallel with his, rather than saving it for later. (Though the two educations happen at the same time, Grossman told most of Julia's story in the second book.) 

But just like a school like Brakebills wouldn't send its students to an advanced class before teaching them the basics, “The Magicians” loses something for not fully setting up foundational elements like how magic works in this world, what it's like to be a student (or teacher) at Brakebills, or the many ways it is very different from Hogwarts. (There's an interlude in the first book involving what the students do while transformed into foxes that would give Professor McGonagall a heart attack if she contemplated Ron and Hermione doing something similar.)

Still, the creators have correctly latched onto much of what's interesting about the books, and they've done a good job casting most of the central characters. There's still room to get into classroom work (and Julia learns a few practical magic lessons in the second episode), and – like the “Preacher” pilot – watching these episodes gave me much of the same feeling I had when reading the book. It's different, but understands the basic point.

Again, a great adaptation doesn't have to reproduce the original beat-for-beat. If anything, shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” can suffer at times for hewing so closely to the source material, no matter its flaws or the difference between print and television. But the changes have to be compelling in their own right, rather than the factory-produced silliness of “Lucifer.” We'll have to wait and see if “The Magicians” is worthy of the books it's adapting, but at least it's trying.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com