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.
Julia’s story has often eclipsed the story of those at Brakebills. Her journey into underground magic has become more compelling than Quentin, Alice, & co. learning spells in school (sort of; like all television shows about school, they are rarely seen in a classroom). And her rape, understandably one of the most controversial aspects of The Magicians’ book series, is brutal and heartbreaking, setting up her character for the second season. (Only time will tell if this will be more than just a terrible, trope-y plot device, but let’s be optimistic.)
Even outside of Julia, the aspects of the series that deviate from the books shine through. When we first meet Quentin, he isn’t shadowing behind his crush and her boyfriend but rather he’s being discharged from a mental hospital — he has diagnosed depression — a place he ends up returning thanks to a spell from a vengeful Julia. The first season lightly follows Quentin’s mental illness; at one point he says, “My brain breaks sometimes,” making some of his actions more understandable than they are in the book. (And helping break the incessant whininess of the character in the novels, though he’s still plenty annoying on screen as well.) The same goes for Eliot’s descent into self-medicating; his alcoholism is hinted at on the page but it overtakes his life and self-sabotages him on the screen.
The Magicians series isn’t better than the books or vice versa. They’ve become almost separate entities, putting the same characters and basic narrative on the same course but having one go left when the other goes right, giving one a speed bump and the other a boost. Indeed, it’s when the television The Magicians goes off the rails and becomes experimental that we see the potential it has — the mental hospital episode! An actual haunted house episode! — and as long as it sticks to staying weird and messy in the second season, it’ll likely continue to get better.