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The Worlds and Times of ‘The Magicians’

If you’re not a big reader (and admittedly, many aren’t) you could be forgiven for not knowing SyFy’s The Magicians started off life as a bestselling book series. As with most such adaptations, some changes were bound to be in store. Author Lev Grossman writes in his blog about his initial skepticism, and then embracing of the show. In fact, he makes appearances on television and his presence seems to loom in some of the latter part of the first season (concluding tonight).

First, let’s get this out of the way: Imagine Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts as a graduate school in upstate New York, full of all the magical (and just plain adult) hijinks that your typical brilliant collegiate coeds would get up to: this is Brakebills. Throw in a healthy dash of the protagonist’s obsession with a Narnia-esque fantasy book series (which we realize almost immediately is written about a “real” place) and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It’s clear by scene two of the pilot episode (where we find the protagonist in a mental health facility) that the Magicians is covering ground that is both real and fantastic in a mature way.

"The Magicians" Brakebills

Already a fan of the books? You’re in for a fun ride. The series covers the events of the first novel The Magicians (and integrates the flashbacks of the second tome The Magician King) at a brisk pace. Some characters are remixed and re-imagined, and others are brand new (or are they?). In a master stroke, the events in the series wink at and then fully acknowledge that (like the rebooted Star Trek universe) they are an alternate timeline from the books separated by a single change.  Let’s dive into changes you can expect.

Note: information on the books versus series versions are linked differently.

Julia’s Journey

Julia (TV version), the protagonist Quentin‘s (TV version) childhood best friend (and object of infatuation) is a bit of a cypher and largely absent in the first book, only really getting fully fleshed-out in the second. Her odyssey of being a magician forced to pursue studies by renegade, back-alley methods is a set of plotlines brought forward from her recollections in the second book. From a story perspective, this makes a lot of sense for television (lest we be forced to introduce Lost-style cutaways next season) and we get to see more interaction between the “main” crew and Julia.

Adding Some Character

Kady and Penny

From Julia’s eyes we also see wickedly delicious characters touched briefly on in the novel, personified in the deadly vixen Marina. Also new is Kady, a Brakebills student packing some serious magical punch and a surprising connection to Julia’s story. These two women (along with specialist magician Eliza) are personalities that pay off in a big way when their book counterparts are revealed, suddenly bringing to light exactly how the on-screen and on-page worlds connect.

Later in the season, we are also treated to revelations hinted at about the author of the Fillory books, laid bare in a heartbreaking ghostly visitation. The Librarian of the Archives also puts a face on a concept we don’t see manifest until the third book. You might wonder (with all these additions) where Josh, friend of the intrepid heroes and a huge part of the crew in all three novels went; he’s in the most unlikely place you’d think (and I suspect will be a regular cast member in the second season).

In the biggest character departure from the novels, Quentin’s roommate Penny (TV version) — written as a gangly, affable, awkward punk — is now a grumpy, imposing, psychic traveller. The television version has been burdened with a constant barrage of voices which have hardened and sharpened him. It’s a refreshing alteration that delivers an intense interplay that was weaker in the first novel.

Worlds Apart

If you were looking forward to the plazas of the Neitherlands as described in the novel, they’ve undergone an aesthetic change. They no longer resemble a Welters board (perhaps that’s why the Quidditch-like sport was largely omitted from the first season), and the Venetian buildings housing untold books have been reshaped as rolling hills and underground bunkers. It is inside one of these bunkers that book readers get an unexpected jolt starting with the ominous statement about a character’s name “this time” as the bombshells later in the episode explode.

It’s About Time

Quentin Coldwater prepares for battle

The fast pace means that the first year (of three) of Quentin’s college life is condensed into two episodes. That means that he and Alice (TV version) join the Physical House quickly and a major turning point to establish the main villain well into the book becomes the cliffhanger of the pilot episode. If you think that this pace is rushed, a rewatch of the first scene of the pilot with information gathered late in the first season drives home what should have been obvious when dealing with the Watcherwoman of Fillory in the first place: the events of the series are an alternate timeline set in motion by a time-traveller trying to fix mistakes, and that time-travel is not as effective as it should be.

Destiny

All this leads into tonight’s season finale, “Have You Brought Me Little Cakes.” It’s sure to be a great thrill ride, and we’ll be excited to see more material from The Magician King (and most likely the third novel The Magician’s Land) in Season 2, due in 2017.

For more on “The Magicians,” the books and television series are chronicled at The Magicians Wikia.


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