Syfy’s ‘The Magicians’ Faithfully Translates a Beloved Book Series to TV

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy is, in essence, a fantasy about the power of fantasy. Sure, there are wizard schools and parallel universes and quests to save the world — but there are also smart, cynical heroes perfectly aware of how clichéd these things are, and who respond to them in ways that are equal parts thrillingly and depressingly human. In other words, it’s perfectly suited to a television audience hooked on the postmodern genre fare of Game of Thrones, which indulges in some of high fantasy’s greatest thrills even as it undercuts others. It’s also a tricky thing to adapt while keeping its ethos intact.

Yet Syfy’s attempt, the first since the series’ final installment was released in the summer of 2014, is off to a promising start. Authorized by Grossman himself, who has a writing credit on one of the first season’s 13 episodes, and shepherded into being by TV natives like Sera Gamble (formerly a writer/producer for Aquarius and Supernatural) and John McNamara (also of Aquarius, and recent biopic/Bryan Cranston vehicle Trumbo), The Magicians may have neither the special effects nor the star power of higher-profile adaptations, yet it maintains its source material’s essential core: its themes of fantasy as escapism, and the inability of fantasies come true to provide true escape.

As Grossman has written, fidelity to the books doesn’t mean there aren’t significant changes; sometimes, it even requires them. Some of these tweaks prove less significant than others, as when Brakebills University, an institution of higher magical learning whose students are quick to recognize its resemblance to Hogwarts, is introduced as a graduate school rather than a college — a development that seems to have more to do with the actors looking their characters’ age than radically altering the plot.

More fundamental to the show’s makeup is its creators’ decision to tell the stories of two budding magicians in tandem rather than focusing on one. In the books, The Magicians begins as the story of Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a hyper-intelligent New Yorker obsessed with magic tricks (the coins-and-cards kind, not the genuine article) and a Narnia-like series of children’s books called Fillory and Further. Alienated from his friend James (Michael Cassidy) and childhood crush Julia (Stella Maeve), Quentin seizes on the first opportunity to leave them behind, as much for the psychological comfort of knowing he’s special and therefore, in some way, superior as the opportunity to become a practicing magician.

At Brakebills, Quentin finds a conscious amalgam of British boarding-school clichés, bundled together and tossed across the pond to a gorgeous, liberal arts-y campus in upstate New York. There’s a ridiculously difficult entrance exam with questions that constantly change on the page; a powerful, enigmatic dean (Rick Worthy) who clearly knows more than he’s letting on; and classmates as competitive in their debauchery as in their studies, from louche, jaded Eliot (Hale Appleman) to abrasive mind-reader Penny (Arjun Gupta). And for Quentin, the fact that magic is real opens up the possibility that Fillory, too, is his to discover.

While Quentin’s world is opening up, however, Julia’s is collapsing in on itself. She, too, took that impossible test — except she failed, sending her on an equal and opposite trajectory of obsession. In the books (the last time that tiresome, but in this case important, phrase will appear in this review), Julia’s experience with overcoming Brakebills’ memory wipe and diving headfirst into the underground world of illicit, self-taught magic isn’t revealed until the second installment. Grossman makes good use of the novel’s subjectivity, immersing the reader in Quentin’s self-absorption only to undermine it later on by filtering in the perspectives of others, primarily the women in his life: first Julia, and later his bookish, brilliant girlfriend Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley).

But television, like most visual art, excels at presenting a wider point of view. Fleshing out Julia earlier on doesn’t just make sense from a storytelling perspective, though it’s true that relegating her to the margins only to double back via flashback later on would read as clumsy on the screen. It’s also an effective means of communicating the immaturity at the heart of Quentin’s character, and how that immaturity manifests in fixations on Brakebills and Fillory alike that leave him — and, to be fair, many of his fellow narcissistic, 20-something magicians — blind to others’ suffering.

As with any similar effort, a few things are inevitably lost in translation; I found myself missing the long passages in the novels that emphasize the difficulty and monotony of magic, which proves to be more about mastering calculus, obscure Slavic dialects, and achingly precise hand movements than pointing one’s finger and reciting a spell. Nor could I honestly recommend watching The Magicians without reading the books first. The series could stand on its own, or else it wouldn’t be much of a series, but why should it have to? The Magicians’ greatest thrill parallels Quentin’s: witnessing a beloved story exit the page and come alive.

The Magicians premieres on Sunday, January 24 at 9 pm on Syfy. You can stream the pilot online here.