Imagine a world where your favorite childhood stories come to life: Narnia (or Hogwarts or Fantasia—any of them) in full color, moving and breathing and spinning around you. Now imagine that land to be much less adorable and much more deadly than you’d been led to believe. It’s still beautiful, but something dark lies beneath. That is the world of The Magicians, a trilogy of novels written by Lev Grossman and adapted for TV by SYFY.
While both the trilogy and TV series are similar in terms of setting, characters, and overall plot, there are important differences in the characterization, cast, and plot details that change the overall effect of each work. Grossman’s trilogy made a splash when the first novel, The Magicians, appeared in 2009. Readers enjoyed Grossman’s mixing of adult and childhood themes in a fantasy setting.
In 2015, SYFY’s The Magicians came to life featuring a remarkably attractive, much more diverse, cast. The show has since established itself as a sex-positive, queer, and often feminist exploration of all things magical.
Grossman’s novel The Magicians begins with bright young high school student Quentin Coldwater preparing to meet with a college interviewer. Instead, Quentin finds himself taking a magical entrance exam at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Quentin passes the test and is sent down a path of magic, mystery, and even murder. The most amazing thing happens to Quentin: He finds the real Fillory, the magical kingdom he’d spent his childhood reading about, and is crowned as one of its kings.
The second and third books in the trilogy, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, continue to follow Quentin in his life post-Brakebills, while also including chapters from other characters’ points of view. Most notably in The Magician King, about half of the chapters are from the perspective of Julia Wicker, Quentin’s childhood friend. When Quentin passed the magical entrance exam, Julia failed, and that one moment sent her down an entirely different path, one that results in Julia becoming a demi-god.
In the SYFY adaptation, much of the same comes to pass, but the characters are older, studying at Brakebills University to get magical graduate degrees in, well, magic. Furthermore, though Quentin is still clearly the protagonist, he no longer dominates the narrative. Other characters take center stage, and there are whole storylines that don’t involve Quentin in the slightest (and ones that aren’t just flashbacks, as with Julia in the novels).
The novels are best when the characters transmogrify into animals. First they turn into geese, then sexy foxes, and finally giant blue whales. While the geese and fox transmogrifications take place in the TV series as well, a limitation of the medium is that it’s hard to really get inside a character’s experience. Now make that character a libidinous animal with only a tiny human voice echoing somewhere in the back of their mind and you’ve got a scenario that really lends itself to the written word. In fact, I’d say that Grossman’s exploration of Quentin and Alice’s sexuality as foxes in The Magicians is among some of the sexiest, most enjoyable writing out there—a stark contrast to his human-focused sex writing, which is dry and frequently violent, whether in gaze or act.
Another advantage of the written word: The trilogy has a nice circularity to it that leaves the reader with closure at the end of the last page of the last novel.
To be clear, I hated the first novel. There are only so many times an author can describe female characters as having “heavy breasts” before I wonder if they understand what breasts are or if they have ever met, known, or loved a woman. I didn’t even want to read the sequels, but I pushed myself to do so and I’m glad I did. The Magician King is, in my mind, the best of the three novels, in part because it contains the backstory of Julia. Furthermore, The Magician King provides the first vision of a matured Quentin, one who understands the consequences of magic even as he’s seduced and lured by the call of adventure.
In pretty much every other way, the TV adaptation is superior. In the novels, Quentin treats his attraction to and sex with Eliot as an aberration, a mistake to be forgotten. In the series, Quentin seems to accept his sexuality, even making advances toward Eliot. In the novels, the only person of color is written out fairly quickly. In the series, two of the main characters are people of color and they’re awesome: Margo and Penny are forces to be reckoned with. In the novels, Eliot is a sad, scared gay kid who trades sexual favors for magic. In the series, Eliot is a hedonistic, still sad, queer man who accepts, and even eventually loves, himself. In the novels, Margo’s character is named Janet (WHAT!) and barely exists. In the series, High King Margo is everything.
The list could go on and on, but the main issue with the novels can be summarized by one fact: Grossman underplays his female characters. Julia, Janet, and Alice all play minor roles, rotating around Quentin. (Kady doesn’t even exist in the novels!) And when female characters do appear, they are always alone, the sole interesting female character for the time being. It’s as if Grossman couldn’t handle the complexity of creating robust female characters and friendships.
The issue only intensifies when you consider how male characters are treated. Where male characters become stronger through the challenges they face in the world around them, female characters do so because of sexual humiliation or their own death.
Looking at that trend, and how it weakens the overall impact of the trilogy, it's hard not to see the author as the issue. Grossman writes like a male feminist who will have any one woman's back but when they start to work together it's all “Hey, hey, don't gang up on me, feminazis.”
The most distilled example of this contrast is the treatment of Julia. In the novels, after she fails the Brakebills exam, Julia becomes obsessed with magic, something she shouldn’t even be able to remember, but our girl Julia is nothing if not determined. She’s willing to do anything to learn about magic and often trades sex for magic, thinking of herself as a “slut.” She eventually claws her way to the top of the alternative magic community, becoming a quite powerful witch. When she and her coven decide they want more power, they call down a god who turns out to be a nasty trickster. He murders everyone except Julia and the one friend she protects. The trickster saves a fate worse than death for Julia: He mercilessly rapes her. Julia becomes a darker and darker magician, losing her humanity from that point. Later, when demi-god Julia wants to pass through a portal to another world, she is stopped because of her hubris, told she cannot leave until she pays the price to Fillory, the price for calling down a god. Valiantly (barf), Quentin declares he’ll pay her price, not knowing it will cause him to be cast out of Fillory forever.
In the novels, Julia is the Eve to Quentin’s Adam. She dared to call down a god. She sinned. She was the downfall of Quentin. Literally. He fell from the heavenly Fillory and landed painfully back on Earth.
In SYFY’s adaptation, Julia doesn’t actually fail the Brakebills exam. She thinks that she does, but in reality the forces that be failed her to try to stop the Big Bad from rising. Julia goes down the same desperate path toward becoming a hedge witch, but without any of the misogynistic slut-shaming BS of the novels. Though Julia is still raped by the trickster god in a deeply problematic scene, how that moment is treated is completely different. Quentin doesn’t save Julia from her pain. Julia saves Julia, with the help of her friend Kady. See? Female friendships.
In the TV series, Julia is not Eve, but Lilith. She’s not the tired misogynistic trope of an evil demon Lilith, she’s the feminist powerhouse Lilith, the Lilith who will not comply, the Lilith who will survive. Julia is a goddess born anew, and she doesn't regret going dark.
The Magicians is a powerful tale no matter the medium. Childhood assumptions are destroyed. Innocence is lost. But what is gained is what Lilith always had: an understanding that life is not fair, things rarely go as you plan, and the wheel always turns. In an unpredictable world where keys open invisible doors and gods can die, you can only control one thing: how much fun you have as the ship sinks.