Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Magicians Season 1 Wrap Up: Ranking the Changes from Page to Screen

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Is there a name for book-reader fans of SyFy’s adaptation of The Magicians? If not I’d like to propose Bookbills to describe our particular cohort of book snobs. This is a round-up of the biggest changes from the book to the TV show, ranked from the worst to the best. Trigger warning for reference to rape.

Spoilers spoilers spoilers!

Magical Jizz

I can’t. I just can’t. This was a terrible idea and I don’t know who sanctioned it. Alice drinks Ember’s god-juice to become a “master magician” and maybe Julia also is a master magician after being raped. This is so awful please stop.

Verdict: Return to Sender

Alice’s Fate

Magicians S1E3 Alice Battles CharlieTo begin with, the translation of Alice’s character from the page to the screen seemed to leave most of her personality behind. However, one of the details they did include, Alice’s brother’s transformation into a niffin, apparently goes nowhere.

Since the pilot, The Magicians has been foreshadowing Alice’s eventual fate as a niffin. From the conflict around Charlie in the earliest episodes, to the focus on controlling your emotions in later episodes, all of the threads are there. And they serve absolutely no purpose if Alice doesn’t become a niffin.

I want to be really clear here: the problem is not that the show did not kill Alice. The problem is that they spent so much time laying the groundwork for her “death” that ultimately had no payoff. It was a waste of time if they weren’t going to have Alice become a niffin.

Seriously, why spend an entire episode on the difficulty of battle magic and the spell that bottles your emotion if you aren’t going to have that blow up? Not to mention the history with Alice’s brother and the multiple references to niffins. What was the point?

Verdict: Niffin to See Here

Eliot’s Love Life

You wouldn’t think the show could do worse than the books in this regard, since Eliot basically doesn’t have a love life in the books. But you’d be wrong!

Mike is an original character whose purpose is to personalize the threat of the Beast. His first appears in Episode 7, immediately hitting it off with Eliot. The two of them start nesting fairly quickly, which would be sweet…if Mike wasn’t being possessed by the Beast, eventually killing Jane and forcing Eliot to kill him.

Mike himself isn’t really the problem. In my original review, I was wary that they gave this plotline to Eliot to begin with, because usually the lack of romantic interests for queer characters is one of the signs that a show isn’t treating their love lives with the same care they give to straight characters. And you know what, it somehow got way worse, because Eliot’s friends ignore the impact of this for the rest of the season. The self-destructive behavior Eliot exhibits is very in-character for Book!Eliot, but it’s nonetheless disturbing, and for the most part, his friends don’t try to comfort him!

The resolution to this arc? Eliot realizes he’s been self-medicating to avoid how unhappy he is, and decides to embrace Fillory and become its High King. Which again would be super sweet and moving if he hadn’t gotten to that point AS A RESULT OF BEING FORCED TO MARRY A WOMAN.

Verdict: 99 Problems and Accurately Portraying PTSD is At Least 2 of Them

Julia’s magical education

There are so many changes to this storyline, I hardly know where to start. The show kept the basic outline of Julia’s story while somehow managing to completely gut it of any meaning.

Marina reveals she's been testing Julia.
Marina reveals she’s been testing Julia.

Just like in the books, Julia spends time on the safe house circuit, and with the more elite group of magicians she knows from Free Trade Beowolf. However, the arc of her character is completely different.

Instead of struggling with magic on her own, Julia immediately meets Pete who introduces her to Marina’s safe house, which is hyperorganized and potentially deadly. Instead of power-leveling her way up the chain, the show focuses on Julia’s rivalry with Marina. And when Marina kicks her out, Julia gives up on magic and goes to rehab….

…where she again, conveniently, is introduced to someone who will teach her magic. Richard introduces Julia to the show’s version of the Free Traders. Far from being an elite group of magicians living the high life in France, these “New Traders” are pathetically underdeveloped as characters. Even the villain asks Julia why she is so invested in their mission. The show keeps the personal motivations the Murs magicians have for seeking out the gods, but they eschew the intellectual ones: the magical singularity, magic without diminishing returns.

And that seems like kind of an important point for the show to skip, since the whole point of Julia’s arc on the show is for her to learn something to defeat the Beast. But when that doesn’t prove to be true…what was the point exactly?

The failure to show Julia finding these magic havens on her own was a missed opportunity to show us how smart Julia is, but you know, even I can acknowledge that it’s a better use of our limited time to have these people find Julia instead. But the unending misery of Julia’s story took the wind out of the sails when she was finally supposed to be happy. Note I say “supposed to be” because it’s honestly not clear that Julia is happy with the New Traders.

A lot of these problems go back to pacing. Julia didn’t spend enough time with any one group for us to become invested in them, so it didn’t mean much to us when Julia was forced to move on. The sheer number of setbacks, of tragedies, also damaged Julia’s story because it simply became hard to care.

Verdict: Fewer Lucky Charms than the Box of Cereal You Learned From

The Fox

Unfortunately, book readers, the show does go through with Julia’s rape.

What’s more, it comes out of abso-fucking-nowhere.

Before he appears on our screen, there’s no mention of Reynard, the Fox, tricksters, or anything else that could be construed as a hint. The closest we get is the henchman giving in to Julia’s demand for a summoning spell far too easily.

Reynard’s appearance was supposed to be shocking, which it was! But it was also confusing for people who haven’t read the books. Dropping a mention or two of Reynard beforehand — say with the vampire, or the lamia — would have helped.

Verdict: The Fox Says Nothing Because Foreshadowing is for Chumps I Guess

The Neitherlands

The Neitherlands undergo a facelift on the TV show. Instead of being filled with Italian architecture, staffed by a mystical Order of librarians in robes with glowing hands, the Neitherlands on the show are far more mundane. The library we see is no different than the one I grew up with, Dewey Decimal System and all.

The cosmetic changes certainly set a different tone, but what really makes the difference are the so-called “natives,” including the Librarian we meet, and a woman named Eve, who is apparently working for the Beast to keep people out of Fillory.

At first, I thought it was so clever to have a character named Eve from the Neitherlands. But honestly the only contribution of her character was to introduce unnecessary conflict to the Neitherlands. In particular, the plot where Penny gets trapped, hiding from Eve, and has to be lead to the Earth fountain by Quentin and Alice banging? That is one of the most ridiculous premises ever, and at the end of the day, did not add much to the overall story.

The Librarian herself is different. Much like the Neitherlands themselves, her endearing fondness for the rules of the library were familiar enough for the audience to feel comfortable, while the supernatural context made the entire experience jarring, as it should be. The Librarian’s interactions with Penny were also meant to lay the groundwork for his future there, which worked great.

Would it really not have worked if she’d worn a robe? I mean this is a magical library in the middle of an artificially constructed universe. It should look slightly more more special is all I’m saying.

Verdict: Not Pretentious Enough for Penny


We spent most of this season thinking that Josh was one of the characters cut from the show, only to have Josh show up unexpectedly in the Neitherlands! I adore Josh in the books: he’s something of a contrast to Quentin, who is just as insecure, but less honest with himself about his weaknesses. But over the course of the series, Josh grows more comfortable in his own skin, and Quentin comes to admire him. Josh is the person who is constantly undervalued by the people around him only to come through in the end. Dependable, that’s Josh.

There was no chance of packing all that characterization in to his brief appearance, so maybe they shouldn’t have tried.

Verdict: Still Deserves a Pa-LOTS-O

Janet Changes Her Name to Margo

Margo isn’t so fundamentally different from Janet, at least in behavior. They are both outspoken, tough women, who yes, do sleep with several men. And yet they are perceived very differently by the people around them, and they also serve very different purposes in the narrative.

A glimpse of Queen Margo
A glimpse of Queen Margo

Janet is described as “the most annoying a person could be and still be friends with” which is a pretty harsh thing to say about a friend. From what we’ve seen, Janet can certainly be abrasive in ways we haven’t yet seen from Margo.

Janet is tough because she has to be, she made herself tough. As Eliot points out in Magician’s Land, Janet worries that other people judge her as harshly as she judges them, as harshly as she judges herself. And honestly she might have good reason for thinking like that, since her so-called friends say some not very nice things about her, including calling her a slut. At least one of the things that drives Janet to sleep with so many people is the fact that she’s in love with Eliot, knowing he’ll never feel that way about her, and it’s a constant source of pain to her.

What pains Margo? We didn’t see nearly enough of her in Season 1, but I think it’s fair to say that her motivations are different than Janet’s. Margo doesn’t hate herself the way the way Janet does. She makes plenty of catty comments, but she doesn’t show genuine dislike for anyone until Mike comes along. And while his friendship is important to her, Margo isn’t in love with Eliot.

How does this affect the story? It makes it more fun. (Quentin’s slut shaming would be much harder to watch than to read.) Margo mainly acts as a comedic foil to Eliot, which is wonderful enough. They have the kind of friendship that is fodder for Instagram and the like, and yet they don’t hesitate to get real with each other. It doesn’t change the story, but it makes it far more pleasant of a ride, and I still have no trouble believing that Queen Margo the Destroyer is in our future.

Verdict: A Rose by Any Other Name Would Still Absolutely Annex the Desert

Brakebills Becomes a Graduate School

The change to make Brakebills a graduate school rather than a college is inexplicable within the text. Uh, did this change the story in any way? No.

That in itself is why this change lands smack dab in the middle of this list. This change is the neutralist of the neutrals. Why did they even do it? I suspect it’s because they didn’t think the main cast could pass for 18 year old college freshman, which is true, but at this point we’re so used to it I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.

Verdict: Barely Noticeable

Brakebills South

The time we spend at Brakebills South hits most of the checkboxes for the events of the books: they travel there by turning into geese, taught by Professor Mayakovsky using Draconian teaching methods, Alice and Quentin are turned into foxes and make love for the first time.

Except….none of this is nearly as disturbing as it should be. To begin with, the students only turn into geese after getting naked and sharing secrets with each other, which I still can’t help but see as a totally random effect. And once they get to Brakebills, the tedium and the numbness is completely different. The spell of silence is played for laughs as Quentin uses nails to spell out the word “DICK” for Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky himself spends most of the episode telling Quentin and Alice to hook up, which I guess means he turned them into foxes in order to make that happen. And then the show completely cuts the hellish journey to the South Pole!

And it’s that last one whose loss is especially revealing, because that journey teaches Quentin to do magic without thinking about it, which is what the time in Brakebills South is supposed to be about. But you wouldn’t guess that from the show, where the only lasting impact is that Quentin and Alice are now dating.

Verdict: D&D Would be Proud

Externalizing Quentin’s Depression

The Magicians began wading into conversations about depression in the pilot, and from the get-go, it’s been a mixed bag. I think it was smart for the show to open the season with Quentin in a mental hospital: it was a great way to show he felt disconnected and was longing for something different. However, I cringed when later that same episode, Dean Fogg told Quentin he wouldn’t need to take his medication anymore. The idea that you don’t need medication if things around you are “happy” is a damaging because it plays into the mistaken belief that people can’t be depressed if they have good things in their lives.

Quentin himself speaks pretty openly with his friends about his experience with depression, which is one of the positive things the show does. The show is clearly trying to handle the subject with care: many of the comments made have the feel of being written by someone with personal experience with the subject, or at least someone who has done their research. And while I quibble about some of the implications of what was said, on the whole the show does a good job of finding creative, eloquent ways to express some of Quentin’s darkest thoughts, and I can’t argue with the effectiveness of it as a narrative device.

Verdict: Possibly Worth It Just for TSwift


Eliot is the character who, on the surface, is the most similar to his book counterpart. Show!Eliot is equally pretentious and self-possessed, and his issues with substance abuse are perfectly in character. While the show changed his physical appearance to make him more conventionally attractive, removing his twisted jaw, for the most part, this is the character we know.

And yet. This Eliot doesn’t seem to be carrying quite as much self-hatred as Book!Eliot. And…that might be a good thing? It’s never stated outright, but it’s implied in the books that Eliot struggles with some internalized homophobia. As far as I’m concerned, the decision to instead focus on Eliot’s rural, very un-cosmopolitan past had the same effect without all the gross subtext.

Of course, we also have to acknowledge the number of absolutely hilarious one liners Eliot gets.

Verdict: Funny On Tap

The Beast

The character of the Beast is unchanged from the books, although they do swap out the tree branch covering his face for a flock of moths, which is orders of magnitude up there on the creepy scale.

The show does two things that have an awesome impact on the Beast’s story:

  1. They introduce his backstory earlier. Unlike the books, where we’re lead to believe that Fillory wholly corrupted Martin and turned him into the Beast, the show reveals his abuse at Plover’s hands much earlier, in a deliciously terrifying haunted house. In addition to increasing our sympathy when his identity is revealed, it’s a clever misdirect to Plover.
  2. They make his threat imminent. As weird as that probability spell was, it convinces the Brakebills that the Beast is coming for them. But even without the spell, they had plenty of reason to think that. In addition to attacking their classroom, which he does in the books, the Beast also sends Mike after them, injuring Penny and killing Jane. He’s also psychologically torturing Penny and all the other Travelers, trying to get them to kill themselves. And did I mention the haunted house? To quote Quentin, that whole place was haunted as balls.

The threat of the Beast lingers over every episode. Very, very effective villain.

Verdict: Threat Level Jaws

Concurrent Julia

Despite the problems I’ve outlined with Julia’s story this season, it was still absolutely the right call to show Julia’s journey at the same time as Quentin’s, rather than waiting until the next season, as the books do. Showing their two stories in parallel allowed them to compare and contrast the two experiences in quite poignant ways. In almost every episode, we see how the two of them have to struggle in different ways with the same aspect of magic.

For example, as early as Episode 2, we see Julia undergoing a test to enter Marina’s safe house, while Quentin dreads his own ordeal with the school’s specialist. In Episode 5 they both have to catch up with the family they’ve neglected. Julia flounders while Quentin gets to participate in an organized welters combination. Episode 6 sees them both strive to gain the approval of their mentors. The list goes on and on until the two characters join forces in Episode 12.

It would never have worked for them to tell this story later, and I’m glad they didn’t try.

Verdict: They Gave it the Old College Try but No One Goes to Class in Hollywood


The Penny of the TV show is just flat out a completely different character than the Penny of the books. This Penny is tough, sexy, guarded…and tortured. I can’t even begin to compare him to Book!Penny because the list would pretty much go “the opposite of that” a lot. So let’s instead talk about the impact the changes had to the plot.

First of all, since Show!Penny is so much more rude, it actually makes sense that he and Quentin butt heads so often. (In the books, Penny annoys Quentin precisely because he’s so similar.) The fact that Penny is psychic on the show, able to read Quentin’s mind, leads to some especially funny exchanges between the two of them, and one very memorable dance scene.

But it turns out Penny is all bark and not much bite, because the show gives him multiple opportunities to comfort his friends. In addition to helping Quentin get out of his hallucination, Penny tries to help Kady free herself from Marina’s blackmail, and comfort Alice after her breakup with Quentin. Penny doesn’t hesitate to put himself between Quentin and a knife attack, getting stabbed in the process, and he insists that they if they travel to Fillory, they must save Victoria from the Beast.

And it all works! Despite the fact that Penny is a totally different person, they didn’t need to make many changes to the plot. And that shocks me, because Penny is so awesome, I spent a lot of the last couple episodes wondering why he wasn’t the hero.

Verdict: Santana_fanning_herself (1)


So, full disclosure: I spent the first third of Magician’s Land thinking that Plum would turn out to be Asmo. I still maintain that would have been awesome. So I was totally pumped that the show used this idea to have a crossover between Brakebills and Julia’s group of magicians!

We spend the first half of Season 1 thinking that Kady is an original character. And she would be an awesome addition even if that was all! Kady and Penny make a surprisingly good couple, as she seems to be the only person who can deal with Penny when he’s in a bad mood. But Kady also has a secret: she is forced to steal things from Brakebills by Marina, who is blackmailing her for something her mother did. When her mother dies, apparently freeing her from Marina, Mayakovsky convinces her to leave Penny behind for his own good.

This alone would be enough reason to add Kady to the cast, since she adds so much fun to Penny’s scenes. By making Kady Marina’s pawn, the show created a connection between Brakebills and the safehouse, which helped to tie Julia’s story back to the rest of the cast.

But that’s not the last time we see Kady. Kady comes back a few episodes later with a new name, but it’s one that is familiar to book readers: Asmodeous.

There’s really no conflict in making Kady Asmo — or making Asmo Kady, rather, since in the books we don’t even know Asmo’s real name. For all we know it is Kady. The Asmo we know in the books is smart as hell, hard-working, and ultimately, loyal to her friends.

Kady’s character turned out to be incredibly important to Julia on the show, too, as she adds some much needed emotional heft. Julia’s supporting cast of characters are practically paper cut outs, but the audience is invested in Kady. She gives us another reason to care about what the New Traders are trying to do.

Verdict: Can’t Imagine Brakebills Without Her

Quentin’s Discipline

This is a small moment, but I’m calling it out because it’s indicative of the show’s treatment of the books at it’s best.

In Episode 5, Quentin’s father has revealed that he has brain cancer. Now that he’s facing the end of his life, he’s realized he shouldn’t have steered his son away from the things he was interested in, and he wants Quentin to go after what he loves. He just doesn’t know what that is. As a part of this story, he shows Quentin a model airplane that was a gift from his own father, that Quentin broke when he was a child. Using magic, Quentin repairs the airplane.

As if it wasn’t touching enough on it’s surface, this scene is roughly 1000% more heartbreaking for bookreaders, who know that Quentin is using his so-far unknown Discipline of Fixing Small Objects to connect with his father. He’ll never get this chance in the books, since his father dies without ever knowing he’s a magician.


King Kwentin, Repair of Small Objects
King Kwentin, Repair of Small Objects


Quentin is so much more likable on the show, it was impossible for me to end this list with anything else. His character really does ground the show: everyone else is only important in how they relate to him.

This is a pretty big change from the Quentin of the books who is objectively an unpleasant human being. This isn’t to say that Show!Quentin doesn’t have his moments of awfulness, but as a general rule, the show turns them into teachable moments to show the audience why Quentin is wrong.

Compare, if you will: Book!Quentin spends his time at Brakebills passively waiting for the universe to serve him happiness. He avoids his family, his old friends, and retreats into the Fillory books, reading them so many times they lose their wonder for him. Even when Book!Penny shows up to take them to Fillory, Quentin actively resents him because he’s the one with the power to travel to the Neitherlands instead of Quentin.

Show!Quentin, on the other hand, is far more engaged with Brakebills, and is forced to take action in just the second episode to avoid expulsion, which makes him realize he’s pretty lucky. This Quentin actually seems to care about the people around him, as we see when he keeps in touch with Julia, goes to see his father, and uses his knowledge of Fillory to help Penny. When they finally travel to Fillory, Quentin’s disappointment that he’s not the hero is played for laughs instead of entitlement. This Quentin is actually funny!

Part of this transformation is the medium: not having to spend our time in Quentin’s head certainly alleviated his worst traits! Jason Ralph also brings a lot to the role, a certain sweetness and sheepish charm that pulls the best and the worst of the character together.

Quentin is absolutely the same nerdy, vain, Fillory Fanboy we meet in the books. But by injecting a little self-awareness, the show turns him into an every-man we actually want to spend time with.


All images courtesy of SyFy. 

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