Adapting for TV: The Magicians


I finally finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

I started watched The Magicians SyFy TV adaptation mid-February, and quickly realized that I needed to be reading the source material.  Stalking “The Magicians” tag on Tumblr led me to believe that there was more to the story, and to the central theme of the series - the crippling depression that haunts the series main character, Quentin Coldwater, even as he steps foot into a world of fantasy and magic, and his quest to escape his own miserable existence.  I hurriedly bought the first installation off Amazon (you can find it here) and started reading it alongside the first season premiere.

If you haven’t read the books, or if you’ve read the books, but haven’t watched the series, let me just tell you: the TV adaptation and Lev Grossman’s novel are two entirely different beasts.

Initially, I was just straight up confused.  It was bizarre to me that characters which were in the books weren’t in the TV series, and vice versa, or that some had been included but completely reimagined.

But there were some changes that creators Sera Gamble (of The CW’s Supernatural series) and John McNamara (nominated for his screenplay for Trumbo) made which made complete sense to me, and honestly were a bit of an improvement on the source material.

The Magicians trilogy boasts a wide range of secondary characters, but the story is told entirely in Quentin’s perspective.  Using the common television structure of multiple POVs aided the pacing of Lev Grossman’s story incredibly.  In the original material, the character Julia Wicker is barely even a fixture.  She’s seen once in the beginning of the book, and again (quite abruptly) at the very end.  SyFy opted to make Julia the second main character for the TV series, and it was a smart move on their part.  While TV Quentin continues to be my favorite, lovable, insufferable idiot, having an objective view on him from the other characters’ POV makes him a lot more lovable and a little less insufferable than when you’re riding through the story shotgun on his shoulder.

Quentin, has a character, is supposed to be problematic.  He’s depressive, selfish, and absolutely brimming with angst, but in the show, all these qualities are put in context; we know when Quentin is making an ass of himself.  We know when what Quentin is doing is wrong.  That line becomes a little more blurred when, as a reader and the only present conscientious objector, you’re subjected only to Quentin’s innermost thoughts.

The choice, too, to extend the influence of the novel’s ultimate villain, The Beast, was honestly the only way to make the conflict of Lev Grossman’s trilogy truly cinematic.  You just can’t have your antagonist featured in TV the way Grossman does in the first book; once again, popping up only once in the beginning, and then again at the end.  You can’t sustain TV drama on the more refined types of internal conflicts that Grossman delves into; depression, disillusionment, and self-sabotage.  Not without oodles of needless voice-over.

And herein lies the problem of adapting literature for television: what makes a good adaptation?

As a screenwriter and a novelist, I feel I’m in an unique position here.  I’m frequently surrounded by fellow book lovers who adamantly argue that the movie is never as good as the books. I’m left here, muttering under my breath, “What did you expect?”  When one page of a screenplay equals roughly one minute of runtime, and the task at hand is to adapt a 400 page novel into a 120 minute feature or anywhere between 10 to 22 episodes, something has to get cut.  All of the delicacies, the small pillow moments, and charming character interactions that you grew to love so dearly in the book simply aren’t translatable.

So when you’re a screenwriter, with someone’s beloved novel on the chopping block, how do you decide what and what not to cut? And how do you make it look, even as you're sinking your knife into this living, breathing document, that the work you’re doing isn’t simply a butchering?

I think the answer is simple.  A good TV or feature film adaptation does more than simply adapt a book for screen.  It brings something entirely new to the material.

The fact is, when we “kill our darlings”, and force ourselves as writers to be more concise, blunt, and surgical, we often find new truths about our stories we wouldn’t have if we’d allowed it to grow freely and without restraint.  I think The Magicians is a perfect example of this.  You can enjoy the books for what they are; very bookish.  They’re poetic, they’re very intellectual, and they delve into the matter of being an adult and being depressed in a very dark, but mental way.  But you can love the television series for a completely different reason, because the challenge of making this theme cinematic has in fact expanded on it in a way the book couldn’t have; making Quentin’s innermost demons tangible metaphors, rooted in fast-paced plot that gives his arc more structure.  While being nowhere’s near as subtle as Grossman’s novel is with these themes, the TV show reveals facets to Quentin’s arc that I think make him a far more accessible character.

Not only this, but as far as I can tell, the SyFy series, by deciding to move around the plot in order to make it more engaging and cinematic, has also tied plot lines from later books - or possibly even from extra material Lev Grossman simply never revealed in his series - that delves much more quickly into the mind boggling subplot that appears to run beneath the surface of the books and the series.

Adapting books into TV is by far the best way to adapt book material at all.  But even with as much room to adapt as television series leaves us, the key to adaptation is to focus on a story’s core; its heart.  Once you have that, it doesn’t truly matter what scenes you cut, or characters you alter.  If you can keep the heart, and bring something new out of it, something still even more true than had been before glimpsed as a whole, you’ll have succeeded.

Haven’t watched The Magicians? You can find the first four episodes here to stream for free.  What are your favorite TV or movie adaptations? Let me know in the comments below!



Shai Cotten