Read or Watch? The Magicians

In which I tackle the age-old question: which was better, the book or the movie?

Growing up, I always felt like this was a litmus test: if you had read the book before the movie and if you thought the movie didn’t live up to the book–or even better yet, couldn’t possibly have lived up to the book, then you had “nerd” credit. And if you didn’t, well, football team tryouts were next week. Good luck.

Obviously, I never tried out for football.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’m afraid I’d no longer pass that nerdy purity test with flying colors: sometimes the on-screen version is better than the paperback. And at the risk of alienating all of my bookworm readers, I’m going to start this series with an example of a TV show that I think surpassed the book its based on: The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

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I had originally read The Magicians on my Nook a while ago, but when I was at my local book store recently, I noticed it had an updated cover advertising its TV-counterpart airing on the ScyFy channel. I’m not a fancy cable person, but I found the first season of The Magicians on Hulu and skeptically started the first episode. And then binge watched the entire season. And then had the sickening feeling that I was betraying fellow book-lovers everywhere, because I’m pretty sure I like the on-screen version more than the on-page version.

Here’s why: the point of the book seems to be that life is terrible and hard and purposeless and even when you get what you think you’ve always wanted–magic is real! Fillory exists!–it’s actually terrible and heartless and it won’t fix you because you are inherently broken. Quentin, the main character, is a depressed high school student headed for an Ivy League college when he is granted admission to Brakebills, a prestigious school for magicians. He feels like his life is finally turning around–that maybe this is what he’s been waiting for his whole life–but then it turns out to be the hardest thing he’s ever done and, despite his tenacity in putting in the work, it turns out to essentially be a meaningless pursuit: magic is boring, Fillory is evil, his favs are problematic. Seriously, at least half of this book is a description of how hard and difficult things are even though Quentin is an Ivy League student who is brilliant and gifted. The rest is the author destroying his dreams.

Look, I get it: I’m a sucker for a good training montage and I certainly believe a lot of hard work goes into things that otherwise look like dream professions–but if I wanted to read about someone complaining, I’d go on Facebook.

The TV show, on the other hand, tightens up the plot significantly. While still overusing the term “Ivy League” nevertheless spends way less time on the arduous spiel in favor of more adventures. The characters are drawn into the central conflict earlier in their schooling, so we skip the post-school blues, which, again-I know it’s a real thing — but that doesn’t mean it’s entertaining to read about! The result is that the plot keeps moving, the characters continue to act with purpose and motivation–even when it’s a misdirected purpose or motivation–and the result is a more structured story that I thought was more engaging while still keeping the dark, gritty tone of the book.

Okay, your turn: do I have to turn in my nerd card now? What did you think of the book or the show? Burn me on the stake people!

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