February 24, 2017
MarkBernstein.org
 
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The Magicians

Streaming on Netflix, a fairly loose adaptation of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy for television.

It’s interesting to see the changes that the screenwriters inserted. The central problems with the story remain: the hero is a goop, and the fantasy world with which he is obsessed is not very well drawn.

The screenplay doesn’t try to remedy these problems; it makes the hero even more clearly aware of his shortcomings, and of the shortcomings of his childish fantasy. (The Magicians is chiefly a response to Harry Potter but it’s also a response to Narnia, though Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a better and more complete rebuttal.) That knowledge deepens the story.

Grossman doesn’t love Fillory, which is Narnia with the serial numbers rubbed off; his protagonist does love it and despises himself for loving it. Grossman builds a world but his heart isn’t in it. That doesn't matter terribly because this is a story of our world in which some characters step out for a time elsewhere.

What makes the series work (and what eventually redeems the books) is Julia’s story, a thread that only gets started in in the second volume. Julia doesn’t pass the entrance exam for the magical school, but she’s not going quietly into that muggle night: she will pay any price for magic. Everyone pays, but Julia pays up front: it turns out there’s an underground magic scene, a grim network of drug dens and safe houses, and she pays her dues with interest. The screenwriters get Julia’s story going right away and they water it well.