'The Magicians': Syfy's adaptation has less wizardry than the books

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Jason Ralph stars as Quentin and Stella Maeve is Julia in "The Magicians," which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on Syfy.

When Lev Grossman's The Magicians came out in 2010, it was marketed as "Harry Potter for adults."

That was reductive in a way. Sure, the book was about young adults who practice magic, although they drank and cursed and slept with one another and were sad about their lot in life. But in many ways they were alike. Grossman, a former Time magazine book critic, and Potter scribe JK Rowling used magic as a way to tell stories of growing up, just filtered through different lenses.

Grossman's novel, and the following two that rounded out the trilogy, are the source material for Syfy's new show The Magicians, premiering at 9 p.m. Monday. The series centers on Quentin Coldwater (Madam Secretary's Jason Ralph), a depressed post-grad who feels something missing in his life - until he is invited to take the entrance exam at Brakebills, a mysterious college that turns out to be an institution for magical study.

His world is transformed, and he begins to blossom, making friends and letting depression loosen the hold it has on him.

Quentin's unrequited love, Julia (Stella Maeve), on the other hand, fails the test and goes on her own journey of magical self-discovery. (For those who read the books, this largely happens in the second entry, The Magician King).

Both are on a dangerous path. Quentin teams up with fellow students Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Penny (Arjun Gupta) and accidently opens a portal to another world. Julia falls in with a group of hedgewitches, or unsanctioned magicians, and their methods are not exactly by the book.

I loved Grossman's books, but there's something off about Syfy's version. Perhaps it's that the story is speeded up and sexed up for television. That's something I don't usually mind in adaptations, but the choices made are odd.

Grossman, for example, purposefully made his characters high schoolers entering college. The book perfectly captured the feeling of entering college, becoming a new person, and then the ennui that sets in when graduation hits and a path to success is no longer predetermined.

In Syfy's version, Quentin graduates from college by the time he hits Brakebills, and he almost seems too old be going through the type of existential crisis he's feeling.

That may be a quibble primarily for book readers. One for TV viewers is how the show barrels through the plot of the books. There are a lot of characters to contend with - especially with the stories' structures reformatted for TV - but no time to get to know them.

The rushed plot leaves Grossman's rich world feeling empty. That world is still fun to live in - even if it's not as good in TV form.

meichel@phillynews.com

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@mollyeichel


TV REVIEW

The Magicians

9 p.m. Monday on Syfy.

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