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I’ve done a lot of adaptations. It’s a tricky skill, but fun. You have to take from the underlying material the essential themes, the emotional sense of the work, keep the characters relatively intact, but be willing to make changes because film and print are two different mediums and they tell stories in different ways. The emotional impact is ultimately the same, but how you get there is different. You have to know what to cut and what to expand.
Right now I’m watching a master class in adaptation. It’s a show called The Magicians, and it’s on SyFy. Yeah, I know, crazy, right? I started watching the show which has great production values, excellent writing and overall a very fine cast. I was so impressed that I bought the first book and started reading.
This is a case where the filmed version is better than the book.
Okay, I’m going to talk specifics from the book and the show which means there are going to be SPOILERS!!!!!!! so stop reading now if you hate SPOILERS!!!!!!
I’ve only read the first book and I have to be honest. While I found the world and the characters interesting the book read more like an outline then a well plotted narrative. It felt like the author was exploring his world, but didn’t totally have a handle on the story he wanted to tell.
Enter the writing team who adapted the book series for television. Right away they made a number of changes. The characters are all older — heading to graduate school rather then high school kids heading to college. That has worked well. They have also slowed down the action. In the book Quentin rushes through Brakebills. In the show he’s still in his first year. It’s working far better.
Apparently the entire story line about Julia, the girl who didn’t get into Hogwarts… er Brakebills, and so becomes a hedge witch begins in book two, but the screenwriters rightly decided to weave her story in with Quentin’s adventures at the school. They find ways to have the two former friends cross paths, and there is an interesting echo in that both of them take casual actions that start to have dreadful consequences.
The show is much darker in tone then the book and the villain far more horrifying. In the book his face is obscured by a tree branch. In the show they use a cloud of moths. Now whenever I see a moth I find myself shuddering. Again as a visual cue it’s brilliant.
A recent episode of the show is the one that really made me hope I have the opportunity to meet with the creative team behind The Magicians and shake their hand. First a bit of context. In The Magicians there is a beloved fantasy book series about a magical place called Fillory and the three children who got to travel there. Yes, very much a call back to C.S. Lewis, but that’s the set up. At the end of book one our heroes defeat The Beast, and have a conversation with the sister who tells why her brother turned into this monstrous figure. In the book she casually tosses out the information that the author of the Fillory books molested her brother when he was a boy. It is literally almost a throw away line.
The show found a far more powerful and interesting way to give us this information. Out of a sentence or two in the book the television writers crafted an entire episode and it was a damn good one. Our heroes have gone to tour the author’s home in search of a magical object. They break in after-hours, and since they are all magicians they begin to see ghostly scenes from the past. They see the author coercing the brother into undressing while the older man takes photos, and then it’s very clear they go off to have sex. Quentin who has adored and revered this writer is sickened, horrified and we see him start to lose some of his geeky innocence and self-doubt and become a man.
As for this magical object. In the book one of the characters just buys it from a magical junk salesman and it happens off stage. He then just turns up and says, “Hey, I have this magic thingee and it takes you to a different world.” Again the adaptors allowed the protagonists to “protag”. They go in search of this object after they’ve discovered that it exists instead of it all being by happenstance.
Bottom line if you’ve toyed with adapting take a look at this show. In its own right it’s a terrific hour of television, and for writers it’s an inspiration and, like I said, a master class in adaptation.