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Broken magic

Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Syfy)

Television

Broken magic

<em>The Magicians</em> offers a grown-up fantasy world stark with disillusionment 

The New York Times dubbed author Lev Grossman’s best-selling The Magicians, the first book in his Magicians Trilogy, “Harry Potter for adults.” But from the novel’s—and now the new Syfy show’s—opening scenes, it’s clear that the story is far more preoccupied with another fantasy series: The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Harry Potter part stems from the fact that most of the action takes place at Brakebills, a magical university in Upstate New York. The “adult” part comes from the fact that when they aren’t learning to cast spells, the characters act like many students their age. They drink, drug, and hook up … and then wonder why they feel so hollow in the morning.

Grossman, a book critic for Time magazine, says he wrote the trilogy during a bout of depression as an attempt to explain to C.S. Lewis “how poorly I’d been prepared for some of the challenges of early middle age by my obsessive childhood rereading of the Chronicles of Narnia.” His complaint is embodied in his book’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, a 17-year-old struggling to let go of his childish obsession with a series of children’s books that takes place in a fantasy world called Fillory.

It’s not the talking animals, mythological creatures, or feudal nirvana that so haunt Quentin’s imagination, but rather the sense of purpose that pervaded the Fillory stories. “In Fillory,” Quentin says, “things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world.”

Quentin gets everything he’s ever wanted. He discovers magic is real and is admitted to a secret school for its practitioners. He even discovers that Fillory (Narnia) is real. Then he defiles Lewis’ Eden not with white witches or dark magic, but with his own cold disillusionment.

A barely restrained rage runs through Grossman’s novels. On the one hand, Quentin’s aching for Fillory is so tender, he clings to it like an abandoned child. On the other hand, Grossman sullies his stand-in for Lewis with the most reprehensible of sins: He makes him a pedophile. Yet somehow this doesn’t feel hostile or tactical, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It feels more like a broken-heart cry from a writer trying to reconcile his longing for Lewis’ “far-off country” and his despair at coming to believe no such place exists.

There is pedophilia in this broken world. There is also addiction and depression and every sort of grossness and horror. And yet, there are also mountains and flowers, and a human imagination that can build castles and grow lampposts in snowy woods. It would almost be easier to accept the former if we never had any knowledge of the latter.

The question is, how much of this does Syfy actually capture with its adaptation premiering on Jan. 25? The answer: not much. It does a serviceable job establishing the nature of Quentin’s sickness. But rather than sharply contrasting the real, sin-riddled world against a fantasy ideal (as Grossman does), the show fashions its own uninspired, tawdry fantasy that could easily be retitled Hogwarts: American Party School. For the first hour, at least, it revels in sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and turns the possibility that Fillory exists into a Rowlingesque mystery.

But what of Lewis and the charges Grossman levies against him? Despite how vile Grossman’s depiction is at times, I doubt Lewis would be much offended. In fact, I think he’d understand such pain. I think the old Inkling would buy Grossman a pint and quietly help him understand the cause of it.

As Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them. ... These things … are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”