The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a very cerebral fantasy book. It stands out from others of its genre for its self reflexivity, its almost painful self awareness. Unlike other fantasy authors who quite openly and intelligently engage with the tradition they are part of (notably Samit Basu and Terry Pratchett), Grossman doesn’t use humour to deal with the weight of ‘the canon’ in his writing. Or he does, but it’s not the dominant emotion in his relationship to it. His work is almost painfully earnest in its desire to deal with the question of what an existential crisis would look like for a modern day, culturally aware fantasy nerd, who stumbled onto magic but didn’t have a Dark Lord to fight.
The answer is apparently the existential crisis would just be worsened, because you would realise that ultimately, magic does not give your life meaning and you’re just stuck with having to create one, like everyone else around you.
As you might guess, this is pretty complex stuff. It’s hard to showcase this in a sexy, appealing manner on screen, and that was why I was a bit worried about the decision to adapt the book into a TV series. Sure, I’ll watch it, but I can’t help but be a little scared that the core of the book, its ‘meaning’ and ‘question’ as critics might call it, would be compromised in the name of entertaining a larger, not so existential-question-loving audience.
So, worries in place, I watched the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians. It was entertaining enough—good graphics, some nice showcasing of magic, and quick intros to all the main characters. There were some familiar faces (Ros from Game of Thrones! Ben and little Emma from Gossip Girl!), some sort of surprising changes (since when has pudgy, awkward loner Penny been a Kamasutra sex god? I thought Alice was brown haired and surly quiet rather than obviously Type A fragile quiet…) but I explained these away as either good moves for diversity casting (the former) and need to stick in at least one blonde girl (the latter). The move to age up the characters and have them graduate from college rather than high school before stumbling onto magic was also, I thought, a good one, as it was only after leaving the sheltered environment of undergrad that the aimlessness of existence sort of became obvious to me and several of my friends. Yes, I realise that’s our privilege talking, but since the characters of The Magicians are similarly (if not more) privileged, I thought it relevant to mention here.
What I did not expect, and did not like at all, was the weird scene with Julia.
I should expand on Julia here. She was, hands down, my favourite part of the series, once she came into her own in the second book, The Magician King. I identified with her, to a great extent, and thought it was amazing how Grossman developed her character from, primarily, being Quentin’s unrequited, unattainable love interest, to someone who really goes through a lot to get what she wants: mastery over magic. Julia acts as a brilliant foil to Quentin, making his angst and worries look like the griping of spoiled schoolboy, but still not robbing them of their centrality to the narrative that they hold up together.
In this episode, Julia, who has been turned out of Brakebills but still remembers the world of magic, has decided to do whatever it takes to get back the one thing that really means something to her now, magic. She teaches herself spells from the internet, we assume, refusing to listen to a condescending Quentin when he tells her she doesn’t ‘have it in her’ to learn, that Brakebills has not made a ‘mistake’ in turning her away. Julia then gets near-assaulted in a club bathroom, where is forced to reveal her magical abilities and then led by her creepy stalker to what we assume is a hideout and ‘school’ for the ‘non official’ magicians.
So far, so good? No. I did not see why the scene with Julia had to be so, for want of a better word, rapey. Her buttons pop off her shirt one by one, her shirt is stripped off, and she is pinned by an invisible force against what I think are pipes. Then a smiling man approaches her, and it’s obvious to us that he is the one responsible for it all. He asks her how it feels to know that he can do anything to her, to which Julia somehow manages to respond by yanking herself out of his invisible hold and making her hands flare with electrical surges.
I felt really disturbed while watching this. While I understand the writers might have wanted to push Julia into an extreme state of vulnerability in order to showcase her latent talent (a common theme in many superhero/magical stories), I didn’t see why they had to use such an obviously sexual way of doing it. Did she really have to be stripped down and threatened with physical and sexual assault to come out shining? I hate to ask this, but would they have done that if she were a boy? I somehow don’t think the sexual overtones would have been present if that were the case.
Maybe what got to me about Julia’s…experience was how absolutely nightmarish but simultaneously terrifyingly realistic it was. You don’t need to be in a fantasy world to be afraid of something like that happening to you, and I know plenty of people, women especially (me included), who are aware of just how easily that could happen to them. For this reason, I was not able to focus on the ‘magic’ aspect of it, or ‘appreciate’ what it revealed of Julia. I couldn’t wrap my head around why she had to be pushed specifically in that direction, in what felt like a very voyeuristic fashion. And it was quite literally voyeuristic, not inspiring, since her tormentor and near-rapist (though he explicitly disclaims the title) stands around watching with a creepy smile on his face.
Julia goes through some really dark places in the course of the series, but she always comes across as extremely strong. I don’t know if the show is going to explore all those elements (they’ve changed so much already, so who knows), and this may just be their disturbing precursor, but I don’t think that’s really enough reason. I can’t keep thinking this was a Game of Thrones-esque use of rape, or near-rape, to illustrate that this is a ‘heavy’, ‘serious’ show. My point is, you don’t need that to show that a character is releasing energies in a stressful situation. And while Grossman does deal with sexual abuse in his books, he never makes it seem voyeuristic, as the show did.
I hope this was a one-off, and am crossing my fingers that things don’t continue in this fashion further down the line. As we know, the magic only gets weirder here on out.