Full disclosure – this is a rant. It’s unrelated to Chaldea but related in a dotted-line sense, in that it’s about the fantasy genre. And as I’m the lead writer on Chaldea, maybe it’s good that you understand how I feel about fantasy fiction.
I’m an opinionated bastard; I admit that. There are things that bother me, and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. I’m not willing to go silently into that good night. Occasionally, I might use our Chaldea platform to express my views, if something particularly annoys me.
Today is that day. I’m annoyed.
I’m a genre enthusiast—I love fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and all things weird. So, when I heard about the SyFy Channel’s new show The Magicians, I set my DVR to record.
SPOILER ALERT: This rant contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Magicians and intend to do so, you might want to stop reading.
So, I watched the first two episodes of The Magicians, which set my nerves on edge.
I haven’t read The Magicians series by author Lev Grossman. I understand they’re bestsellers. This rant is by no means leveled at the books— I’m sure they’re spun gold, prose worthy of (insert name of your favorite author here). This rant is leveled squarely at the TV series.
Are we as viewers supposed to shrug off the all-too in-your-face Harry Potter similarities? Let’s be honest: The Magicians is Harry Potter goes to college.
Quentin (our Harry wannabe) is a misunderstood young man with no apparent family, who suddenly discovers he’s a wizard…err, I mean, magician. And he’s invited to attend a prestigious college, where he’ll learn how to be an aforementioned magician. The college is divided into First Years and Second Years, and there are Houses of Specialty, and apparently Quentin has a reputation because students already know who he is when he arrives, and blah blah blah. Hello! Harry Potter much?
Okay, the direct Harry Potter rip-offs aside, I can choke that down…if the story was good.
But I don’t know if the story is good— I couldn’t get past Hollywood’s idea of fantasy.
Quentin walks through a hedgerow (at night) and magically finds himself transported to Brakebills College in upstate New York (now daytime). He’s transported not only over distance but through time. This chain of events doesn’t even faze Quentin, because, presumably, this happens every day, being magically teleported to who knows where. Sure—why should anyone bother to question that? Quentin is all too happy to go with the flow on this one.
So, he arrives in Brakebills, where he’s met by someone who appears to know him and is taken to an entrance exam. Again, Quentin takes this all in stride. Like a good soldier, he does as he’s told.
Along with a bunch of other would-be students, Quentin takes the entrance exam, which is written on magical paper. The questions morph and dance around on the page. That’s cool, right? This isn’t something any normal human would be alarmed by. The teleport thingy was cool, and Quentin didn’t question that. So, why question magical dancing fonts? Quentin soldiers on.
Of course, Quentin passes the written exam and is brought before a panel of Magician Professors, where he is given a deck of cards.
“Show us some magic,” says the dean of the college. Quentin performs a card trick. The dean is unimpressed. “Not that kind of magic. Real magic.”
Our Harry Potter hero is confused, not sure how to proceed, so the dean of the college gets up and yells at him. Loudly and abruptly. Startled, Quentin “uses his magician powers, which he didn’t previously know he had,” levitates all 52-cards, and spins them around in circles in a grand waltz in the air before him. We get to see the cards in slo-mo bullet-time FX. And then, as if that’s not enough, the cards land on a desk, magically forming into a house of cards.
Every talent mankind has ever mastered has taken practice and lifelong dedication. Usually. Whether it’s an athlete, a musician, a blacksmith, farmer, or a writer. But only in Hollywood could a novice magician perform miraculous miracles without having a single fucking clue. Because “it’s magic.”
We wouldn’t tolerate these storylines…
– Rocky Balboa, an amateur boxer, suddenly beats Apollo Creed because Rocky’s trainer Mickey yells at him.
– The Mountain in Game of Thrones doesn’t know how to joust, but simply because someone yells at him in the moment of battle, he wins the joust.
– A young gamer doesn’t know how to play World of Warcraft, but because a fellow player yells at him, he can suddenly beat a Raid Boss.
– Maverick doesn’t know how to dogfight, but because another pilot yells at him, he beats Jester.
– Spartacus has never fought as a gladiator, but because the crowd yells at him, he wins in the arena.
None of these scenarios make any sense. And why should they? But if it’s a fantasy story, Hollywood wants us to believe that Quentin can suddenly independently levitate 52 objects simultaneously and then stack them into an intricate house of cards. All because someone yelled at him.
The floating card trick isn’t the only spontaneous magic Quentin uses with apparently no education and no idea how he does it. Later, he fights a fellow student, where once again, he miraculously conjures spells out of thin air. Did the Idea Fairy simply tap him on the shoulder?
How about if you treat the concept of magic with some respect. Make the hero actually learn it. Phil (Bill Murray), in Groundhog Day had to take time to learn to play the piano and to ice sculpt. In fact, Phil’s journey is what made that film so brilliant. When you treat the acquisition of magic willy-nilly, allowing the characters to cast miraculous spells without any prior understanding, it cheapens the entire experience, making it feel like this brand of magic belongs in a Nickelodeon cartoon.
Quentin befriends fellow students who take him on a tour of Brakebills College. It’s during the tour that we’re uploaded with exposition on how Brakebills School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (or College of Magical Pedagogy, if you’re a stickler) works.
Everywhere you look, hallways, campus grounds, every nook and cranny, students are casting spells. Because when you go to a magicians’ school, that’s what you do with your free time: you cast spells.
I understand the producers wanted to demonstrate how Brakebills College is populated with Magicians. But why does everyone within eyeshot have to be casting spells all at once? It’s groan worthy. Do you remember the first X-Men movie, where we’re introduced to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters? Every single mutant is running around the school grounds using their superpowers. Kinda dumb, right? Same thing here.
Not only is every student on campus casting spells, but these spells are visually over-the-top with CGI sparkles—because in Hollywood, spells are always visually dynamic.
Even when Brakebills’ students are having sex, spells are involved. We see coeds getting down and dirty and suddenly they start to float as if in zero-g. Do you remember when Jaime and Cersei were having sex while floating in the air? Wait, no, you didn’t—because that sort of stupid shit doesn’t happen in serious shows.
In animated films like Disney’s Frozen, I understand why magic has sparkles. Elsa’s ice magic has flair. I’m all good with Disney magic. But that style of magic doesn’t translate well to live-action films—not even Disney ones. Just as spandex costumes are okay in comic books but look dorky as hell in real life. Why do you think Wolverine isn’t running around in the X-Men films wearing yellow tights? Because it would be fucking dorky.
Peter Jackson and the gang behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, as well as the crew behind Game of Thrones, understand how to respect magic. They don’t treat it likes it’s frosting on a cake—so, they don’t pile it on thick. Gandalf doesn’t throw around Disney-style spells and neither does Darth Vader. We don’t need gratuitous FX. Fireball-throwing wizards are clichéd and embarrassing.
Besides, what you don’t see is often far scarier.
I have a rule: when discussing the supernatural in dialogue—spells and things of that nature—if you can’t imagine Darth Vader, Gandalf, or Tywin Lannister saying a line, don’t write it in the first place.
Quentin gets into a spell fight with a fellow student. (But of course he does; he has to show off his chops.) He conjures up a spell he’s never used before and throws it at his adversary. As I keep repeating, Quentin is extremely adept at conjuring new spells he’s never been taught.
The fight doesn’t last very long before it’s broken up by a professor. The two boys are taken to the infirmary to be healed. (Yet another Harry Potter-ism.)
The boys are lying in beds, side by side. The second boy says to Quentin, “You threw Battle Magic at me.”
Abrupt halt, screeching tires, sound of twisted metal.
“You threw Battle Magic at me”????? Can this be any more childish?
Can you imagine Gandalf saying that to the Balrog? Instead of “you shall not pass,” we get “you threw Battle Magic at me.” Whine.
Is this Pokémon or some other child’s cartoon?
For fuck’s sake, hire writers who understand the genre and who won’t cheapen it with childish, inane, insulting dialogue. Go watch Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Bone up on serious drama. Seriously.
CONCLUDING THIS RANT
When producing fantasy, it’s not enough to simply throw spells, have sword fights, and dress girls in chainmail bikinis. Those of us who love the genre want to see the topic treated with respect, developed with the sincerity, care, and authenticity that’s awarded to Hollywood’s greatest dramas. Game of Thrones is the current litmus test for high-drama fantasy—it’s the Downton Abbey of fantasy, if you will. Unless you are trying to create a campy Knights of Badassdom, hire writers who understand the genre. As Peter Adkison is fond of saying, “Either you get it or you don’t.” Meaning? You can’t teach a writer to suddenly understand the nuances of fantasy that differentiates it from respected adult drama and childish lampoon.
I don’t know if The Magicians has an over-all good story arc. But then again, that’s not the point of this rant. I’ve only seen two episodes, so for all I know, maybe it finds its footing and becomes a jewel. ::shrug::
The childish manner in which the producers handle magic on the show, however, makes it difficult to watch. For me. Your mileage may vary.
I can guarantee you one thing: in Chaldea, you will never hear, “You threw Battle Magic at me.”
Let me know if you agree or if you think I’m just being too picky.
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February 23, 2016