This past year brought us two flawed but interesting series. They both sport blond, shaggy-haired male leads. Both have strong women in the casts. Both are aimed at young adults (so there is a certain amount of whining). Both play in the world of magic. And both are based on best-selling book series. However, they couldn’t be more different in their value and results.
The Shannara Chronicles creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, have quite a list behind them, from Spider-Man 2 to more dubious achievements in Smallville, Charlie’s Angels, and I Am Number Four. And, like some of this list, the production values are provided as a way to distract from the wooden, trite, and angeringly manipulated plots and scripts. The performers do what they can with it, but they don’t really have much quarter. You can write the lines and plot twists before they occur and, worse, they are the most cliche direction every time (betrayals, kisses, turnabouts, choices). It is high fantasy at its near-worst, in large part because it is beautifully produced.
The Magicians, however, created by Sera Gamble, who came out of Project Greenlight and a long run on Supernatural and Aquarius, has birthed an intriguing and complicated world of relatively believable people who have lives. They have self-awareness, complexity, and go through a very organic story. The characters show development and have a sense of humor. It is more alive and believable than Shannara ever achieves. It surprises and, most importantly, has me desperate to see where it goes, despite some of the clunking moments of script… and there are definitely some of those.
And this brings up one of the most important aspects of adapting books or other stories… for that matter, about what story is to begin with. Story is about characters, not about place. That isn’t to say “place” can’t be a character in a story, but a story cannot simply be a string of pretty pictures of place, there has to be a reason. In Bruges is a wonderful example of place as a character, but there are many more. Magicians has place as a character, sure, but mostly it is about the characters. Shannara uses place as a driving backdrop, but the characters never match the scope or majesty of the visuals and the world never achieves solidity in our consciousness (mostly because its shape and size keep changing to fit convenience). In fact, if the visuals had been a bit less in Shannara, the show may have fared better for me as it wouldn’t have been such a distraction nor raised as high a bar.
If you missed The Magicians, make the time to find it. It really is something different for the genre. It had better source material to draw on than Shannara, but the successes and failures of these two similar, but very different, shows really came more down to the choices in how to bring them to life.