There’s a big difference between adapting a book for the screen and changing a book for the screen. Alas, what SyFy has done is a sad mix. The adaptations are good, but there are a few helpful adaptations that were possible but not done. On the other hand, a lot of changes are for the worse. And not simply different, but unenjoyable.
One especially annoying halfway adaptation is taking all the fucks from the book and adapting them to regular cable as fcks. The disemvoweled version makes everybody sound like they have an odd speech impediment. Or something has gone horribly wrong in the audio mixing process. Even after multiple occurrences in every episode, it never feels right. Every single time I forgot all about the show and could only think the video stream was corrupted.
I found the portrayal of Quentin painful to watch. He’s the star of the story. Even when he screws up, we’re supposed to like him. But this Quentin is unlikeable. Book Quentin (BQ) has his sad moments, but unlike TV Quentin (TQ) he’s not clinically depressed. BQ is fairly articulate. Sometimes he’s unsure of himself, but he can muster confidence when he needs it. During his admissions interview, he shuffles a deck of cards with cool confidence, bordering even on arrogance as he knows most people can’t even appreciate that he pciked a deliberately difficult technique just to make it look easy. TQ spills the cards because he’s a nervous wreck. TQ stutters and stammers and whines. I would say it gets a little better after the first few episodes, but more accurate to say it gets less bad. Following BQ, I felt his pain. Following TQ, I just felt pain.
Richard from Silicon Valley is quirky and nerdy, too. Or even Mr. Robot. But I enjoy watching their characters. The key point is that despite their flaws, they’re high achieving. TQ is not high achieving. Supposedly he’s been admitted to Yale, but I don’t believe that for a second.
On the positive side, aging the characters up to grad school instead of fresh from high school works well. A practical solution to the difficulty of casting actors to portray characters over time. Folding Julia’s story in works, too. It would be really weird to follow the books and present that as a series of flashbacks in season two. Telling the story chronologically was a good call.
Unfortunately keeping Julia in the story meant the writers had too much freedom to alter the story, setting up a crazy Brakebills versus hedge witch war. Worse, an entire episode is devoted to Julia and coven attacking Quentin and psychically trapping him in a mental hospital dream. Apparently trapped in a dream is just too tempting for mediocre writers to avoid. The episode does little to advance the plot, but we’re forced to spend a lot of time with crazy Quentin. It’s not bad because it’s not in the book; it’s bad because it’s awful.
Sometimes a little too much accuracy is maintained. The Welters matches in the book are a fun diversion from the plot, allowing us to have a little fun. They also setup some important revelations about the attitudes of Josh and Quentin. In TV land, however, there’s just one match, and it’s Quentin who invokes the black hole spell. But without any explanation, it’s only confusing. It’s not fun at all.
The natural pace of exposition is ruined by pulling a number of plot elements forward. Alice is immediately introduced as the girl searching for her niffin brother who enlists Quentin’s help. She’s not supposed to know anything about that until half way through, long after they’ve already grown close. Why does the Beast attack in the very first episode? So that SyFy can begin every subsequent episode with ominous recaps. Will the Beast return? Watch this episode to see if we reveal anything important!
The book works so well because it’s not in a hurry to get anywhere. Things unfold as they unfold. One of the better TV episodes, Brakebills South, manages to capture this, but the series does not.
Finally, and very disappointingly, the adventures in Fillory are reduced to a single episode. In and out, boom, done. That’s a full third of the book collapsed to practically nothing. One of my very favorite scenes, the bar with the talking bear and smoking tree, is reduced to less than thirty seconds of air time. It’s not just that it’s such a fun scene, and I’m disappointed to miss it, but it was also pivotal in revealing how characters reacted to the unexpected.