Hello, and welcome to the second round of
critical paddling thoughtful critiquing into The Magicians and why it failed to work for me.
Last time, I talked about the concept of Set-Up and Pay-Off and the delicate balance it requires to get your audience invested and satisfied. This time, I’ll be talking about a much more hazy concept – maturity.
The Magicians touts itself as a more mature Harry Potter. This is because it includes
frankly ridiculous copious amounts of swearing, drinking, drugs, and sex. But while these are adult themes, do they actually make a story more mature?
Let’s look at Harry Potter first. Harry Potter is light or devoid of most of these points. Swearing is usually pretty kid-friendly stuff like “Merlin’s pants,” and even when actual swearing is used later on in the series, it tends to be lighter swearing like “hell” or “damn.” While there is some drinking, Butterbeer seems to be pretty harmless, and no one seems to really get drunk off Firewhisky or get addicted to it in the later books. Drugs are never introduced, and the most sexual content we get is kissing.
The Magicians, on the other hand, has characters who can’t seem to string a sentence together without cursing. The characters seem to drink at every possible opportunity, and once they graduated, spend all their time at parties doing drugs and sleeping around. While sex is never too explicit, there are at least five cases that come to mind, one of which while Quentin and Alice are turned into wolves. Yeah… There are also about five dozen references to boobs, because heaven forbid we have a male POV without constant oggling of cleavage.
But does having all this content really make The Magicians more mature? I don’t think so. If anything, it shows its immaturity. Someone who doesn’t have a vocabulary without swearing is not mature. Someone who can’t drink responsibly is not mature. Someone who engages in drugs is not mature. Someone who cheats and does not handle sex responsibly is not mature. Too many movies, books, and games these days revel in these adult themes with childlike glee and unrestraint. They proclaim to be mature because they have themes not suitable to younger audiences, but that does not define maturity.
But wait, you may say. Isn’t that the point? To show that Quentin’s life is in an out-of-control spiral where he’s engaging in destructive habits to fill the void inside? I might agree, were it not for the advertising specifically purporting The Magicians as a racy, edgy Harry Potter for older readers. That’s sending a very mixed message, if the book revels in the things it’s trying to discourage. While The Magician’s concept that clinging to childish fantasies can cause lasting harm and disillusionment is a mature one, the book immediately undermines its only notable message by having Quentin throw out his resolution right after making it and returning to the world of fantasy that has ruined him.
Let’s get back to Harry Potter. Despite its relatively clean content, it does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects. The series explores concepts like evil done in the name of greater good, the oppression and fallibility of self-interested governments, torture and insanity, trauma, forgiveness, love, and perhaps most poignant, death and the fear of death.
These are mature concepts, ones that are important to growing up and dealing with the world around oneself. It is not the content of a story that makes it mature, but the messages and themes it tries to bring across.