Bringing The Magus to the Screen — How to Do It Right This Time

by Bob Goosmann

Magus Miniseries Movie Poster

Poster for the 1968 film version of The Magus.

John Fowles’ spectacular novel The Magus was published in 1966 and adapted into a feature film just two years later, with a screenplay by Fowles himself. It featured well-respected actors in the lead roles including Michael Caine, Anthony Quinn and Anna Karina (plus a young Candice Bergen), and was directed by British filmmaker Guy Green.

Unfortunately the film failed to capture the magic of the novel and received a majority of negative reviews. Michael Caine considered it one of the worst films he had been involved in “because no one knew what it was all about.” Candice Bergen said “I didn’t know what to do and nobody told me. I couldn’t put together the semblance of a performance.” Fowles called it “a disaster all the way down the line,” and Woody Allen was quoted as saying if he had his life to live over again, he would want everything exactly the same with the exception of seeing the film version of The Magus.

Planning for a miniseries adaptation of The Magus is now underway, in the capable hands of British director Sam Mendes and his production company. In this article I’ll take a look at why I think the 1968 film was a failure, and what it will take to make the miniseries a success.

First, a little history. I created this website in 1998 in an effort to honor John Fowles and bring his work to the attention of more readers. I first read The Magus about 20 years earlier as a college student and it was a transformative experience. While I subsequently read and loved all of Fowles’ work, it was The Magus that I found myself returning to over and over again. I’ve read the original and revised versions countless times over the years, and have studied the film in depth.

I had hoped to someday see a new screen adaptation of The Magus that accurately reflected the brilliance of the novel. In 2006 I decided to try and make it happen, despite having no connection with the entertainment industry. I tracked down the owner of the book’s film and television rights and shared with him my vision for a new film, and he agreed to allow me to pursue such a project as his representative.

I spent the ensuing 10 years working with a variety of people in the film and television industry—both in the U.S. and the United Kingdom—trying to put something together, ultimately recognizing that a miniseries was the better approach. Needless to say, the attempt proved daunting. Despite engaging in several hopeful development negotiations (and writing the first two hours of a miniseries screenplay adaptation that was well-received) nothing concrete materialized. When the owner of the rights passed away in 2016, they were sold to Mendes and his Neal Street Productions.

I’m thrilled that someone as esteemed as Mendes is now leading the project, and also happy the miniseries is being produced in the United Kingdom. Time will tell how it all works out; in the meantime, here are my thoughts on adapting The Magus to the screen.

Magus Miniseries Film The Magus
Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn in a scene from the 1968 film.

Five reasons why the 1968 film was a failure 

1. The casting is hit-and-miss, with one huge miss. Anthony Quinn is excellent as Conchis, and Anna Karina does well as Anne (a young French woman in the film, versus the Australian Alison in the book). Candice Bergen truly does seem lost in the Julie/June role, but the big problem is Michael Caine as Nicholas. He plays the lead role like a man in a trance, with a near complete lack of emotion. It’s an incredibly wooden and boring performance…a complete disaster.

2. The Nicholas character comes across as tremendously unlikeable. This is tempered in the book by Nic’s first-person narration (recounting the story many years later) in which he’s honest about his flaws and what a cad he was as a young man—making it possible for the reader to have some compassion for him. Such narration would have been cumbersome in the film, but the screenplay fails to substitute anything that might take the edge off Nic’s narcissism and cynicism.

3. There is zero chemistry between Caine (him again) and Bergen. In the novel, the primary reason Nicholas keeps coming back to endure more tricks and betrayals from Conchis is his extreme emotional and sexual attraction to Julie. Remove this and his behavior makes no sense. Caine’s reserve as an actor—and obvious lack of understanding of the role he is playing—leaves the film devoid of passion.

4. The ending makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t read the novel. A mash-up of three different scenes from the book are compressed into one virtually incomprehensible scene that at best is somewhat intriguing but likely left most viewers feeling extremely frustrated.

5. Ultimately trying to compress a complex 600+ page novel into a two-hour movie was a near-impossible task. Making matters worse, Fowles was too close to his own material to properly adapt it…the result is a far too literal translation of plot to screen that mostly fails to capture the magical nature of the story that millions of readers have found so compelling.

Five keys to doing it right this time 

1. Kudos to Mendes and his team for realizing the novel needs the room to breathe that a miniseries adaptation will provide. It should be given a minimum six-hour running time so some of the important flashbacks can be included, along with a proper fleshing out of the motivations of Conchis, Nicholas and Alison.

2. Appropriate casting of the four major characters will be absolutely critical to the success of the miniseries. Nicholas must be portrayed by an actor who is handsome and can play the cad, while also conveying the inner turmoil and insecurities that allow Conchis to manipulate him. The actresses playing Alison and Julie must have acting skills that match their beauty. And Conchis…well, just hire Ben Kingsley right now.

3. Some scenes need to be added showing that at his core, Nicholas is a decent man with a good heart (conveyed in the novel by his older/wiser first-person reminiscences).  Possible examples: showing him reacting more emotionally to the death of his parents in the plane crash; having him soundly reject Demetriades’ suggestion that he visit the brothel; adding a scene where he acts selflessly, perhaps by saving one of the schoolkids from drowning; giving him a wry sense of humor; etc.

4. The novel does an excellent job of conveying the boredom, self-doubt and failure that characterizes Nicholas’ life both before he comes to the Greek island and while he’s teaching at the school. This serves to effectively ground the overall story in realism, making the bizarre events that happen when he visits Conchis more believable. The film didn’t have time to include many scenes of Nicholas’ “real” life and ultimately came across as confusing and silly—this can be remedied in the longer miniseries format.

5. The ending of the novel was frustrating to many readers, but Fowles wanted it that way (and did hint at a preferred resolution with the final Latin quotation). This approach is guaranteed to leave most viewers upset and dissatisfied, and the ending concocted for the film was ridiculous. My preferred approach would involve the ending used in the book, followed by an epilogue that flashes forward several years and in a suspenseful way reveals what happened between Nicholas and Alison.

Happy to receive e-mail comments on any of the above ([email protected]), and can’t wait to see what Mr. Mendes and company come up with.