The Secret Circle: Spellbinding TV?

Nowadays, with the mainstream popularity of Twilight and Harry Potter, it can be difficult to remember that there once was a time when the only people wanting stories about vampires and witches were Anne Rice enthusiasts (aka me as a 13-year-old) and third-graders in October.  Enjoying a little urban fantasy hardly seems qualifying of the “geek” label today; just as most people in the early 80s had seen Star Wars, so too have most people caught at least one movie or TV show with more than a hint of fantasy or horror.

But when I was in elementary and middle school, I was wildly infatuated with two book series that no one else seemed to have heard of.  You might be familiar with one: The Vampire Diaries.  The other was written by the same author, LJ Smith, and it was called The Secret Circle.  Like its vampire sibling, The Secret Circle has now been made into a TV show for the CW.

I had mixed feelings when I heard this.  I’ve only ever seen one episode of The Vampire Diaries TV show; the differences were just too hard to stomach for a long-time fan like me.  Imagine if someone made a TV show about Harry Potter, but they changed the name of the school from Hogwarts to Starry Hollow High, and Harry had blond hair and a friend named Hillary.  Those are the kind of changes frequently made in adaptations.  It’s not a big deal when it’s a best-selling thriller you read as an adult and barely remember; but when it’s something you read as a child, where every last detail has been burned into your brain, it’s a little harder to swallow.

On the other hand, I just couldn’t resist checking out The Secret Circle.  As a kid, I liked the two book series for very different reasons: The Vampire Diaries had a great bad boy and a steamy love triangle.  It felt gritty, messy.  The Secret Circle, about witches, was literally more magical, even as it dealt with murder and bullying.  It had a love triangle, too, but infinitely more interesting was the relationship between the three female main characters.

Yes, three female principals – and the rest of the scale was bigger too, more epic.  The Circle was comprised of 12 teen witches (some characters more memorable than others) and the massive cast helped create an immersive experience.  When a fantasy is set in modern times, there might not be as much world-building going on, but The Secret Circle manages regardless.

So I watched the first few episodes of the new series.  First of all, for those who were once fans of the books, there are massive changes, but I can understand the reasoning behind them (more on that in a bit).  The first two episodes move a little slowly.  By the end of the fourth, however, I found myself looking forward to next week, because I don’t know what’s going to happen – it’s managing to follow the books more or less in mythology, but not in the antagonists, adding a fresh twist for someone like me.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty about this new show.

Chance Harbor? Books vs TV

Before I look at the show itself, first let’s address the major changes that made me protest when I first heard about them: the Circle has been downsized from twelve to six.  The usual suspects are there: Cassie, Diana, Faye, Adam, Nick, and… Melissa?  No, you’re not misremembering – that last wasn’t an actual character in the book, nor does she particularly resemble any of the slashed characters.  Personally, I can’t stand this chick and I’m hoping she’s been created to get killed off, only to be replaced by a secret witch they didn’t know about… a Henderson twin, perhaps?  I even have a hope that they’ll uncover the whole Circle, one by one, like… Sailor Moon maybe, or The Beginning of Rainbowland (shut up, I spent my teen years wearing black and I will be shamed for my love of color no longer).

No longer are they living in New Salem, an island town off the coast of Massachusetts. Now they’re in Chance Harbor, Washington.  I think in theory the same Puritan-witchy history applies, but I guess they fled to… Washington state?  In the 1600s?  Now on the one hand, I totally understand why they’d want to change the name of the town; New Salem does sound a little kitsch.  On the other, I wish they’d changed the name but kept the general location.

It’s far more believable that the same families have been there for hundreds of years, that old houses have secret hiding places, etc, on the East Coast.  And while I like the boating atmosphere the series has come up with, again, it would fit just as easily in Massachusetts or, better yet, Maine.  And finally – Washington state is pretty, yes, but the color palate, the music, it all screams Twilight to me.

Cassie is a full-on blonde and Diana has dark hair.  The Cassie thing doesn’t bother me, actually; the actress has the wide-eyed but tough thing down pat, and she’s likeable.  Her face even reminds me of the Cassie on the cover of my 90s copies of the books.  Diana, on the other hand, is wrong, all wrong.  For one thing, she has dark hair, and so does Faye, and so does Melissa.  And they all wear it long and around their face – maybe the Kardashians are really big in Chance Harbor?

For another, the hair thing was supposed to be important in that Diana and Faye were light and dark, sun and moon, purity and temptation.  On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that they’re not reduced to caricatures on the show – we don’t need yet another Madonna/whore cliche.  There has been some added dimension – the Faye character, in particular, is far more interesting now, and more believable.  On the other hand, Diana is flat-out boring.  I don’t get a sense of ‘goodness’ from her – I get prissiness, like a hall monitor.  Her hair color is just another indication, to me, that the writers don’t have a clear vision for her, that the character is muddled and pointless.  Hopefully Diana develops more as time goes on.

Forget the nostalgia: is the show worth it?

Well, that depends.  Are you the sort of person who enjoys shows featuring teenagers and the supernatural?  I’m reminded a little of both Charmed and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer when I watch The Secret Circle – not incredibly surprising, I suppose, since those are WB shows, and CW was once the WB.  But unlike those shows, I don’t think you’ll see an underlying theme of “I just want to live a normal life!” here; these kids are proud of their difference, and eager to revel in it – perhaps to their detriment. I do think that similar to those shows, we’ll eventually have an incredibly involved mythology – the show has already introduced concepts that aren’t even hinted at in the source material.

The acting isn’t bad.  The actresses playing Cassie and Faye, Britt Robertson and Phoebe Tonkin, are incredibly compelling.  Tonkin’s pretty much the sole source of humor at this point, and it’s much-appreciated every time.  The other leads are less interesting, but I think that’s a problem with the script, not the actors – hopefully they’ll get to stretch as time goes on.  I suspect there’s great potential with the character of Nick, in particular.

Will the show ultimately prove to be as popular as The Vampire Diaries?  Unclear – vampires always seem to be more popular than witches, a certain spectacled wizard notwithstanding.  I know this much, though – I’ll be tuning in to The Secret Circle, though I remain immune to TVD’s charms.  And vampires have had almost ten years of the spotlight in fiction; how much longer can they last?

Ultimately, it’s a pretty good teeny-bopper show, based on a pretty good teeny-bopper book – with all the fun and guilty pleasure associated with it.

What about you?  Have you seen The Secret Circle?  Will you be watching?  And what books or series would you like to see adapted for the small screen?  


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