The Witcher: The Road from Rivia to Hollywood
He speaks more than 20 languages and has turned his name into a well-known brand around the world, from Brazil to Japan. But there’s no sign of him slowing down. For 30 years now, we have been observing the White Wolf’s impressive march across all forms of media. Culture.pl looks back at all his different routes and where he might be headed next.
The December 1986 edition of Fantastyka monthly featured a short story about a mysterious monster killer, the white-haired Geralt of Rivia. This character was the creation of Andrzej Sapkowski (nicknamed AS by his readers, which in turn means 'Ace' in Polish), who made his debut in the magazine as the translator of Cyril M. Kornbluth’s The Words of Guru three years before. The Witcher was recognised by the jury of a creative writing contest, beating over one thousand contestants. The short story won the third prize (ex aequo), following only Ciernie [Thorns] by Jan Maszczyszyn and the winning short story Yoo Retoont, Sneogg. Ay Noo by Marek S. Huberath. Sapkowski’s short story stood out for its ‘outstanding style and intriguing plot’; the latter would determine the Witcher’s brilliant career.
In October 2016, Sapkowski received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement and in December, Geralt of Rivia will turn 30. His adventures can be followed in a dozen short stories, a few novels, and numerous literary variations of the adventures of the Witcher and his friends. Moreover, he has become the main character of comics, TV and feature films, a rock opera, and a hugely successful series of video games. Despite all this, he’s not done yet, as his next birthday is going to be celebrated in genuine Hollywood style.
Read about (almost) all the incarnations of the Witcher:
Before the White Wolf set off overseas for the first time, he had already won the hearts of European readers. At first, Sapkowski was going to dedicate himself to translations only, but the editors of Fantastyka magazine asked him for another Witcher story. The creation of a morally unequivocal fantasy world, founded on Slavic and Celtic mythology and Arthurian legends, that made use of and at the same time argued with Tolkien’s vision, while being full of intertextual references to the Polish and world canons of literature could not have gone unnoticed. That foreign editors should notice the potential of the Witcher universe – ‘Sienkiewicz’s style and Chandler’s wit’, as Maciej Parowski, a writer, critic, and secretary of the aforementioned contest said on Polish Radio – was only a matter of time.
Four years after he had been introduced to Polish readers, Geralt was presented to the Russians (in an anthology of Polish fantasy literature) and to the Ukrainians (in Всесвіт magazine). By 1993, Sapkowski’s works had been published fourteen times east of Poland. And in the south, in the Czech Republic – ‘vědmák’ – later known as ‘zaklínač’ – appeared in 1991 as a translation of the short story Mniejsze Zło (Lesser Evil) – which bears a somewhat perverted resemblance to the fairy tale of Snow White. His popularity grew exponentially in that country; the subsequent volumes of his saga were published approximately one year after their Polish premiere, and Sapkowski himself collected awards from Czech literary critics and fantasy readers (such as an Ikaros award and an award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Literature). The subsequent translations of his works into Lithuanian, German, Spanish, French and Portuguese were published before 2007, when the first part of the role-playing game featuring the White Wolf was launched by CD Projekt RED.
However, a long time had to pass for the Witcher to be introduced to the English-speaking public. Although in the year 2000, The Hexer – translated by Agnieszka Fulińska – was published in the short-story collection Chosen by Fate: Zajdel Award Winner Anthology by SuperNOVA in cooperation with the Silesian Club of Fantasy Literature (its book cover was designed by Tomasz Bagiński), it went unnoticed. Only during the promotion of game version of The Witcher were readers offered the translation by Danuta Stok (The Last Wish published in the UK in 2007 and in the USA in 2008), followed by that of Michael Kandel (Spellmaker published in 2010 in A Polish Book of Monsters), who also translated the works of Stanisław Lem and Jacek Dukaj. The English edition of the fifth volume of the saga – Lady of the Lake – is to hit the market in 2017.
The time had come to penetrate other markets: from Serbia and Bulgaria, through Italy, Finland and Brazil, all the way to China and Japan (in the latter two countries, the title in Polish is printed on the book cover next to its translation).
The Witcher’s universe is so inspiring that fantasy writers – and authors of other literary genres – draw on it heavily, which not infrequently results in a pastiche or even a travesty, e.g., Geralt wearing jeans, armed with a cell phone and a notebook, hunting rebellious robots while riding a taxi? Yes, but only in the cyberpunk world of Vladimir Vasiliev. His Witcher of Grand Kiev also appears in Tales of the Witcher World, which is a tribute to Sapkowski by Russian and Ukrainian writers. The anthology includes better as well as worse stories, with altered versions of the characters (Geralt as such appears in the stories by Mikhail Uspienskij, but it is Dandelion who is the main character), visions of the world (Alexander Zolotko, whose ‘occupiers’, are stationed near Legnica has drifted farthest away from the canonical vision), and linguistic humour (an excellent short story by Belanin about Geralt and Yennefer set in contemporary times). No less interesting is a feminine look offered by Czech writer Petra Neomillnerova – the author of Lota – and by Olga Gromyko of Belarus who tells the story of Wolha Redna, a witch.
The literary Witcher became a phenomenon, but in the 1990s readers were not yet prepared for the story to be told by means of any other medium than as a book. A comic adaptation was problematic due to the form – brave dialogues and intertextual games had to be simplified a lot, and due to aesthetics – the image of Geralt and the world presented in a graphic novel could differ profoundly from readers’ expectations.
The first attempt was made by Maciej Parowski (the script written together with Sapkowski) and Bogusław Polch (art). While the plot was quite faithful to the original prose, the substitution of clean lines – known from Funky Koval – with thicker and less precise art and the use of subdued shades of brown, yellow, and black hardly excited readers. Geralt sporting a pony tail and a characteristic fringe became the hero of six comic books: The Road with No Return, Geralt, Lesser Evil, The Last Wish, Border of Ability, and Betrayal, which were published in the 1993-1995 editions of Komiks magazine. The last part of the saga, which was an original concept, marked the end of the magazine. As time went by, the scepticism towards the work by Polch and Parowski grew weaker, and subsequent editions of the comic followed in 2001 and 2015.
Over nearly three decades, at least a few attempts were made to turn the Witcher into a successful comic. Maciej Parowski tried again in 2007, this time collaborating with Przemysław Truściński (the designer of Geralt’s image in the video game). However, the promising project of six comics based on the novel’s plot came to naught. The year 2011, however, witnessed the publication of a work by Michał Gałek (script), Arkadiusz Klimek, and Łukasz Poller (art). The two-comic series Reason of State was an original concept based in the Witcher universe, the illustrations of which are reminiscent of French productions. The convergence of the date with the launch of the CD Projekt product is not a coincidence.
The story of the White Wolf attracted the attention of American publishing house Dark Horse Comics. The Witcher: House of Glass written by Paul Tobin, a winner of the Eisner Award, with art by Joe Querio, was published in 2014. This is a self-contained story full of horror, whose eerie climate is intensified by gloomy and often very simple drawings. The duo also created a follow-up entitled The Witcher: Fox Children based on Sapkowski’s novel Season of Storms. On the last day of August 2016, the third part of the American series, The Witcher: Curse of Crows, had its premiere (no information about a Polish edition so far). This time the adventure of Geralt and Ciri with the involvement of werewolves and strigas was illustrated by Polish artist Piotr Kowalski, who’s also collaborated with Marvel publishing house (on the Hulk) and with Stephen King (on a comic based on The Dark Tower series).
It would be improper not to mention the parody by Tomasz Samojlik. In his The Wutcher – Destiny of Sword (2001) Gierwald Zrywi fights with a murderous hair-stylist szczyga and discovers the mystery of the Holy Grill, and during a trip to the two towers of the retirement fund (2003) he meets old friends: Dżenifer [Yennefer] the witch, Katarakta [Cataract] the bard, and Czyrak [Boil] the Kinder Surprise.
After a comic adaptation of the Witcher prose, it was time to try to make it into a motion picture. An all-star cast (Michał Żebrowski – the most popular actor at that time – starred as Geralt, and all the episodes featured the best Polish actors), a big budget (almost 19 million zloty, making the production one of the ten most expensive Polish movies produced since 1989), an extensive marketing campaign, but most of all – a brilliant piece of prose (in absolutely every aspect of the word) plus an already cult hero – the project could not be a failure. Alas, following the premiere of The Witcher in 2001, the director Marek Brodzki and the scriptwriter Michał Szczerbica, who withdrew his name from the opening credits, were hit by a strong wave of criticism. The failure was said to have resulted from too excessive modification of the literary archetype and from too episodic a plot structure, which must have been a result of the film being made from a chopped up and unreleased TV series, which was only aired in 2002. The production was rather discouraging and the 13-episode TV series was acclaimed generally by those who hadn’t read Sapkowski’s books.
However, there is a chance that the 2017 production will be more successful. This time the film will be directed by Tomasz Bagiński associated with Platige Image, in cooperation with the US Sean Daniel Company. The full-length debut of the author of the Academy Award-nominated animation The Cathedral is going to be based on two short stories: The Witcher and Lesser Evil, which are going to be translated into the language of film by Hollywood scriptwriter Thania St. John, who has previously worked on such productions as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell. No particulars are known apart from that Geralt is going to be played by an English-speaking actor, its budget ranges between 20 and 30 million US dollars, and Bagiński dreams about shooting the film in Poland. The director said in an interview for the Polish Filmmakers Association:
We have to be aware that, by American standards, we are telling a rather low-key story with a few spectacular action scenes shot in the open air. There are going to be elaborate sets and special effects, but don’t expect the battle of the five armies. This is not going to be a blockbuster. The script came to us as a sort of quite wise, Slavic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The main objective is to present our protagonist in the widest and deepest dimension possible, and in such a way that viewers who do not know Sapkowski’s literature or the games featuring the Witcher can enter his world, and fall in love with it perhaps. If we achieved this goal with the film, maybe a sequel would follow…
Bagiński has also co-authored computer game trailers, specifically those of The Witcher game series. The undisputed success of the game by CD Projekt RED made the Witcher a globally-recognised brand name, and not only among fantasy fans. The studio started work on its first own role-playing game in 2003. We can read on the producer’s website:
For us, it was a great return to the literature of Andrzej Sapkowski, whose books and short stories soaked up our days and nights in high school and university. And when it turned out that the copyright on the plot was available for the purpose of game development, we felt like we’d achieved the impossible.
And so it really was. The first video game (The Witcher, released in autumn 2007) turned into a commercial success, but the best was yet to come. The subsequent parts of the game trilogy hit the market in 2011 and 2015 and sales exceeded 20 million copies. Pre-orders of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt reached 1.5 million copies in 109 countries, and the production budget, which exceeded PLN 300 million, was earned back in its entirety in just the first day of sales. Awarded over 800 times, including 251 Game of the Year awards, this production by a Warsaw studio became the most awarded video game in history.
Players were enchanted by its masterful production of an exotic Slavic world hitherto unknown to Westerners, the high quality extra content, and the degree of respect shown by the authors to their customers (taking users’ opinions into account, free-of-charge extensions). Last but not least, Sapkowski was also appreciative of CD Projekt's achievements while admitting, however, that he did not play games (mind you – a long ago he created Oko Yrrhedesa [The Eye of Yrrhedes] – one of the first Polish fantasy role-playing games).
The architectural design of the digital Novigrad resembles that of the city of Gdańsk – one of the buildings is the spitting image of the famous medieval port crane (Żuraw). Soon, the Tricity might be associated with the Witcher due to one more reason. The Music Theatre in Gdynia has started rehearsals for a musical based on Sapkowski’s book, with which it is going to inaugurate the 2017/2018 theatrical season. The direction and script are the responsibility of Wojciech Kościelniak, the music is composed by Piotr Dziubek, the lyrics by Rafał Dziwisz, and the set will be designed by Damian Styrna. This team has already succeeded in making stage adaptations of The Doll and The Peasants. Kościelniak says:
We want to prepare an attractive performance, with extensive use of modern technology. We want to show an interesting and picturesque world – different from everything that we have ever done in this theatre.
However, The Witcher to be staged by the Music Theatre in Gdynia will not be the stage debut of the White Wolf. In 2009 in Rostov-on-Don, Russian sympho-rock band Esse presented their rock opera Road Without Return (a title taken from a tale of Geralt’s parents). The musical narration, focused on the life of Princess Cirilla, lacks typical adventurous scenes, a lot of characters are absent in comparison to the literary plot, and the blunt language used by Sapkowski is substituted with a poetic libretto. In order to underline the emotional layer the authors combined various styles: from jazz improvisation through doom and power metal to elements of folk with the sound of the flute and the mandolin. Despite a pathos sometimes bordering kitsch, it has to be admitted that to set the world of fantasy in such a musical genre was a bold experiment.
Time will tell if Geralt of Rivia is going to surprise us even more…
Agnieszka Warnke, October 2016. Sources: Wiedźmin. Bohater masowej wyobraźni [The Witcher – a Hero of the Popular Imagination’ R. Dudziński at al. Wrocław 2015; Wiedźmin. Polski fenomen popkultury [The Witcher. A Phenomenon of the Polish Popular Culture] R. Dudziński, J. Płoszaj, Wrocław 2016; andrzejsapkowski.pl, cdprojekt.com, portalfilmowy.pl, Gazeta Wyborcza, Polish Radio, own materials.