After years of anticipation and months of an intense promotional push by Netflix, ‘The Witcher’ has finally made its way on to TVs and mobile devices around the globe. But what is this adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s saga like? Culture.pl's Bartosz Staszczyszyn stayed up all night glued to his screen to let you know his thoughts.
From the very beginning of this endeavour, the producers of The Witcher had to navigate something of a minefield. Creating the show’s universe, they had to tend to the needs and hopes of the millions of fans of Andrzej Sapkowski’s prose and CD Projekt Red’s game, as well as those who had never even heard of Geralt and his adventures. This delicate dance can be felt when watching the first five episodes (made available for reviewing purposes) of Netflix’s new series.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the series’ showrunner, does absolutely everything she can to make sure the casual viewer can keep up with the plot. This results in the first few episodes of The Witcher being bogged down in heavy exposition and tangential threads. Sometimes it's hard to guess who the main character of the story actually is.
During the first few episodes, the creators of the show constantly steer away from Geralt’s exploits and, instead, sketch the backstories of Ciri and Yennefer, the persecuted princess and trainee witch. Those who are well-versed in Sapkowski’s novels will most likely find these episodes extraordinarily boring.
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This is especially prevalent since the writers seem unable to determine what the main character’s purpose is and what is actually at stake. While the actions of Ciri and Yennefer are fully understandable, the adventures of Geralt seem somewhat accidental. We follow this white-haired knight as he fights strange monsters and meets unfriendly wanderers, but we’re not entirely sure why he should interest us.
Geralt resembles a charming figurine, which the screenwriters move around a game board. Instead of explaining the motivations of the hero to the viewers, the creators of the series focus on simple bursts of action – spectacular battle scenes, a magic trick. All this can make The Witcher seem dull to more advanced viewers.
In criticising the first episodes of The Witcher, however, one has to admit that in transferring Sapkowski's prose to the screen, its creators faced considerable challenges. Even just taking a closer look at the monologues, which, in the novel, are not only a carrier of information but also an element of Sapkowski's unique writing style. In Netflix’s version, they had to be reduced or rewritten so that the hero, instead of talking to himself, could share his thoughts with other characters. This change is not always credible and sometimes comes across as excessively declarative.
Humour, which was one of the strongest elements of Sapkowski's writing, also seems to have evaporated from the work. While the pages of the novel are full of fast-paced action sequences and plenty of gloom, they are counterpointed by brilliant jokes – these completely lose their power on screen. Especially in the Polish dubbing, the jokes come out disappointingly flat. Even the character of Jaskier, as interpreted by Joey Batey, turns out to be only mildly funny, when every Witcher fan knows how much comedic potential his character originally had. But he’s not the only one who seems to have lost his spark. Geralt also seems to have been stripped of his wicked charm, and, in Henry Cavill’s interpretation of him, he comes across more as a growler than a guy who can throw out a witty ironic one-liner.
Warriors & princesses
Yes, let’s talk about Cavill. When the producers first announced that Henry Cavill was chosen to play the daring Geralt, the Internet went absolutely berserk. Many fans were flat out angry that Cavill was just too… well, handsome to play the part. It seems that the first few episodes of Netflix’s show just confirm their fears. Even though Cavill really did commit to the part, developing an impressive musculature and doing all of his own stunts, he is still himself. It means his Geralt is too handsome, too elegant and too dignified. Even when the other heroes accuse him of walking around in dirty old rags, all we can see him as is a refined hunk. Although Cavill is very impressive with his athleticism and skill in using his sword, he is still too smooth to play the role of the White Wolf – a character wounded by swords and life.
This, however, does not change the fact that Netflix’s production boasts a truly impressive cast, in which we’ll notice many familiar faces. Next to Cavill, we’ll find stars from popular shows such as Lars Mikkelsen, known from Björn Hlynur Haraldsson’s Fortitude, or the demonic Eamon Farren from Twin Peaks. The cast also has some nods to The Witcher’s Polish provenance, with performances by Polish actors Maciej Musiał (1983, also on Netflix) and the charismatic Marcin Czarnik, which give the series additional flavour.
But when it comes to actors, it is the two young actresses who really stand out: Anya Chalotra, who plays Yennefer, and Freya Allan as Ciri. Thanks to their charisma and on-screen energy, The Witcher turns out to be something more than just a story about male adventures, warriors and knights.
Even before the premiere, Netflix’s series was treated by the media as the streaming platform’s response to HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s no coincidence that Alik Sakharov was the director of the formative pilot (as well as two other episodes) – he also happened to have directed four episodes of HBO’s smash hit. It’s impossible not to try and compare the two shows – both are adaptations of huge book series set in a fantasy universe reminiscent of the Middle Ages. And yet, The Witcher turns out to be an entirely different entity than the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novels.
While in Game of Thrones it was politics and its dirty mechanisms that pushed the plot forward, in The Witcher adventure leads the way. The screenwriters follow the hero, waiting with bated breath as he clashes with his opponents, mission after mission, following his unusual encounters along the way. Politics recede into the background. And that is really a shame because politics were also key in Sapkowski’s world.
Although the writer stubbornly swore that he was but a literary craftsman providing entertainment, in fact, he wrote about the nature of power and the tragedy of war. In addition to terrifying creatures and tough warriors, the other heroes of his stories were nationalism, racism and political cynicism. The Netflix version seems to leave all but a trace of these motifs. Read by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, The Witcher turns out to primarily be a story about male adventure and emerging female identities. And although casual viewers will certainly be pleased, for true White Wolf fans the series may be too naive and flat.
- The Witcher, prod. Netflix, 2019. Showrunner: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Executive producer: Tomasz Bagiński. Cast: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Lars Mikkelsen, Björna Hlynura Haraldsson, Eamon Farren. Premiere: 20th December 2019.
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Originally written in Polish, translated by NR, 20 Dec 2019