Tuesday, July 25, 2023

What's in an Adaptation? A Sapkowski Fanatic Watches Netflix's The Witcher

Literature is magical because, at some point, you read a book and grow convinced that it contains answers to all the mysteries of creation. I have felt this way several times in my life, particularly with esoteric novels. Many of my absolute favorite books, from Roberto Bolaño's fragmented mystery 2666 to William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, read almost like scriptures - arcane texts that require hermaneutics of interpretation. 

Indeed, it is not always clear what these books are about; at times they seem to be more vibes than plot, with hints of deep lore sprinkled like fairy dust across their pages. Neuromancer, for example, is a book I've read at least five times over the course of my adult life - and every experience has felt unique. The current rise of AI chatbots has even recontextualized this book once again, leading me to consider a sixth go around. 

Of all the fantasy series I have read (and there are many), none have given me that quasi-religious experience quite like Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher cycle.* The characters are tremendously well articulated: complex, raw and human. The books are, I would argue, part of the dark turn in fantasy. But they are not just dark, they are also warm and romantic; they do not focus just on pain and suffering, but also on loyalty, friendship and what it truly means to love. 

The series is not, however, an easy read. The plot is more elliptical than linear, with a narrative focus on small groups of characters rather than big set-piece moments of great import - which happen offstage and are more referred to than described. The world-building is complex, but there is virtually no exposition to aid the uninitiated; like Gibson's science fiction, it is all showing and zero telling. Character motivations, meanwhile, can be opaque in the moment, only to revealed piecemeal through oblique reference. For all these reasons, I can see how the series could be frustrating to someone expecting Martin, Sanderson or Hobb. But for someone like me, who craves a literary puzzle, the Witcher books are pure magic.  

*[For those who don't mind spoilers, you can find more detailed, book-by-book analysis on The Last Wish, Blood of ElvesTime of ContemptBaptism of FireThe Tower of Swallows and The Lady of the Lake. But warning: these reviews will contain spoilers for the book and TV series.]


I actually first discovered the Witcherverse through other media - specifically, through CD Projekt Red's Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. The world and characters were so captivating to me that I jumped online to find out more about the book series. I learned that Sapkowski's books were a sensation in Eastern Europe and Latin America, somewhat akin in popularity and influence to George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, which was (rightly) viewed as a breakout fantasy series when first published in the 1990s. I also learned that the Witcher books were being translated and published in English, so of course I had to read them. 

The games and books do not tell the same story; rather, the games pick up the story at the end of the book series. And as good and likable as the games are, the books to me are just on another level. What's interesting, though, is that I didn't stop liking the games after reading the books. If anything, my enthusiasm for the games grew. This is progress for someone who often gets hung up on changes made to revered media (e.g. some of the creative license taken for the Game of Thrones TV series). 

Really, the games feel like spiritual companions to the books. They tell a different story, but the characters and world they inhabit feel true to their literary roots. Sapkowski himself isn't a big fan the games, in part due to ambivalence toward games as a storytelling medium and in part due to licensing disputes with CD Projekt Red (which now appear to have been resolved). But what strikes me about the games is how loyal they feel to the world Sapkowski created. They are loving tributes to their source material. 


Enter Netflix, which in 2017 announced a new TV adaptation in development. The streaming service hoped to capitalize on both Game of Thrones mania and the popularity of the Witcherverse in other media, with a series launch scheduled to coincide with the end of HBO's mega hit. It was announced that the series would adapt the books rather than the games and would star known nerd Henry Cavill as the eponymous Witcher. 

The first season had the unenviable task of adapting The Last Wish, a short story collection that sets the stage for the cycle proper, which begins in Blood of Elves. The showrunners could have just adapted the stories in episodic format, but they wanted to reel people in the way only serialized programs can. The show also had to grapple with the fact that Witcherverse lore is so deep, complicated and - as I mentioned earlier - shown piecemeal rather than told straightforwardly. Their solution was a nonlinear narrative that combines episodic stories with backstories that unfold across different dimensions of time. Yennefer's story, for example, is told across a 70-year period while Ciri's happens within 2 years. 

The result, in my opinion, is a mixed bag. Overall I think the first season provides a solid introduction to the characters, world and general themes of the series - and I like some of the adjustments to character (e.g. fleshing out Yennefer's backstory). But I've never been sure whether it could truly capture the imagination of someone who never read the books or played the games. Nor how they would follow the world's complicated and often opaque politics. And on top of that, the pacing of season one can only be described as sluggish. 

Since comparisons are inevitable, I'll note that this contrasts unfavorably with the first season of Game of Thrones, which does a superb job of telling you what's at stake (Westeros), who the main players are (the Starks, the Lannisters and the Targaryens) and why it matters (emerging threat too everyone from the White Walkers). It seeds these vital pieces of information within a compelling political mystery plot with parallel narratives of discovery north of the wall and on the continent of Essos. Finally, through a truly shocking plot twist (which readers of the books already knew was coming but TV neophytes did not), the show sets viewers up brilliantly for season 2.  

With this in mind, I didn't exactly have high hopes for The Witcher season 2. Blood of Elves is an odd book - a good book, to the sure, but not the best in the series. As I noted in my review, it's the installment  where Sapkowski's preference for micro over macro perspectives works least well. A lot of the action takes place at the stronghold of Kaer Morhen, where Ciri trains to become a witcher. There is a very long passage, brilliant in writing but difficult to translate to the screen, where sorceress Triss Merigold castigates the all-male witcher cadre for expecting Ciri to behave like a boy and undervaluing her femininity. We are introduced to Rience, who is one of the series' main antagonists, and get glimpses of the political machinations that propel the macro plot across the cycle. My concern going into season 2 of the TV series was that this would not make for compelling television, which requires even more "watercooler moments" than books. What if the show remained sluggish? 

Boy was I wrong. Season 2 of The Witcher is fantastic. The pace picks up, as the story shifts from contained monster hunting and backstory exposition to the multi-pronged contest to capture and control Ciri, with Geralt and Yennefer desperately trying to keep her out of the hands of those who would manipulate her for their own ends. 

The shape and structure of Sapkowski's book series only really works in the medium of literature; in order to turn it into effective television, the showrunners had to make changes - opting to capture the tone and feel of the books while diverging from them in specific ways. In season 2, the plot is simpler, clearer and strikes a more even balances micro and macro events than does Blood of Elves. Which is not to say that it is better than Blood of Elves - the opacity and nonlinearity, even in its least compelling installment, has always struck me as a feature rather than a bug. But the streamlined narrative does work better as television.   

Season 3, half of which is available as of writing (with the second half dropping worldwide on July 27), wraps up events from Blood of Elves and shifts to the second novel in the cycle proper, Time of Contempt. In contrast to Blood of Elves, Sapkowski's elliptical narratives and micro-focus work tremendously well in this book. In fact, Time of Contempt is one of two Witcher novels I scored as a 10/10, and is a supreme example of what can be accomplished within the fantasy genre. I even suggested that it "may be the best fantasy novel I have ever read." - which it probably was, at the time (though now, having finished the series, I am inclined to think The Lady of the Lake is even better). 


Season 3 struggles a bit more with the source material than in season 2, perhaps because the roadmap to transitioning the story to television is less clear. But it is still quite good - and, knowing what comes next, I am very excited for part two. Having watched the preview trailer, it looks likely that the show will adapt the intensity and pure weirdness of Time of Contempt's denouement. I don't want to spoil anything, but since you can see them in the trailer, all I will say is this: unicorns. The unicorn sequence in Time of Contempt is batshit crazy, in the best possible way. 

The show is supported by a superb cast of actors; besides Cavill, British actresses Anya Chalotra and Freya Allen shine as Yennefer and Ciri, and Eamon Farren is superb as the enigmatic Nilfgaardian agent Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach. Some of the smaller characters are also quite memorable - sorceress Sabrina Glevessig, dwarven adventurer Yarpen Zigrin and magical detectives Codringher and Fenn all make the most of limited screen time. 

Notably, some characters from the book series have been altered past the point of recognition. Sometimes this works. Prince Radovid of Redania is far more interesting as King Vizimir's perennially underestimated brother than he is as Vizimir's young, stern son. Sorceress Fringilla Vigo is also transformed from a minor character in the early novels into to a major player with backstory, nuance and complexity. We similarly get a deeper look at elven Queen Francesca Findebair, who like Fingilla Vigo becomes a more important character later in the book series but isn't really a major player in Blood of Elves. This exposition should make it easier for Witcher neophytes to understand the roles Fringilla Vigo and Francesca Findebair play as the cycle unfolds. 

At other times, the changes work less well. Philippa Eilhart is one of the most intriguing characters in the books and games - a scheming puppet-master with the mercurial, predatory demeanor of her other form, the owl. The way she's played in the show feels off to me, she is more sensual and almost feline. Not that there is anything wrong with that, and as always with these things, your mileage mat vary - it's just a deviation from the books and games that doesn't really work for me. 

There are also a lot of new characters, some of which work better than others. Gallatin the elven insurgent appears in season 3 to create conflict but doesn't really have much of a role otherwise. Dara is another elven character who seems to exist more to move the plot along than anything else. But Istredd to me is a very strong addition to the story. 

Now, to be fair, Istredd does appear in the short story "A Shard of Ice," but he does not appear in the cycle proper. However, unlike, say, Stregobor, he is not the feature of the story nor does he have a major place in Witcherverse lore - rather, he is included in that story as a device that helps us delve deeper into Geralt and Yennefer's relationship. As such, his portrayal in the show as an academic mage with a key role in unfolding the central conspiracy at the heart of the first two novels feels more original than just expanded. 


All of this is a lengthy way to say the TV adaptation has to date surprised me with its quality, its depth and its ability to know when to adhere to what has been established in the books and games and when to deviate from them. 

With that in mind, I have some major concerns about how the series will wrap up. Let's start with the obvious: for some baffling, unimaginably stupid reason, the show's producers decided to let Henry Cavill go and replace him with Liam Helmsworth. It's not that Helmsworth is a bad actor or would make for a bad Geralt; it's that Cavill has embodied the character as only someone with a true passion for the role can. Cavill is a known nerd who came into the role as a big fan of the games; since taking on the role, he has dived deep into the books and broader Witcherverse, to the point where cast and crew have called him the set's expert on series lore. 

This may have been the reason for his dismissal. Cavill allegedly argued with the showrunners on deviations from the book series, whereas the showrunners would prefer not to stick too close to the books. Given my comments on the series above, you might think I'd take the showrunners' side here - but seasons 2 and 3 clearly show Cavill's influence. Without that, the deviations may become less authentic to fans of Sapkowski's writing. 

The show may also suffer from the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes (which we strongly support). The scripts for season 4 have apparently already been written, but the strike could impact necessary revisions. And does anyone, for a moment, think the studios might not just rush the product out to meet financial obligations, ready or not? 

I have even greater concerns about how Netflix will handle the show's ending in season 5. After all, we've now seen countless examples of streaming channels chasing ratings by letting beloved series series end miserably. Even worse is the new trend to cut costs by killing off projects that people love, no matter where we are in the storyline. Both would do a major disservice to what has been, up to now, a major success. I hope neither comes to fruition, but I do have serious concerns here.

Ultimately, though, we can only judge the series on what it's done to date - and it's hard for this Witcherverse fanatic not to see the adaptation as a glass more than half full. Sure, it's not the books - and it may not be the games either, but it is good. Very good. I hope that the show continues to live up to its promise. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator (2012).