SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Witcher,” streaming now on Netflix.
A dragon, a zombie-like creature and a banished princess walk into a tavern. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before?
All three are part of a big swing fantasy series that represents one of the most sizable TV gambles of 2019. No, we’re not talking about “Game of Thrones,” but Netflix’s new series “The Witcher,” which launched Friday.
Based on the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, “The Witcher” begins with Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) thrashing around in a swamp with a fearsome, spidery beast. The violent fight ends with him ramming a sword through its open mouth and emerging from the waters like some kind of demi-god. The comparisons with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) emerging from the flames in “Game of Thrones” — and the HBO series in general — are being made left and right, and they are well-founded. “Game of Thrones” co-showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss faced both the unenviable task of bringing George R.R. Martin’s dense books to the screen, and the greatest level of fan scrutiny and backlash that arguably any TV show has ever received. In adapting Sapkowski’s work, “The Witcher” showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich had to contend with a similarly gigantic monster and its fanatical followers.
It only took Geralt carrying one sword instead of two in the show’s key art for fans to be up in arms. But Hissrich, who has worked with fan-centric IP including “Daredevil” and “The Defenders” before, approached the task of bringing “The Witcher” to life with an equal amount of excitement mixed in with that apprehension.
“It’s so exciting to have the foundation of this material. I love adapting things, the last three things I’ve done before this have been adaptations, and to me to take source material that is so loved and has such a passionately excited fan base and then to bring it to a new medium is exciting,” she says.
In fact, Hissrich says she learned a lot from watching “Game of Thrones” and the polarizing fan reactions to its eight groundbreaking seasons.
While Benioff and Weiss largely chose not to engage with fans and their wild theories and clamorous complaints, Hissrich is taking a very different approach: “I wanted to have a dialogue with the fans,” she says. “I put myself on Twitter very, very early on and announced who I was, what I was doing, and was met with all sorts of reactions, good and bad, but I stuck around. What I want people to know is that I love this franchise. It doesn’t mean I’m going to do everything that fans want me to do, or do it the way they think it should be done, but as long as they know I’m trying to honor the same thing that they love because I love it too, I tell myself we’ll be all good.”
And that approach already paid off when it came to the two swords drama. Fans of the original novels rode to the showrunner’s defense, given that Geralt is only portrayed as carrying dual blades in the highly-popular video games based on the books.
However, there were plenty of instances where Schmidt Hissrich chose or was forced into making adjustments for the small-screen adaptation. The most obvious examples of changes deal with the characters of Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and Princess Ciri (Freya Allan). Both are present in the books, but Hissrich felt the series needed an extra injection of female power, so she and the writers scoured “every little indication, every last sentence” for scraps with which to build their backstory.
In Yennefer’s case, the resulting story begins with her living a life of misery on a farm, hideously bullied by her father for having a deformity. Eventually, she is discovered by the head of a magical academy (played by MyAnna Buring), who takes her away and teaches her how to harness her powers. By the end of Episode 3, Yennefer has been transformed into a powerful mage with stunning beauty, but with one terrible cost.
“Everyone knows what Yennefer becomes, but we also see that she’s protecting something, there has to be something underneath that tough, cold exterior on her. I want to know how she became that way, and that’s what we answer in Season 1,” says Hissrich. “Same with Ciri: She’s a princess on the run — this is not a new thing for fantasy; it’s a well-worn trope, and so we wanted to figure out what she’s running from. It was about interweaving those stories. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of asking, ‘Are audiences going to be able to follow what we’re doing with these timelines?’”
In the first episode, Ciri’s home kingdom of Calanthe is ransacked, her father is killed in battle, and her mother throws herself from the keep’s tallest tower. Three episodes later, Geralt and his goofy companion Jaskier (Joey Batey) arrive at the castle for a banquet several years prior to the attack. Hissrich says the decision to kick things off in media res and then slowly reconstruct events was made partly in order to deepen Ciri’s character.
“I wanted to start the characters at a place where we met them comfortable in life. Ciri is a spoiled princess who has been protected by her grandmother the queen. I wanted to start her there and then immediately complicate it. Her kingdom is taken away from her and her journey is about letting the scales fall from her eyes and letting her realize that this idyllic childhood isn’t as sweet and wonderful as she thought. I love starting characters in the middle of their journey and explaining how they got there,” she says.
Another major change is that in the books, Geralt is far more verbose; he travels from tavern to tavern, recounting tales of his monster-hunting glory to all who are willing to listen. Hissrich originally wrote Geralt as close to the books as possible, but when Cavill began delivering a ton of dialogue on set, something didn’t feel quite right.
“At first, Henry showed up and said all the lines he was supposed to say, and we realized as we started editing the episode that we didn’t actually need all of this,” she says. “We all slapped our foreheads and realized at the same time that unlike the video games, unlike the books, we can count on the actual actors, who don’t have to speak all the time, who can make a certain facial expression or grunt. Geralt’s a big grunter, to communicate something without words.”
Altering Geralt to be a more stoic, silent type meant the comedy and interplay with the jolly Jaskier came to the fore.
And while “The Witcher” mirrors both the books and other high fantasy dramas like “Game of Thrones” in its copious nudity and penchant for violence, Hissrich says she was constantly asking herself, “Does this further story?”
“Personally it drives me crazy if there is gratuitous violence for the sake of shocking the audience, or if you’re having a conversation over here and two people in the background are just naked,” she says. “I need to understand why they’re naked and ‘What does that say about the characters?’ I hope in every situation the audience thinks I get it.”
As for the comedy, Hissrich hopes it will be one of the defining factors which sets “The Witcher” apart in an increasingly crowded field of dragons, magical creatures and princesses.
“The comedy is what separates ‘Witcher’ from a lot of other fantasy material like ‘Game of Thrones.’ It comes from an organic place which is that Andrzej Sapkowski is Polish, and he was telling me a lot about what it was like to grow up in Poland at a time when there country was being constantly taken over by other countries, there was a lot of political turmoil, a lot of people died, a lot of conflict, and yet you still have to get up every day and put one foot in front of the other and continue on with your life,” she says. “He said, ‘How do people deal with tragedy? They laugh.’ Bringing that aspect into a fantasy show is really fresh and had never really been done before. It was really important to me to keep in that in, and I hope the fans appreciate it.”