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‘Shadow and Bone’ Is a Major Hit for Netflix, but It Almost Didn’t Happen

Since “Shadow and Bone” premiered on Netflix on April 23, the fantasy epic series has been a fixture at or near the top of the streamer’s Top 10 lists in the U.S. and worldwide. Audiences have devoured its story of orphaned mapmaker Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who discovers she holds the unique — and life-changing — power to summon light as powerful as the sun. Those powers separate Alina from her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux), place her under the wing of the mysterious and equally powerful General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), and provide the fantasy kingdom of Ravka with its first real chance of destroying the Shadow Fold, a massive and malevolent dark storm that has riven Ravka for centuries.

Adapted from author Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling Grisha trilogy, “Shadow and Bone” appears poised to reach the status of past Netflix series like “The Witcher,” “The Crown,” and “Stranger Things” — not just a popular hit, but one of the streamer’s signature franchises.

Were it not for a tweet, however, the show may not have happened at all.

Four and a half years ago, “Shadow and Bone’s” executive producer and showrunner, Eric Heisserer, was earning the best reviews of his career for his script for the cerebral sci-fi thriller “Arrival” — adapted from Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story — for which Heisserer earned an Oscar nomination. His adaptation of Josh Malerman’s sci-fi novel “Bird Box” was also about to get picked up by Netflix as a vehicle for Sandra Bullock. But all that success had put Heisserer into a kind of perpetual work mode, in which every book or story he read was filtered through the lens of its potential to be adapted into a feature or series.

“So I had a resolution of, ‘I’ve got to get back to pleasure reading,'” he tells Variety. “Just diving into something for the pure joy of it.”

To start off 2017, on the advice of a friend, Heisserer picked up “Six of Crows,” one of Bardugo’s other fantasy novels set within the same creative universe as the Grisha trilogy, but years later with a different set of characters.

“I devoured it,” he says. “I absolutely love the world, and the characters and just the vibrancy of it all.”

Part of Heisserer’s resolution was to publicly acknowledge authors whose work had excited him, so he fired off a tweet of appreciation to Bardugo — and then promptly forgot about it. True to his commitment, he just kept reading all of the Grishaverse books, with nary a thought of adaptation entering his head.

About a year later, Heisserer got a call from Netflix.

“They said, ‘Eric, we know you like the Grishaverse books,'” he recalls with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Are you in the room? How did you…what?'”

While Heisserer had been busy reading, Bardugo had been busy shopping the rights to the “Shadow and Bone” trilogy over town and eventually landed at Netflix. (They had been with DreamWorks for years but went nowhere, and reverted back to her.)

“As soon as we had locked on the rights, I mentioned the fact that Eric Heisserer had read ‘Six of Crows’ and was a fan — he tweeted me about it,” Bardugo says. “He just happened to be an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. Should we give him a phone call?”

Tickled that his resolve to read for pleasure had somehow still brought him a professional opportunity, Heisserer gladly took the meeting with Netflix — but he was far from an immediate yes.

“I told them at the time, ‘I’m not going to touch this series unless I also have the “Six of Crows” duology and have those characters. I don’t see a show without both,'” Heisserer recalls. “They said, ‘Well, we don’t have rights to that.’ And I said, ‘Well OK, good luck.'”

Heisserer wasn’t really playing hard to get — he had a show he was readying at AMC. But the very next day, it fell apart. “It’s like, why did I have so much swagger that Netflix?! Why did I do that to myself?” Heisserer says with a laugh.

His commitment to “Six of Crows,” however, remained firm. “The gateway drug is always the most potent for you,” he says.

Netflix was happy to be Heisserer’s supplier. The streamer purchased the rights not just to “Six of Crows” and its sequel “Crooked Kingdom,” but also to “The Language of Thorns,” Bardugo’s collection of short stories also set within the Grishaverse. Heisserer happily signed on to make the show.

And then the hard part began.

It’s no secret that every streamer and premium network wants the next “Game of Thrones,” and Netflix is no different. As Shawn Levy — who was brought on to executive produce “Shadow and Bone” with his company 21 Laps after Heisserer signed up — explains, for the streamer, “Their ambition with ‘Shadow and Bone’ was do right by the fans of these best-selling novels, but also make a show that could be more broadly consumed than even the very popular books.”

To accomplish that goal, Heisserer set himself and his team the complicated task of credibly combining two book series that, while occupying the same fantasy world, are markedly separate in their narratives and in their overall sensibilities. Here’s how they pulled it off.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read further if you have not yet watched “Shadow and Bone.” Possible future storylines from Bardugo’s novels are also below.

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(Left to right): Amita Suman, Freddy Carter, Archie Renaux, and Kit Young in “Shadow and Bone.” David Appleby/Courtesy of Netflix

Bridging “Shadow and Bone” and “Six of Crows”

When Bardugo first learned that Heisserer would only make “Shadow and Bone” if he could include “Six of Crows” as well, “my response was basically, ‘Hell yeah,'” she says. That initial enthusiasm, however, was quickly followed by some apprehension.

“I knew that it would create some complications,” she says. “It did take some creative thinking to figure out the mechanism by which we were going to bring these two stories together.”

The “Shadow and Bone” trilogy follows Alina Sarkoff as she grapples with her sudden transition from an orphaned nobody into the mythic savior of Ravka. The story knowingly literalizes the traditional fight of good and evil by giving Alina the power to control light in order to eradicate perpetual darkness. There are kings and queens, grand palaces, magical creatures, the superpowered Grisha who can manipulate various natural elements, and, in the Darkling (a.k.a. General Kirigan on the show), a romantic interest for Alina who becomes her greatest enemy.

“Six of Crows” is nothing like it. “It was a question of what happens to the people who don’t have grand destinies and royal blood and great magic,” says Bardugo. “The ‘Shadow and Bone’ trilogy is a classic chosen one story. For me, ‘Six of Crows’ was almost a reaction to that.”

Set largely on a different continent from Ravka in the teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis of Ketterdam, “Six of Crows” revolves around a scrappy and disreputable gang of criminals called the Crows, including their scheming leader Kaz (Freddy Carter), the stealthy spy Inej (Amita Suman), and the rakish gunsmith Jesper (Kit Young). Their story involves crime lords and jailbreaks, lethal narcotics and crafty disguises, elaborate heists and shocking double-crosses — as Heisserer describes it, “‘Oceans 11’ in a ‘Game of Thrones’ world.”

Initially, Heisserer considered simply adapting the narratives from the “Shadow and Bone” novel and the “Six of Crows” novel in parallel on the show. After all, Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline on “Game of Thrones” didn’t even start to intersect with the rest of show until the end of Season 5. Bardugo, however, didn’t agree.

“I felt with a great deal of conviction that that would not work,” she says. “‘Six of Crows’ takes place two years after the end of the trilogy and it has a different threat and a different set of antagonists that could not peacefully coexist with the Darkling. We would simply be blowing up too much road that was in front of us if we did that.”

Instead, Heisserer had to figure out how to integrate Kaz, Inej, and Jesper into Alina’s story without fundamentally altering it, and without violating who those characters become in “Six of Crows.”

“I finally proposed, ‘What if the Crows’ mission was to kidnap Alina?’ And there was a pause on the phone on that conference call,” says Heisserer. “I have been on pitches where a pause can last long enough that that it’s the ‘You’re fired’ pause. So I was a little worried about that. But then everyone was like, ‘That is amazing.'”

Because Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” novels are written in first person from Alina’s perspective, the trick, Heisserer realized, was to insert the Crows into the parts of Alina’s story that she wasn’t witnessing.

“It allows us the opportunity to say, These other characters that are actually in the world lurking just next door or around the corner,” he says. “It’s just that Alina doesn’t encounter them.”

Bardugo was thrilled with the changes. “They managed to keep all of these character’s journeys and their heart and the personal challenges they face intact, while providing a completely different vision of how things might have happened in the Grishaverse,” she says. “To me, it’s the best kind of retcon.”

Critically, Heisserer’s solution also convinced Netflix that buying the rights to Bardugo’s other novels was worth it.

“They’re very invested in the ‘Shadow and Bone’ trilogy,” he says. “That’s what they got the rights to first. Those are the stories they were most interested in telling. They were a little more, I would say, apprehensive about the Crows. Part of this first season was for me to prove to them how integral they can be to the longevity and the sustainability of the show, and that it gives them more spaces to explore, and somewhere to go, once you get to the end of Alina storyline.”

Bringing the Crows to “Shadow and Bone,” however, wasn’t the only big change Heisserer wanted to make for the show.

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Daisy Head, and Jessie Mei Li in “Shadow and Bone.” Courtesy of Netflix

Changing Alina’s heritage

One of Heisserer’s favorite parts of the “Shadow and Bone” novels is that, while it tells a chosen one story, Alina strenuously resists taking part in it.

“She feels like it reduces her as a person to a purpose and nothing more and that it puts her on a pedestal for so many people,” he says. “And she knows what happens when you’re put on pedestals, you’re gonna get get shoved off sooner or later.”

Heisserer especially connected to the idea that becoming the Sun Summoner forces Alina to question her purpose in the world, and he wanted to heighten that conflict by further isolating Alina in her life before the world learned of her abilities — making her sense of identity that much more hard won. So he decided, with Bardugo’s blessing, that one Alina’s parents would be from Shu-Han, the Grishaverse equivalent of China and one of Ravka’s enemies.

He knew that making Alina effectively half-Asian would also have the benefit of further connecting Alina’s story with the broader diversity of the “Six of Crows” characters — Inej is Suli, a hybrid of Romani and South Asian heritage; and Jesper is from Novyi Zem, a stand-in for sub-Saharan Africa.

“It was a representative of a fantasy world that is populated by many people,” says Heisserer. “It felt like, OK we’re no longer a snapshot of [the predominantly white casts of] ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Game of Thrones.’ You’ve got a very interesting spectrum just from the onset.”

Still, Heisserer didn’t quite get just how important it would be to have his show’s hero be half-Shu until he started his writers room.

I didn’t really understand the greater cultural implications until I brought on a writer named Christina Strain, who’s mixed Asian herself,” says Heisserer. “She championed the voice of Alina a lot of times when it came to racial friction or identity, and a greater question of whether I belong.”

That became especially resonant as the writers dug into Ravka’s messianic mythology surrounding the Sun Summoner. “What if your chosen one is not the chosen one that you have drawn in all of your books?” Heisserer says. “What if she looks completely different from what you expect?”

In one scene that was ultimately cut from the show, Heisserer says Alina finds refuge in a church after she flees General Kirigan and the Little Palace at the end of Episode 5.

“Everybody’s praying for Sankta Alina to come save them and get rid of the Fold, and the the art on the walls is a blonde, blue-eyed saint,” Heisserer says. “None of them have been to the Little Palace or seen any of that. As she’s trying to doze off in a pew, the priest comes over and is like, ‘Girl, get out of here.’ He shoves her out after regaling everybody with the saintliness of the Sun Summoner.”

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Carter and Suman on the set of “Shadow and Bone.” David Appleby/Courtesy of Netflix

Creating — and distinguishing — Ravka and Ketterdam

From the start of its run, “Game of Thrones” shot in multiple locations in different parts of the world to represent Westeros and Essos, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy famously recreated Middle Earth by hopping all over New Zealand — a practice Amazon’s upcoming series is continuing. “Shadow and Bone,” by contrast, did not quite have the ability to travel far afield to bring the Grishaverse countries of Ravka and Kersh (home to the city of Ketterdam) to life.

“This wasn’t a low budget show, but it’s also not working with a ‘Game of Thrones’ budget,” Levy says. “So we needed to be thoughtful about where were we going to go for scope and visual ‘wow’ moments.”

The production shot Season 1 exclusively in and around Budapest in Hungary, using real locations for its palace interiors and exteriors, and employing visual effects to extend and embellish them further. Some of the most elaborate — and expensive — details, however, were much smaller scaled, crafted by costume designer Wendy Partridge. She was tasked with creating the elaborate uniforms, or “keftas,” worn by the magical Grisha who make up the Second Army of Ravka. Bardugo’s book specified that each order of Grisha — like the fire-conjuring Inferni, or the wind-controlling Squallers — wear unique colors with further demarcations in their specific embroidery. Partridge wanted to take it even further.

“She wanted to use gold bullion because that was something that had been traditionally used in military insignia on uniforms,” Heisserer says. “She would sneakily put in it iconography into various kefta costumes that helped represent whatever that sub-order was. And she’d always bring it back to a Slavic inspiration with the furs or with the hats or with some other element that let you know that this is not another medieval or British spin.”

Another essential consideration was in differentiating Ravka — a vast kingdom meant to evoke Czarist Russia of the 18th and 19th centuries — and Ketterdam — a teeming metropolis that’s equal parts pre-industrial London, New York City, and Amsterdam. Working with director Lee Toland Krieger, who helmed the first two episodes, Heisserer worked out a distinct visual language for the respective locales.

“When you’re with Alina, Mal, Kirigan, and the Ravkan military, you’ve got sweeping landscapes and wide shots; you’re using cranes and some aerial [photography], and the score is going to be like an 80-piece orchestra with just a bunch of Tchaikovsky-inspired melancholic sounds,” Heisserer said. “If you’re with the Crows in Ketterdam you’re down to whip pans and handheld [photography], and we have a little 10-piece orchestra. These are people who’re never going to see a sunrise or sunset because they’re not looking that far.”

For Bardugo, witnessing her fictional creation become a tactile reality was at times overwhelming.

“I’m hesitant to say this because it sounds so hokey, but it was humbling in a profound way because when I was writing ‘Shadow and Bone,’ I was in an incredibly dark time in my life,” she says. “I was in a job I hated and that I was not very good at, I was in a very bad and destructive relationship. I had reached this point in my life where I thought, ‘Well, I guess this is it, my tombstone will read “had potential.”‘”

Instead, Bardugo found herself inside a scene she’d once written, as one of the Grisha witnessing Alina’s introduction to the king and queen of Ravka. Afterwards, Bardugo gives Li a warm hug.

“To be able to stand on set and see these actors around me and even at one point to be in costume with them — part of me felt like I was having some kind of bizarre hallucination, but the rest of me just felt incredibly grateful because this was a journey that’s been 10 years in the making,” she says. “I’m just glad the writing thing has worked out because after seeing myself on camera, there was no acting involved. It’s just me beaming.”

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Ben Barnes in “Shadow and Bone.” Courtesy of Netflix

Planning for a second season, and hoping for many more after that

The first season of “Shadow and Bone” ends with Kirigan (a.k.a. the Darkling) emerging from the Shadow Fold — scarred and with a small retinue of monstrous Volcra trailing behind him — after he’d been defeated by Alina and Mal and left for dead.

In Bardugo’s first novel, the Darkling’s fate is far less clear; it’s only in subsequent books that we learn he’s not just survived, but grown even more powerful. So why did Heisserer want to end his show with such a major cliffhanger?

“It was me daring Netflix not to renew us,” he says with a laugh.

Given Netflix’s considerable investment in “Shadow and Bone,” matched with the show’s seeming popularity, it’s only a matter of time before the show officially lands a second season. What that season would look like is an intriguing puzzle.

The other major development in the Season 1 finale is when the show’s third major storyline — the impossible romance between the Grisha agent Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias (Calahan Skogman), the witch-hunting Drüskelle who kidnaps Nina — finally intersects with the main cast. Readers of “Six of Crows” know that Nina and Matthias eventually join the Crows gang, but in doing so, their exploits take Kaz, Inej, and Jesper far afield from Ravka and Alina’s story.

After spending all of Season 1 working so hard to integrate the two books, however, Heisserer says he plans to continue to weave the Crows into Alina’s story, and vice versa.

“I think we’ll need to,” he says. “We had so much fun at the moments when these two sets of characters could find ways to integrate. I have a lot of fun theories about how we can make this happen organically again, without really disturbing too much of the separate storylines that they’re on.”

How long those storylines could run is also an open question. Alina’s journey lasts for three novels; the Crows’ story runs for two; and Bardugo has written seven Grishaverse books to date and says she’s done with that creative universe (for now, anyway). Netflix, however, has become notorious for cutting off most shows after its third season. Heisserer hopes that won’t happen here.

“This is absolutely a show that can go more than three seasons, for sure,” he says. “If I have to reframe it for Netflix to say, ‘You can still shut this down at three seasons, but we’re continuing with this other spin-off — whatever you want to call it — it still has legs.'”

In the meantime, Heisserer says he’s already been working on his own on what that season will look like — partly to be sure the show can hit the ground running if and when the renewal does come, partly because he just cannot help himself.

“I’m addicted to the the cast and the world,” he says. “Having read the books, those people have been living rent free in my head for so long, this is my revenge. I want to spend more time in their world.”