Netflix “The Witcher”: Slavic Fantasy embarassed of its roots
I’ve read the entire Witcher series in one hot July thirteen years ago and have been a fan ever since. Yet, I’ve never felt protective of my personal vision of its setting and characters, even if I was among those who wanted Mads Mikkelsen to take on the role of Geralt of Rivia. It allowed me to watch the series with as much an open mind as I could and take the Netflix interpretation for what it’s worth.
The Witcher’s cast has been discussed and meme’d about for the major part of 2019 with racist scandals and fan-casting disappointments, and there is nothing really to add except that they played us all. All of the actors (some more than others, and yet the original statement stands) fit like a glove. Henry Cavil is Geralt of Rivia, Anya Chalotra is Yennefer, and I don’t see anyone else except Freya Allan as Ciri. They can miss a beat or not fit into everyone’s taste, the occasional female nudity may not always be justified, yet they have brought life into the characters long-thought to be reserved to more seasoned actors.
Secondary characters shined in what limited time and writing quality they were given – Joey Batey’s Jaskier/Dandelion was superb and additional kudos for the musical performances, MyAnna Buring’s interpretation of Tissaia is above any expectations, and I really look forward to Eamon Faren’s development of Cahir opposite Ciri in the future seasons. The highest praise is the amount of exciting fanart, fanfics, and other fandom activity that shows how warmly the viewers embraced the cast and their vision.
Another much-discussed topic has been the unorthodox structure of the narrative with its oft-confusing time jumps and converging plotlines of the three main characters – Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. It has confused both viewers familiar with the franchise and the newcomers, for different reasons, yet this creative decision deserves nothing but praise – Lauren S. Hissrich put trust in the viewers’ ability to keep up, to follow something more complicated than another spoon-fed formulaic heroes’ journey. The gamble paid off – seventy-six million people watched The Witcher in the first 28 days and it remains one of the highest-rated Netflix shows.
Despite the above success on the bigger dramatic scale, Hissrich’s writing and creative vision failed on the scene-level – cringy dialogue generously sprinkled with lengthy exposition and total reliance on Henry Cavil’s memeable “hmm’s” and “fucks” robbed the character interactions of the necessary nuance and often of the social and meta-fantasy satire inherent to The Witcher. It’s even more painful to watch all of the actors giving their everything in awfully written and blocked scenes. This was quite reminiscent of Krysten Ritter’s and Charlie Cox’s desperate attempts to do their best with what they got in the Defenders.
Another missed opportunity is the production design and cinematography.
The showrunners and set designers have decided to shy away from the Slavic roots of the books and games, with its primary colours, extravagant national costumes, authentic architecture and preferred to settle for the miserableness of the American fantasy’s grey palette. I can conjure two reasons for this decision – executives being afraid they would alienate US viewers with anything newer and stranger than “medieval town”; second – the palette and cinematography were smartly used to hide the budgetary constraints of the show. The unlit scenes, empty streets, and confusing video all editing stress on how much of the budget went into Cavil’s paycheck.
As a Ukrainian, who felt almost at home in the world of the games and books, the Netflix series seemed foreign, too generic to have that unmistakable charm of the eastern Slavic setting, with its unique mythology, bestiary, and people. Above all – people, with their banal troubles, disregard for the grand political schemes, and bulletproof humour. It all was dearly missed in the series.
This emptiness was most felt when they actually have done it. Case in point: local Ed Sheeran – Jaskier and his blend of viral pop-rock medieval bard songs. This felt like the most “Sapkowskian” turn in the entire thing – down to earth, satirical, and very meta. No wonder that people keep tossing a coin to your Witcher a month after the release.
All of the above appear as commercially and artistically weird decision, since the Slavic architecture and aesthetics, humour, literary complexity, and humour were the reasons for the success of the last Witcher game and brought its developers an obscene amount of money. Why Netflix would choose to gamble instead and not walk the road already travelled is baffling.
I consciously tried to evade the comparison to the Game of Thrones, since it adds no merit to the critique of both pieces. Despite their fantasy roots, they occupy very different niches in both the genre, grand literary narrative, and the readers’ imagination. Yet the series’ creators wanted us to compare them, since they diluted Geralt’s singular POV into multiple POVs, and it doesn’t always work. True, it gives agency to the female characters, which doesn’t happen in the books and the games until late into the saga. At the same, would Harry Potter work if there were scenes without Harry Potter? I doubt it. Same applies to the Witcher and Geralt.
Despite all the flaws and baffling creative decisions, The Witcher is a pleasant and fun interpretation of the postmodernist fantasy saga that welcomed the general public to its universe and promised that there is more fun to come in the future, and real fun this time – definitely, since we’ve sat through the tough, grey introduction already.
Copyright: Alex Khlopenko