End of the Beginning aka “Snow Red” (The Witcher, episode 1)

Hail and well met, readers!

As a fan of both the books and the games (well, specifically The Witcher 3, I didn’t actually play the first two), I greeted the announcement of The Witcher TV series, based on the best-selling Polish sword-and-sorcery fantasy series of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski (yes I looked up the spelling of his name, I was mostly right the first time) with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

I’ve spoken about adaptations before, and the long and short of it is, adaptations are never going to give you the same experience as you had with the initial story.

Games turned into movies aren’t the same thing as those games. Books turned into TV aren’t the same as those books. And vice versa, of course. Novelizations, games based on movies, movie tie-ins to TV shows, video game movies… all of these things have a not-entirely-unearned reputation for often being mediocre at best, pretty terrible most of the time, or offensive to fans at worst.

And why is that?

Well, they’re a fundamentally different thing, now aren’t they? They’re a fundamentally different genre, with different rules, different storytelling strengths and limitations, and very rarely does something survive the adapting process. (For confirmation, I offer you the Resident Evil movies, The Golden Compass, E.T. the video game, and let’s not forget… you know what? Nevermind, you’re welcome.)

The Witcher (the show, I mean) has a unique heritage, because it has seen three adaptations (yes, three), not counting the books or this new show.

[1] For a dissertation on adaptations, see my review of the erstwhile Tomb Raider movie, a movie I thought was ok, though it could be better, as if you needed further confirmation about my garbage-tier taste.

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Ah yeah, let’s do this! Witcher! Wooooooooooo!

A Brief History

The books, which are a point of national pride in their native Poland[2], consist of two anthologies of short stories about Geralt and his adventures, as well as five novels which tell a cohesive story, then a standalone novel (I admit I haven’t read that one). They acquired what we in America would call a cult following, because they are essentially telling the folk history of Poland in a cool, exciting, and compelling way. (Apparently, the language Sapkowski uses and his authorial voice are particularly lovely in the original Polish, and very clever.)

The books were popular enough to see a movie called Wiedźmin (or ‘The Hexer” in English) created and, eh, it wasn’t a rousing success. Then a Polish TV show of basically the same name which is mostly an expanded version of the movie (I think you can find episodes on YouTube if you really want to).

It might have stayed that way, with the Witcher being a hit in Poland but largely unknown outside the country, except that the game development company CD Projekt Red (I know, I know, that sounds like three random words, one of them describing a style of listening to music that was very popular in the 90s and early 2000s, for all you Gen Zers out there) purchased the license to make a video game based on the book. Their games would be set AFTER the 5 books had ended, rather than being based on the books themselves, allowing CDPR to tell an all-new story with the bones Sapkowski laid down in his books.

Allegedly, Sapkowski was not keen on video games (still doesn’t like them, it would seem), and he chose to take a lump sum, rather than royalties on the games, which is a pretty good deal if you expect the game to flop.

Which is the opposite of what happened.

The Witcher, the Witcher 2, and especially the Witcher 3 were MASSIVE successes, that third one a console generation-defining open world RPG that really pushed the limit of what games could accomplish. I know, I know, some people don’t like them (you know who you are, my English-Canadian friend), but the games were extremely popular, and their popularity translated to book sales in translation in English-speaking countries. It’s not like the books were *non-existent* in America before the games, but the games led to a massive upturn in sales, and The Witcher is now an international bestseller with some 33 million copies sold.

To what do we credit this rousing success? Sapkowski’s clever work and sharp authorial eye? CD Projekt Red’s coding skills (well, as of The Witcher 2, anyway) and plotting ability? That, through Geralt, you can hack apart armies of smelly pseudo-polish dudes and monsters and also sleep with practically ever female character in those games with a few button prompts?

It’s a mystery.

 

Anyway, when the time came around to make the show (hey, we’re America, of course we’re going to make a TV show, and with British accents, obviously), CDPR isn’t involved, Sapkowski is a consulting producer, and the show is based on the BOOKS, not the games. And we’ve previously established that Sapkowski wasn’t too keen on how the games played with his world–he considers his vision the pure and true Witcher story. (And arguably, he’s absolutely right.)

 

And if the first episode is anything to go by–which adapts material pretty faithfully from The Last Wish and the Blood of Elves–the show is definitely weighted toward the books, but it has been created under the long shadow of the games, and that’s where the bulk of the audience (English-speaking audience for an English-speaking show with an English main actor) knows the story from. So clearly, there’s going to be some influence, right?

 

[2] Seriously, Polish students get to read these books in school, which is a fair sight better than English classes where they force you to read Shakespeare–no one should be FORCED to read Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is intended to be experienced on the stage. No quicker, more effective way to kill a child’s interest in reading than to make them read something they don’t want to read.
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So I went a little hard on the monster killing juice, ok?

So How About That Show?

Well, I watched the first episode, and generally speaking, I really liked it. It’s like Game of Thrones, but more fantasy, less rapey, and you get the sense good things might eventually happen to someone at some point (unlike GoT).

The first episode is pretty well plotted, I think, or at least it worked well for me. You get a very comprehensive look at what you can expect from the Witcher: grimdark, visceral fighting, some sexytimes, and tough, agonizing choices.

I’m going to talk about Geralt specifically, since the first episode is about introducing him, his character, his story, his style, and his aesthetic. (And to a lesser extent Cirilla, Princess of Cintra, but more on her later.)

First it’s the eyes. Witchers have cat eyes, which is more noticeable the closer you get to them. The eyes here are pretty nice, subtle when they need to be, but they flash at certain angles. The way Henry Cavill carries himself works with the eyes and his natural size (mustachioed Superman is a beefcake) makes him stand out from the people around him. He looks and moves in a slightly alien way, but not enough to trip the Uncanny Valley. He seems like a real person, albeit mutated.

The voice is pretty great—reminiscent of the games but also its own. Cavill is, apparently, a big fan of the games, and he’s playing up the gravelly, slightly Batman voice to good effect here. He sounds like Geralt but also like himself. It’s effective. The dialogue seems right, too—Geralt is taciturn, droll, but clearly has some heart. You could see the Geralt from the books saying these things, as well as the Geralt from the games.

The most striking dissimilarity is that the show doesn’t use the two swords conceit that the games do, which is more true to the books. Geralt doesn’t need two swords in the books, but in the games, it makes for good game mechanics. (And more opportunities for item customization, you know how video games work.) Also his amulet is different from the iconic ones he has in the books, but meh, no big deal.

The music I found kind of distracting at the beginning–loud and brash and not the recognizable, iconic stuff I like, but it cools off and becomes much more subtle and atmospheric.

Here Episode 1 Spoilers Begin

I found the opening very unexpected, and I didn’t much like how the first monster looked, and the struggle lasted longer than it needed to. But the resolution was dead right, and Geralt’s interaction with the deer was absolutely dead on. I came out of that scene going, yeah, this is definitely The Witcher.

I’d have thought they’d go for the iconic striga opening, which is a story from the books and also the opening of the first game, but maybe they’re working up to that. It’s a good story, about a cursed princess who… oh, wait. No spoilers.

Speaking of female characters, I was worried there wouldn’t be female characters involved other than the main ones (you know, Ciri, Yen, Triss occasionally coming to moon over Geralt, etc), but fortunately they not only included female characters right off the bat, but really good ones.

The Renfri subplot is both straight out of the book and very true to one of the main themes—the greatest monsters look like humans. Geralt has a hard choice, with two compelling stories. It hits you right off the bat with the “dark, brutal fairytales” aspect of the Witcher story, as Renfri is, of course, a dark mirror version of Snow White. She’s even got the red color associated with her, which is very striking. She’s damaged, not quite right, but really compelling. Man, I thought she was great.

(But then, I *am* the guy who wrote Arya Venkyr, Ilira Nathalan, and Ovelia Dracaris, so yeah, obviously I thought Renfri was great.)

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Renfri, you will always be MY Snow White

The early scene at the pub was very efficient at telling us about Geralt. We understood his oddity, how others view him, his taciturn nature, his strange appeal to certain folks like Renfri (who is drawn to him like a moth to, um, another, older moth that’s on fire?). There’s a LOT of world-building here, some of it overt, a lot of it subtle. We see Geralt having difficulty reading emotions, because he has such low emotional affect himself–a low empathy score, if you will, because of the Trial of the Grasses.

But I digress.

Oh, it’s Blaviken. I’m sure some such butchery will happen here.

I love the evil speech. Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling. All the same. He follows up with that if he has to choose the lesser between evils, he prefers not to choose at all, but as we will see, that won’t always be his choice.

The sword fighting, oh man, it’s stylized as all hell, but it’s fantastic. And I’m pleased to see a lot of techniques, including the half-sword, ie gripping the blade to maximize thrusting power. You rarely see that in fantasy. My friend Joe Brassey could probably say more on this subject, being a swordsman by trade—maybe I’ll chat with him about it.

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You made a BIG mistake drawing steel against Geralt.

About Cirilla

No complaints, she’s great. She’s a kid but also dealing with some *very* grown-up stuff.

Her magic was interesting in how it manifested. I don’t recall the book well enough to say if it fits, but it seems in keeping with her character. Barely controlled magical potential.

I remember a big to-do among certain fans (ahem) who were concerned Ciri might be portrayed by an actress of color, and they obviously didn’t do that. They could have, but they didn’t—missed opportunity? We’ll see. This actress seems capable and engaging, and I look forward to seeing how it goes. Her eyes are really intense.

The casting of Calanthe was interesting. She seemed worn and tired, more of a real person than the legend people tell. Very compelling.

One thing about the Cintra subplot was the extremely rough suicide-by-poison/etc scenes. Jeez, don’t spare us any details.

This is a DAAAAAAAAAARK show, just in case you were curious.

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Sorry Ciri, it’s not gonna get much easier for you, uh, ever.

Verdict for Episode 1?

Solid effort. 8 out of 10. I will keep watching.

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