Piotrek: When I first heard the news in 2017 I was excited. Ola proclaimed:
Now we’ve both seen the first season, meditated on it for a while, and it’s time for our verdict 😉 We both like the books, a lot, so it’s not going to be a cool review of a random genre TV show. I definitely will be measuring it against my high expectations and a clear vision of who Geralt is and what world he has his adventures in. And against one of the best computer RPGs ever.
And boy, am I conflicted… It’s good they did it, there are many great things about the show, including most of the actors, but the story is butchered in a way that simply does not work for me. That is not to say I won’t be watching next season, there’s not that much solid fantasy on tv.
The problem starts with the first important decision Lauren Schmidt Hissrich had to make, about the show’s structure. Books start with many stories, two volumes of them, concentrating on Geralt and his adventures, often shared with Jaskier/Dandelion. It’s episodic, although some wheels are put in motion that will determine events volumes ahead. Yennefer appears, but is not yet one of the protagonists. Ciri is too young to really matter. The show, by starting the story with three separate timelines, gives us two heroines that are just as important as the hero, and gives us insight into their origins that we only glimpsed at reading the saga. The idea is good, execution flawed. Before I discuss the flaws, let me tell you what I think we missed, and I would miss it even if Hissrich’s idea was executed seamlessly.
Sapkowski’s short stories, stories I value more than the novels, introduced his world in a pretty comprehensive way. Culture, history, religion, politics, prejudices, brewing conflicts that will later erupt into wars. Nilfgaard is mentioned, but not visited, and we get to see the shades of moral grey of this universe before we’re told to hate the big bad. Sapkowski created a post modern cycle, where the bigotry of our own world was the main target. Here we got a cliche about the coming Nazis. I’d argue it’s because there was no time to get to know “our” side. One of the victims of that simplification is Cahir, reduced to a stereotypical Hitlerjugend officer. Whatever you think about the later seasons of the GoT, it’s early episodes showed how to present a complex fantasy world on screen with depth that is simply missing here. Ola?
Ola: That’s one mighty rant ;). And an unfortunately justified one, I might add.
I’ll be frank. I had hoped to get something like Netflix’s Daredevil. What I got is more akin to Jessica Jones. The difference between the two is quite stark despite their common origin: where DD explores darker parts of human nature in a very entertaining, visually stunning, and edge-of-the-seat-thrilling way, JJ is pretending to do just that. And yet it only scratches the surface, simplifying all darker elements to the point of triviality and, in effect, quickly becoming the comic books’ unintended caricature. Netflix’s The Witcher is by no means as bad; but it is worse than I expected. The lack of socio-cultural aspects of worldbuilding is perhaps the most visible and painful, starkly emphasized in the unintentionally funny scene of battle between Cintra and Nilfgaard (oh, those black masses of soldiers against the small group of valiant white knights!). But to me equally – if not more – vexing are the changes to the characters’ personalities and motivations. Cahir is one example; a more important one would be Yennefer, reduced here to a progeny-obsessed woman driven of irrational fears of not being liked for who she is. Umm… Excuse me? Have we read the same books?
Piotrek: Maybe it did lose in translation even more than I thought…
And now about the flawed execution of the idea about the shows structure. Multiple timelines could work, it’s not a bad idea in itself, but here it seemed pretty chaotic to me. Watching it with a person unfamiliar with Sapkowski’s work, I had to explain time and time again where we are and who is when 😉 moreover, attempts to advance each of the three stories in each episode resulted in each of them being underdeveloped. In case of Ciri and Yennefer – I don’t know what we missed, but the overall result seems pretty shallow. In case of Geralt, some of the best Witcher stories were butchered beyond recognition to make place for the other storylines.
Ola: I’m sad to say that by the end of the first season I was actually glad my favorite story didn’t make the cut – alas, it will be filmed for the next season… I found Ciri’s story to be okay. The shoehorned token diversity was grating at times (Dara the elf seems like a completely unnecessary addition), but in general a bit more of backstory on Cintra’s sack was needed for the storytelling purposes. Was it muddled? Absolutely. Could it have been better? Sure. But Allan plays convincing Ciri, and even though the age difference between her and Cavill is glaringly too small, I’m willing to overlook that particular problem for the sake of their potential future chemistry ;).
Cavill as Geralt seems awfully bent on repeating the games’ version of the character, down pat to the grunts. My expectations are formed by the books; thus I would expect Geralt to be a more eloquent and witty, if world-weary, monster hunter. His bare butt I couldn’t care less about; but a glimmer of intelligence would be most appreciated. That said, and beware of my warrior mode today :P, I still think Cavill is not bad. He owns his role beyond the limits of cosplay; he seems to very much enjoy getting into the character of Sapkowski’s protagonist and this is his own version of Geralt to which he is fully entitled. I still think Mikkelsen would’ve been better suited to the role – at least at conveying a variety of emotions through facial expressions 😛 – but I do find Cavill’s enthusiastic approach quite endearing.
I was also very pleasantly surprised by Jaskier. This ultra-modern version of the famous braggart and loveboy is amazingly spot-on, big-eyed and basking in the reflected glory that at some point becomes his own as well. There is chemistry between Cavill and Batey, and their relationship is a very touching, quite subtle approximation of the characters’ relation from the books. And the song didn’t hurt either 😉 There’s even a metal version! :D.
As for Yennefer, I am sorely underwhelmed by her backstory. I resent the idea of making her character (in the books presented at the start as a strong, powerful, self-sufficient woman conscious of her position, charmingly scheming and ruthlessly egotistical and even tyrannical at times, as accustomed as she is to fulfilling all her whims and needs) something so pitifully dependent on the approval of others. A mewling, bumbling kitten instead of a stony Sphinx. Chalotra plays well the role she’d been given; it’s not her fault she’d been given such a badly written role.
Piotrek: I liked most of the casting choices. Cavill seems to be really into it, and he convinced me. Yennefer… I liked her game version better, but I agree it’s well played. As to her story, I knew you’ll have more to tell 😉 and I don’t disagree. The idea of expanding it was good, the way they did it made the character less interesting, despite having multiple times as much screen time.
I don’t like the Toss a coin… song as much as most of the internet seems to, but it’s definitely better than songs in the terrible Polish TV show. Below – it’s dragon measured against the Netflix one.
About battles… it is an epic fantasy show, after all. The one we get in the opening episode Ola already thrashed, deservedly, but it wasn’t the essential one. Now, Battle of Sodden Hill – this one was. It’s one of the lynchpins of the history of Witcher’s universe. Not described in detail, but having a very important place in a chain of events that shaped the politics of the region, and the story of Geralt and his family. An epic battle of 100,000 allied northern soldiers and 22 wizards against a huge Nilfgaardian force. It would be more expensive to show on TV, but it would also show a more interesting, complex world than what we got. Netflix rulers and comanders of both sides are caricatures of Sapkowski character’s, but with little to none screen time devoted to them it was probably unavoidable.
Ola: Well, this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for me.
There are some pretty cool episodes in the series; I really liked first four episodes, as they showed promise – despite the constant prattle about destiny. I enjoyed Rare Species too, though admittedly the dragon, especially in the wake of GoT dragons, could have been much more impressive. But the original story is one of my favourites, and I did find the Scottish twist on dwarves a bit amusing. The last episode, however, was just unredeemably bad. An epic battle turned into a fake-medieval cosplay party. Yes, Sapkowski didn’t describe the Battle of Sodden Hill in detail. A lot needed to be inferred from various hints scattered throughout the saga. The bare bones are there, however, and what the creators eventually made of one of the most crucial battles of the realm was a poor, drastically scaled-down skirmish of a bunch of well-meaning but inapt mages holed up in some decrepit ruin with lots of peasants press-ganged into the roles of clueless dogsbodies.
Piotr: Yeah. A terrible battle in itself, and another chance wasted to do some actual worldbuilding. So, to sum up – weak story, terrible worldbuilding, some nice characters, and decent sword fights. I will watch the next season, but it would be very difficult to turn it into something fitting the expectations I have for a decent Witcher show. Shall we score it? 4/10?
Ola: Well, this time I’ll be less harsh than you, and that’s a rare event in itself 😉 The series is a fary cry from the books, on that we’re in absolute agreement. But we should judge it not only against the books or games, but also within the currently prevailing context of trivializing and dumbing down the more ambitious content for the sake of entertainment and watchability. GoT later seasons were its exemplary victims. From that perspective, Netflix’s The Witcher is a tolerable compromise between the desired (even if sadly not achieved) fidelity to the source material and the aforementioned drive to amuse ourselves to death, to borrow Neil Postman’s apt expression ;).
Score: Ola 6/10, Piotrek 4/10