Escaping from poverty to become a witcher, Vesemir slays monsters for coin and glory, but when a new menace rises, he must face the demons of his past.
Piotrek: Ladies and gentlemen, I present you a perfectly serviceable action anime, a nicely animated tale with a solid, if predictable plot. Childhood friends lost and found, poor kids training to become powerful warriors, valour, prejudice, betrayal and evil conspiracies. Not sure I’d watch a whole season of that, but a movie was enjoyable.
What? You say it’s a Witcher story? No, that simply cannot be, a funny claim…
Ola: Funny, you say? I’d call it preposterous. Nightmare of the Wolf has nothing in common with The Witcher’s lore or worldview; indeed, it is a direct contradiction of both. And I can’t decide if the nifty tag line, Face your demons, is ironic or outright cynical.
But let’s leave this discussion for later; first, a few facts about the movie, produced by Netflix’s The Witcher series producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and directed by Kwang Il Han. The screenplay was written by Beau DeMayo, and I guess I should direct my woes mostly to that last person, who before Nightmare of the Wolf was responsible only for a few stories in the Vampire Diaries franchise. His lack of experience shows. The plot is not only immesurably dumb and painfully predictable, which I can overlook (though not forgive), but it’s also an affront to Sapkowski’s series and its worldview. I wonder if he even read the thing, or at least played the games, or whether he approached the project with a blank slate. I could probably still just shrug it off and enjoy the animation as a typical popcorn flick if it wasn’t for the fact that this little movie manages to become a focal point for many, many problems of our contemporary culture.
Piotrek: I’m not sure I’d go that far. Definitely, the risk of greedy corporations assuming power over an established, beloved franchise – but that’s not new. Adaptations of genre masterpieces into popular media was always risky, no need to enumerate painful examples. Lets just take Witcher – it started with great books, but bad thinks happened before it even went abroad. First Polish comic was at best mediocre, Polish TV Series laughable, then games happened, and they are my favourite adaptation of pre-existing IP into video games. All seemed well, Sapkowski gained fame in English-speaking world, Dark Horse published pretty decent comics, Netflix started working on the TV show… and it went downhill from here, with some terrible, terrible choices by show’s creators. By comparison, Nightmare of the Wold is what I’d expect from fantasy anime targeted at teenage boys… some feels, a lot of fireworks, fights and betrayals. I’ve seen that multiple times, and every now and then – I feel like seeing more. For me, it was less a betrayal of Sapkowski’s worldview than the live action series. The danger of prejudice, populism, racism, machinations of mages and monarchs… not brilliantly displayed, mind you, but I don;t give this thing enough weight for its faults to matter much. The big reveal, yes, annoying, but is it beyond some treacherous schemes by the Witcher Saga antagonists? It’s certainly unsophisticated, and contradicts important parts of canon, but for me it’s enough that I’m aware of that.
But yes, lets go back to the story itself…
Ola: You see, at first glance Nightmare of the Wolf claims to present events from before the original Witcher saga: it takes for its main protagonist Vesemir, Geralt’s mentor and a fellow witcher well-known from books and games, and shows his long and twisting journey from the humble beginnings as a poor servant boy in the employment of a local lord to the position of a full-fledged witcher, the master of sword – and one of a handful survivors of an event that caused not only the destruction of Kaer Morhen, the witchers’ stronghold, but also the whole community of witchers.
Vesemir’s history as presented in Nightmare of the Wolf is at first quite stereotypical: first love, dreams of something more, a thirst for adventure, a fateful decision. We see him in a master-apprentice relationship, in an uneasy friendship with elves, in fights with monsters. Despite – or because of – his humble beginnings he comes across as shallow, prideful, and greedy; with ambiguous moral code and a quite cynical view of the world. So far, so good, wouldn’t you agree?
Piotrek: Yeah, well… I mean, you enjoyed Dragon Ball recently, were characters there much more complex? Geralt at first glance might be pretty detestable as well, until you learn more about where he comes from. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s great, but at this stage I’m definitely enjoying the experience.
And so the story continues…
Ola: As I said, so far, so good 😉 I have no beef with our rogue with golden heart; actually, he’s one of very few likeable characters in this movie.
So, yeah: some effort at ambiguity had been made; a pity the creators didn’t use what they already had in the lore. Because according to Sapkowski’s original story some 25 years before the events of books Kaer Morhen had been sacked, and its inhabitants killed in a pogrom. The lynching – done by local peasants assisted by mages and riled up by the ruling caste (mages and priests) – had its roots in the publication of a spurious pamphlet, Monstrum, or a Portrayal of Witchers. Witchers had been already seen as Other, inhuman, both due to their altered appearance and special skills, but they were also treated with suspicion and resentment, because they were viewed as profiting from human suffering (killing monsters for money). And sure, not all of them – not even the majority of them – were anything like our big softie Geralt. Some were cruel, some were unfair, some were criminals. Basically just like any other large group of people.
Seeing any real-life inspirations here? Let’s point out just two: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a bit earlier work, but equally influential, Malleus Maleficarum. Persecution of Jews, or local healers who had the misfortune of being born women, or many other minority groups is a somewhat recurring theme in human history. Sapkowski returns to the blind rage and hate of fearful masses again and again in his Witcher saga, for a reason. These are the emotions that still hold sway all too easily over us, even – or maybe especially – in the digital age. His is an educational tale, showing in detail the often lethal consequences of lies and misinformation.
But Nightmare of the Wolf doesn’t use that source material. In the Netflix anime, the ones responsible for the pogrom are witchers themselves: yup, the victims had it coming, because they were indeed profiting from human suffering, creating new monsters in the dungeons of their terrible castle. They were conducting forbidden experiments on some poor elves, in cahoots with renegade mages! So it was only just to send all those monsters their way, a fit punishment for the monstrous Others and their nefarious plans.
So, to make it very short; WTF, Netflix?
Piotrek: Ok, that is definitely a direct contradiction of the canon. But I don’t think it changes as much as you do. Or is completely unimaginable, to have evil witchers creating new monsters to fight when the supply of old ones diminishes – and it does diminish in the books as well, it’s one of the things that influence Geralt’s development as character, capable of empathy towards a vanishing world. He is unique, we know that most witchers were much more mercenary. Not your regular heroes, rather grim professionals. I’m not going to include this tale of how Kaer Morhen got destroyed in my Witcher headcanon, but neither am I outraged.
Ola: Well, I am outraged. As well as disgusted. Who is this movie for? What is its purpose? And I don’t even want to mention the representation issues here – the avenging powerful women of different races and the guilty white males – because I think that while it’s a perfect example of pandering to the most currents set of sensibilities, it really is beside the point. In our age of rising divisions and indifference easily turning into violent hatred I think we need some reminders of human lethal stupidity. The world is not black and white – and the victims remain victims even if they’re not saints. Making some morally doubtful claims to equality of suffering that justify persecution is simply wrong. Would Netflix anime be less entertaining for following Sapkowski’s story? Maybe, but honestly – lately Netflix productions are all equally mind-numbingly stupid, popcorn flicks to watch unthinkingly and then forget. Making one that actually is a bit better and more complex than that wouldn’t be so bad.
Piotrek: Well, The Chair was progressive and much more nuanced, Worth seems to be really good… they still occasionally do good stuff. I hear your criticism, I really wonder how would Hissrich react to what you say, her being so politically correct and all 😉 Look, this is not a very sophisticated movie, they chose the easy way (representation instead of complexity), and I see it triggered your concerns, the way Czajkowski triggered some of mine with his terrible final Shadows of the Apt book. Here, there is a clumsy plot twist, almost required in this genre, but there is still a lot of unjustified prejudice, elf persecution, and most witchers are just killing monsters, not creating them.
My verdict: Live Action show crushed my hopes, I was not expecting too much this time, and I’m willing to give this serviceable fantasy anime 6/10. Some promising adaptations are coming, lets concentrate on the good stuff!
Ola: Heh, I seem to remember your outrage at Tchaikovsky was pretty intense ;). And I bet there will be many more people who’ll watch the Witcher anime than those who have – or ever will – read through Tchaikovsky’s 10-book saga. So yes, I still contend that the harm here is magnitudes larger. This movie represents not just a lost chance, but a willful denial.
If I were to judge it only in terms of form, as an anime, I’d probably give it 5/10. Nothing to write home about, but nothing particularly bad, either. But as a story that intentionally contradicts the source material it purports to be based on, for some vague “entertainment value,” it gets 1/10 from me.