The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf (2021)

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ 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.

43 thoughts on “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf (2021)

  1. Oof, a lukewarm response from Piotrek and a blistering condemnation from Ola. I don’t think I’ll make this a priority then, even though I was intrigued. I’m kind of a stickler for source material too though, since I read the books. In light of that, I don’t think I would respond too well either, lol.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yup, “blistering condemnation” is spot on, Mogsy! ๐Ÿ˜ I really hoped for something better, but was sorely disappointed. I guess I’ll stick to the books ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    1. Ah, if you liked the live action then I’d wholeheartedly recommend reading the books – particularly short stories are really great. Way better than the series, IMO. But I can’t vouch for the translation, I’ve heard mixed opinions and didn’t try any of them myself ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

        1. piotrek

          I second the recommendation, it’s just short stories, so you don’t risk much, but if you happen to like them – there’s a second anthology and a few novels ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. interesting points about representations etc. coincidentally I’m reading ‘The evolution of moral progress – A Biocultural theory’ atm, it makes some very interesting points about that. More in my review in a few weeks, I’d say. Also related, the economist had an issue about “the illiberal left” a few weeks ago. These divisions seems to get sharper, and if I am to believe Buchanan & Powell’s book they might not go away so easily – on the contrary. Inclusion might be under threat.

    As for Netflix, haven’t had a subscription in about a year, so I couldn’t judge it. I saw some of the new Rick & Morty season at a friends house, very much looking forward to seeing the rest. At least that show isn’t PC. I also look forward tremendously to the new Better Call Saul season, but not sure when that will be finished. Also that show so far managed to avoid the toxic representation wars.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’ll be very interested in your review of “The evolution of moral progress”, Bart! I actually hoped we’re nearing the end of that pendulum’s swing, tbh – but then, I’m an incorrigible optimist ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ll be quite eager to read this book of you recommend it.

      Ah, I know Netflix has also good series; but I also feel the majority of the main media platforms is producing ever worsening, not improving quality of content.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      We had a discussion on the illiberal left recently, after a friend of ours sent the Economist article… I really believe it’s not the main threat at the moment, while Ola claims it’s because I’m based in Poland where the right is on the offensive… in this particular anime, creators’ politics did not bother me that much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think it is the main threat either, but then again, I would not know what exactly is the main threat. I think the main threats comes from climate and growing gap between rich and poor, but both of these things feed into the political polarisation. As such it is a symptom, not a cause. Powell and Buchanan make a great case for that without resorting to Marxist thought.

        But I feel that that polarization in itself is indeed a severe threat, one that might tip over into violence. In some it is more visible and outspoken (Poland, Hungary, Brazil, USA, Afghanistan, India, China,…), in others less so, but it seems to be increasing everywhere.

        I also notice in Belgium that the increasing attention for inclusiveness of e.g. trans people or the increasing attention for racism in casual language does add fire to the fuel and invigorates those on the extreme right, and a such is creating a backlash that is starting to be more and more visible.

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  3. I started it but didn’t finish it, either. I thought it was OK, but nothing special. It didn’t make me want to return to it. For context, I’ve only read one book from the series, and I enjoyed the Netflix production’s scenes with Henry Cavill in. Shame the series didn’t focus on him more.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh, how I’ve missed these two-hander posts! (Not a criticism of your reviews, by the way, Ola!) I couldn’t cope with more than the trailer for the live-action Witcher show, so this anime is definitely out for me, especially after some of the, shal we say, lacklustre comments here. I think I may have to pull my read of Blood of Elves higher up the tbr schedule…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad you’re having as much fun with our double posts as we do, Chris! ๐Ÿ˜€
      I think I need to check out at least one translated Witcher book to see if it’s any good ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

    2. piotrek

      It is, as a rule, better to read the books, in almost any franchise ๐Ÿ˜‰

      This anime… they are better ones, but there are also some more politically compromised, I really think Ola overreacted a bit. But that made our arguing more fun ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. Agreed, books first! And maybe, in many cases, *only* the books! Mind you, I don’t remember having read any novelisations of films or games (a trend which used to be all the rage a couple of decades ago, I recall), but if I have it would’ve been in complete ignorance of its origin.

        Arguing?! “Discussing”, surely! You may disagree in the course of your discourse but it’s always amicable, and often amiable too. ๐Ÿ˜Š

        Liked by 2 people

  5. To echo Mogsy’s summation, between Piotrek’s faintly positive reaction and Ola’s bared-fangs one ๐Ÿ˜€ I believe I will skip this one. Moreover, I don’t do all that well with animation (unless it has Minions in it… LOL) and prefer flesh-and-blood actors.
    Still, it was a very interesting, though-provoking discussion, and that does count for something ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The word “lambasting” has such a nice ring to it ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Thanks, Maddalena! And yes – this one is not worth your time ๐Ÿ˜‰ I think you’ll be infinitely better off just re-watching Minions ๐Ÿ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Couldn’t have been less surprised by Ola’s reaction here hahahahahaah There’s nothing like deception coming from loyal fans. This coming from someone who had to endure Batman’s massacre through the hands of various “artists” in the past 80+ years. ๐Ÿ˜€ Will you guys give the second season of The Witcher a chance to redeem the franchise? ๐Ÿ˜›

    Liked by 3 people

    1. LOL, what can I say? I know you’re a kindred soul deep down, Lashaan, you just haven’t gotten around to expressing it so openly ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ
      I was only mildly disgusted with live action, and I’ll watch the second season, if only to get some workout for my eyes – eye-rolling is such a good exercise! ๐Ÿคฃ Besides, there aren’t any fantasy series popping up that I know of, I guess the tide has passed – except for Amazon’s LOTR series which is still a year away.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for this because I was wondering what that show was about. I saw it pop up on my Netflix and I was curious but I haven’t tried it yet because it’s animated and I’m not in the mood for that.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Hmmmm… I’m thinking at this point I’ll stick with the books. So far my only exposure to the franchinse has been The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, and I loved them both. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I’m often very skeptical of movie/series adaptations or reimaginings and have been disappointed with most I’ve taken the time to watch, though occasionally I find one I enjoy. I loved reading both of your sometimes differing views of this one.

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  9. This is one of those ‘I’ll wait to see what others think’ animes … that 1 out of 10 from Ola really makes me hesitant to try it. I feel like I’ll be dodging a bullet by not watching.

    Considering my 1 out of 5 score for Blood of Elves … I may just avoid most Witchery stuff

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh, this might be a wise decision ;). I’m still pissed about this one. I guess everyone has their own line in the sand, but the way the creators of this anime treated the source material and intentionally avoided any meaningful discussion by deleting it from their work raises my hackles. Especially considering what they substituted it with! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

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