(Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone.”)
Within the first few minutes of the series premiere of Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone,” viewers are introduced to a fantastical world that was first born inside the pages of Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling novels, a world in which half-Shu teenager Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) must train with the Darkling to use her hidden Grisha skill as a Sun Summoner to save the people of Ravka from the Shadow Fold and the volcra that live inside the darkness.
And though not all of that information is dumped out as quickly as it was in that sentence, the streaming service’s “Shadow and Bone” adaptation does get you there by the end of the first episode. That’s because whether or not you fully understand what you’ve seen and heard until the end of the drama’s eight-episode first season, showrunner Eric Heisserer still wants you to have seen and heard it and be overcome by it in the same way Alina is.
“That was a constant push and pull and I don’t know how you ever stop having that debate, or at least a fervent discussion, about how much to reveal and when,” Heisserer told TheWrap. “Leigh [Bardugo] and I were both very passionate about letting a lot of that play out over the course of the season and allowing audiences to follow along and perhaps understand at a later episode who had the power, what they were doing in an earlier one, or vice versa.”
“I think the torch to carry there is to make sure that the feelings and motivations of the characters are always crystal clear, that you understand who these people are and you know what drives them,” Heisserer continued. “And that allows new audiences to follow those characters, even if they don’t know the terminology of the world.”
The “Shadow and Bone” creator likened the confusion viewers might have to the new words in the Grishaverse to the terms thrown at fans watching medical dramas.
“If I’m entering into the pilot of a show that features a surgeon in a particular field, there is so much jargon that I’m going to be completely unfamiliar with whether it comes to procedures, anatomy pieces, diseases, all the things that comes with the expertise of that profession — but I understand the stakes there with the patient and with the doctors. I understand what it is they’re trying to do without having to know all the terminology and the jargon. And I wanted to treat a fantasy show the same way. I feel like we have enough people that have, I would call it ‘genre literacy,’ that shows before us like ‘Game of Thrones’ helped pave the way. And I trust that the audience will also trust that they’ll learn as they go.”
Even still, world-building, especially a world of this scale, is an art that not everyone succeeds at and Netflix wanted to make sure Bardugo and Heisserer were striking the right balance between not over-explaining things and also not alienating non-Grishaverse readers.
“The clarity of the world-building was also an issue that Netflix flagged for us. They had had, you know, varying degrees, I think, of luck in other fantasy shows in trying to find that sweet spot of telling the audience what they need to know, but without it feeling like it’s exposition,” Heisserer said. “And there are handful of things that are tools and/or tropes that can be used in this genre. You can have the text crawl at the beginning of the show to try and offer up some information. You can have pretty extensive voiceover that walks you through everything. And we wanted to do our best to essentially throw you into the water and let you swim around with these characters for a while and pick up on sort of the daunting world of the Grishaverse instead of trying to approach the pilot as if it were the novel, where we sat down and said, ‘Welcome to our TED Talk. This is ‘Shadow and Bone.'”
There was one aspect of the season that leveled the playing field between viewers coming in to the Grishaverse fresh and those who have been reading the books for years: the origin stories for Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), three characters who do not appear until Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” duology of books, which are set after the events in her “Shadow and Bone” trilogy, but in the same world.
“Well, the good news about the ‘Six of Crows’ duology was there was plenty to draw from there. There are even, essentially, flashback moments in ‘Six of Crows’ that we didn’t need to treat as flashbacks here, we could sort of plot it out chronologically,” Heisserer said. “And the rest was really just asking questions in the writers’ room about how certain characters from that set of books may have come to an important item or behavior or a belief system or some part of their story that we find is already active in their lives when we when we discover them in ‘Six of Crows.’ So that’s the gift and sort of the blessing and the curse of the prequel is that, you can start them in a different place than where they start in ‘Six of Crows’ and you can work up toward it.”
You can read more from TheWrap’s interview with Heisserer here.
“Shadow and Bone” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.