(Warning: This post contains mild spoilers for “The Witcher” on Netflix)
It’s still too early to say whether the Netflix series “The Witcher” can do for the streaming giant what “Game of Thrones” did for HBO, though certainly it feels like this show is Netflix’s latest attempt to do just that. But “The Witcher” can be a bit intimidating at first with its complicated narrative that may make it more difficult for folks to get into it. Though “Game of Thrones” viewers had their own struggles in the early days trying to keep track of the immense cast of characters — as somebody who is not great at remembering names, I had to keep the family trees handy when I was watching season 1 back in the day.
But even if you haven’t read Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s works about Geralt of Rivia, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and star Henry Cavill are still confident you won’t be too confused by “The Witcher,” despite the fact the show has three different timelines running at once, which is a) a serious departure from the novels and stories and b) something that is not immediately obvious to the viewer.
Actually, Hissirch is hoping this will help more than hurt, seeing as the different timelines allowed her to introduce main characters monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Cavill), sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) all at once, which is also a major departure from the books.
“What was important to me is starting off and making sure that we understood who Geralt was and who Ciri was, and then, in Episode 2, who Yennefer was,” Hissirch told TheWrap. “And one of our early decisions we made was actually just to introduce Geralt and Ciri in Episode 1 and to hold Yennefer for Episode 2 for that exact reason. There’s only so much you can take in. And I want to make sure that what I call the ‘bells and whistles of fantasy’ — the monsters and the magic and the violence and battles and sexuality — all of those things we expect from high fantasy, that those don’t take up the room of actual character development. We need to let the characters live and breathe in this world a little bit. That was one of the reasons we structured the story that way.”
Hissirch said she chose to use multiple timelines without explaining that there were multiple timelines because she “wanted viewers who weren’t familiar with ‘The Witcher’ to be able to watch the first episode and believe they could be happening on the same timeline.”
“There’s a couple of hints in the first episode that we’ve got some interesting things happening with time, but unless you’re paying a lot of attention or know what you’re looking for, they could easily pass you as little bits of dialogue,” she said. “Because I didn’t want to force a viewer, especially a new fan, to be working that hard, I just want them to enjoy the first episode. It’s sort of as if you’re thrown into the deep end already with all the characters and all the places, I didn’t want to have to enforce that they were working on different timelines, too.”
“To me, it becomes really evident, obviously, by Episode 4,” she continued. “This is the place where I think all audiences will go, ‘Oh my god. OK, now this is making a little bit more sense,’ where Queen Calanthe — who we see kill herself in Episode 1 — is younger and back to life in Episode 4. And hopefully, god, if I was watching this, I would want to go back to the beginning and see how they’ve been telling me this from the beginning. And I hope people will go back and rewatch and see what other little Easter eggs are planted in there.”
Cavill — a self-professed huge fan of “The Witcher” novels — told TheWrap that he thinks what Hissirch has done “fantastically well” in bringing the origin stories of Yennefer and Ciri into the show immediately might actually help a non-reader viewer understand things quicker.
“In the first book, it’s all a collection of Geralt’s short stories, which originally were written as separate short stories, and have been collected in the first book and a narrative string is between each story which travels all the way through and you actually meet Yennefer at the end of this book,” Cavill said. “But in this case, Lauren has done an amazing job and Anya has done an extraordinary job of bringing Yennefer to life before we meet her in the books.”
The book series is certainly not structured in the sort of neat and tidy way a television show is — the early stories that Cavill mentions are basically a series of episodes that focus entirely on Geralt. We learn things about Yennefer’s past, for example, through Geralt’s perspective, rather than because there’s a story in that collection about her origin. So the show is taking that sort of information to build an actual present narrative for Yennefer instead of essentially having her only exist when she’s near Geralt. It’s probably a helpful way to do this in the long run just because it lets viewers get to know her better this way.
“I think the people that haven’t read the books, that’ll actually be a lot easier for them to get into because they have the Yennefer and Ciri storylines, which are amazingly performed, from the get-go,” Cavill added. “With the Geralt storyline, it’s a slower burn. If you’ve read the books, then yes, you have the privilege of knowing the why, the what and the how. But with his storyline, it’s a slower burn and you discover him bit by bit, more and moreover the season and through future seasons.”
Still, Hissirch is prepared for viewers who know nothing about “The Witcher” franchise to have the experience of “being thrown into the deep end” — but says that “is part of the experience of entering a fantasy world, which is it is a world that doesn’t resemble ours.”
“The place names aren’t familiar, the people’s names sound weird. Nothing is really familiar,” she said. “The most important thing to me in Episode 1 is that you understand what a witcher is, once you have that knowledge, then you can kind of be along for the ride and things that seem confusing in Episode 1, hopefully, by the time you get to Episode 2 and Episode 3, you go ‘Oh my God, I totally understand what these things are now — but I understand why it wasn’t told to me immediately upfront.’ I think the journey is definitely part of that experience.”
Now when it comes to you viewers who did read the books and want to see the strictest adaptation possible, Hissirch has this message: “What I would say to people is, we’re adapting the source material, we’re going back to the books, we’re trying to honor the books — but it is an adaptation.”
“For purely logistical reasons, we can’t go page through page of the book and put it on screen,” she said. “We only have eight hours in this first season and we have to pick and choose the best ways to introduce these characters and the stories we tell about them — and also keep in mind what we’re hoping to set up for the future. We’re in a lucky enough position now that we know there is going to be a Season 2 of ‘The Witcher,’ so some of what we’re doing is laying down the building blocks for future seasons of stories we know we want to tell. And I always hate the losing from the source material, that’s the hardest thing. Adding things can be fun and I think we do a lot of them, but there are certain complications to stories that we did have to lose on screen, usually for time and to make space to be with characters as they are growing and changing and developing.”
“Really, the biggest change we make to the source material is making sure that Ciri and Yennefer are also well-represented in this story,” she added. “It was really important to me to establish ‘The Last Wish,’ which was the first book that I read and the book I really fell in love with, but Ciri’s not alive yet during that book. So I didn’t want to wait until Season 2 or Season 3 to wait to introduce her, I wanted her to be a part of Season 1. So we made the decision to play with time and have these three different timelines so that we could tell each of their stories in a really thorough and full way.”
“The Witcher” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.