Netflix is currently continuing its conquest of all televised media and has gotten the rights to create a TV series based off of The Witcher novels.
My natural disposition towards video games being adapted into any other form of media ranges from skepticism to horror. However, The Witcher games were based off of a series of great fantasy novels, and it appears that the Netflix series is wisely choosing to adapt the novels as well. Because of this, I believe that this adaption can actually be strong, if it is handled correctly.
Speaking as a moderate fan of the series (played all 3 games and read the first 4 novels), I think I have a fairly strong understanding of what storytelling The Witcher franchise excels in.
SO ONTO THIS LOSER’S POINTLESS SUGGESTIONS THAT WILL GET IGNORED AND ULTIMATELY DON’T MATTER!
Method #1: Rely On Short Stories
The first two novels in The Witcher Franchise, The Last Wish, and The Sword of Destiny, were a series of short stories that were loosely chronological. They took place all over the world of The Witcher, called: The Continent. However, they all had a common procedure: they all followed the main character Geralt on a journey, and he had to solve an issue for somebody. The problem could be solved through swordplay and assassination, but it could also be done through negotiation and detective work. They were fairly simple, entertaining, pulp stories.
This format is perfect for a TV series. The stories never go more than 40 pages, which is perfect for a 1-hour timeslot on Netflix. If there isn’t enough material to cover in an episode, include some extended lore or characterization. Since the stories usually go at such a fast pace in the novels, and they often include a multitude of characters, give some of them distinct looks and personalities. It will help visualize and flesh out the world of The Witcher even more.
Beginning with an overarching story limits possibilities. Much like the progression of the novels, I believe it is a good idea to begin with the short stories to establish the world and the main characters who reside in it. Short stories have enough content contained in them individually to allow for strong episodes. By beginning with a long form narrative, the creators are trusting their audience to be committed to the narrative they weave, and it does not provide ample introduction into The Witcher’s thematic storytelling. The main drive for books 3-6’s overarching narrative takes time to develop, and the first season of this show can easily captivate its audience with unique and creative tales.
Method #2: Rely On Character Drama
There’s plenty of monster and human bloodshed to go around in The Witcher novels, but action was never the focal point of The Witcher. The Witcher focuses on the “why” instead of the “what.” What is the purpose for the scuffle between these individuals? What is the morality behind the decision to fight this group of bandits? Is it even worth the time, or will it only create more conflict?
The questions are more important in The Witcher than the answer. But don’t misconstrue my words – the action moments in The Witcher are great, as they are complimented well by the acrobatics and preparedness of the main character, Geralt.
This is also an opportunity to show Geralt’s multi-faceted qualities. I think it was a shame that the trailers for The Witcher 3 made the game look like thoughtless, edgy, grimdark garbage. It made Geralt into a super badass with no flaws and who slices up everything. This couldn’t be farther from his character in the novels, and the video games.
More often than not, Geralt’s meddling either solves nothing within a grand scheme, or it makes things worse for everybody involved. Geralt follows an archaic Witcher code of morality that does not mesh well with the contemporary standards. This causes his actions to clash with a lot of the public’s, and it paints him as a weird outsider. Geralt’s remorse for ever becoming a Witcher and the thought of others having to endure the process terrifies him. He’s unable to connect with many people, and regardless of his actions, his image within the public light is that of a monster.
This is questionable morality that makes for fantastic television and discussion. Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion, and Triss are characters who cannot be characterized by cliches, I cannot call Geralt a “misunderstood loner,” because that is dishonest to his character. I cannot call Triss the “loving best friend” because that fails to include her motives and other facets of her personality. It is easy to classify Yennefer as a cold, unforgiving raven, but that misunderstands her whole story.
These characters and their conflicts write themselves, and all it takes is a thoughtful adaptation.
Method #3: War and Politics Should Stay At Bay
I have a confession. I eventually gave up on The Witcher novels after I finished the fourth book. I did not do this because the books were bad, rather, because I didn’t enjoy the direction that the series took after the end of the 2nd book.
As discussed earlier, the first two novels consisted of short stories that were either loosely tied together, or not at all. The third novel began a continuous, epic narrative that followed political turmoil in the land, while many factions attempted to take control of Ciri for their own personal gain.
The personal drama the characters underwent was very interesting, and Ciri herself is a great character, but the board room meetings and the war talk bored me to tears. It also didn’t help that these factors weren’t a major part of the introductory novels, so I was not prepared to comprehend the regions, alliances, kingdoms, kings, rulers, and all of the other encyclopedic knowledge required of me. I wasn’t able to understand the land in relation to other lands, so I embarrassingly had to consult the official map of The Continent.
This isn’t a fault of the author Andrej Sapkowski (proud of myself that I didn’t need to Google the correct spelling.) This is just my own personal interpretation of what makes The Witcher special. I believe war and political drama are not The Witcher’s greatest boons. When the series focuses too much on jargon and kingdom names, it feels like a lite version of Game of Thrones. There is already a politically focused fantasy drama that is one of the biggest shows of this generation. When The Witcher focuses too heavily on its weakness, it loses its charm. Superficially, comparisons of “dark fantasy” are always made to Game of Thrones, and in trying to emphasize the political aspect of The Witcher, it hampers its own identity.
Method #4: Play Up The Mystery
So, what is The Witcher’s identity? What makes this fantasy story different from the hundreds of others? Well, a fascinating bit in the short stories is the detective work that Geralt needs to do to resolve conflict. This aspect of the novels is seen heavily in The Witcher 3 with the Witcher senses. This can be a fascinating storytelling method, where Geralt deduces his surroundings and comes to a conclusion. The audience will be following Geralt as he does this, so they can have their own shot at attempting to piece the mystery together themselves.
The Witcher Senses are a good way for us to get into Geralt’s way of thinking. It provides more insight into his character, and allows for more development of his abilities. His knowledge of creatures, and his deductions also provide great world building, and emphasizes the mystical creatures that are present in The Witcher.
The monsters Geralt encounters also provides him with his identity a monster slayer, and it shows that the process isn’t all just killing. It requires strategy, and it requires time to find a solution. Stories won’t be “go kill big bad.” Maybe Geralt will discover that the monster is intelligent and that it attacked local farm animals because it was desperate for food, and maybe this food shortage was caused by the local villagers. This could lead to a conclusion that isn’t Geralt swinging his swords but negotiating a peace treaty between the monster and the villagers. Perhaps it can lead to a mutual trade deal.
There are many possibilities that come from this form of storytelling. Don’t make the answers clear, keep the audience guessing, and it will keep them more engaged with the material.
Method #5: Smile a Little!
The Witcher can crack jokes! Geralt himself has a sarcastic sort of humour, and the villagers around him can say funny things. I never perceived The Witcher franchise as grimdark fantasy. The environments are too lush for that, and the tone of the stories are too whimsical. There are a lot of serious moments, as The Witcher is a fantasy and not a comedy tale, but there are a lot of humourous situations.
People don’t care about Geralt’s relationships with Yennefer and Triss because they’re super stoic and talk about the plot. People care about them because they have chemistry, they smile and crack jokes together, and they deeply care for one another. These are positive emotions that resonate with people, and It’s important to show these as well. It’s best for the series to not take itself too seriously, and allow Geralt to have his signature sardonic wit, alongside other funny characters like Dandelion.
Method #6: European Roots Are Strong Roots
The final piece of The Witcher’s identity is its Pagan roots and mystical environments. It’s not often that you see raw, pure fantasy anymore. It’s rare to see fairies, goblins, orcs, and other tokens of the genre. But, regardless of their modern rarity, these are still cliches that have been over-utilized.
This is where The Witcher’s uniqueness comes in: it takes creatures that are very rarely used in the fantasy genre, and if it uses generic creatures, it tries to give them a new twist. For example, a troll under a bridge is a classic myth. But The Witcher’s version is an alcoholic troll who’s been ostracized by the local village and has had his wife murdered in front of him. He hides under that bridge because there is no place in the world for him, so he cannot explore. It takes the original fairy tale, but expands on it, and gives it a unique flavour.
Personally, I think it’s fascinating to see folklore from cultures I have never seen before given life. But, I can easily see this becoming a problem if the budget isn’t high enough for this series. If cheap CG has to be done because Netflix skimped on The Witcher (which I fear may happen), then these creatures will lose their life and identity. The show will look cheap and lose its edge over other fantasy products.
It also helps that The Witcher franchise has a large established audience, and they would likely be more receptive to unique oddities within the universe. This is an ample opportunity to be creative and let artists flourish their talents. There isn’t really a modern fantasy series that focuses on monster hunting and tendencies, so this is a serious advantage.
So Netflix, let this series be humourous, keep war and politics out of the main story, focus on the characters and creatures’ narratives, and save an ongoing narrative for once you have established this universe.
PLEASE DON’T MESS IT UP.