“The Witcher” is one of the latest Netflix original series to be brought to the streaming platform. It is the newest adaptation of the world and characters created by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski since the third entry in the popular video game series by the same name.
The world of “The Witcher” is a brutal one. Kingdoms vie for power to the despair of their subjects. Princesses believed to bear apocalyptic prophecies are locked in towers by sorcerers to starve. Monsters inhabit the wilderness and terrorize villages, only capable of being dealt with by the increasingly scarce witchers — for a price, of course.
The show follows three main characters throughout its eight episodes: Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a monster hunter mutated by magic for which the series is named; Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), a powerful sorceress learning to control her power and Princess Cirilla, also known as Ciri (Freya Allan), whose life is thrown into chaos by the invasion of an opposing empire. Gradually, the destinies of the three become intertwined in ways that, though at first foggy, become clearer with each episode.
Many of the episodes have a somewhat adventure-of-the-week feel to them, as most of Geralt’s story arcs follow him travelling the land in search of monsters to slay in exchange for coin. This is because much of the Netflix series is adapted from Sapkowski’s first book, “The Last Wish,” a compilation of short stories featuring the witcher that give a glimpse into the world he inhabits and establish several character relationships that carry over into the main series. The story arcs that carry over between episodes are Ciri’s (whose story is adapted from the beginning of the first book in the main book series, “Blood of Elves”) and Yennefer’s (whose backstory is significantly expanded upon beyond Sapkowski’s books).
Unfortunately this can lead to some confusion about the timeline of the Netflix series, as some episodes feature aspects of all three characters’ stories: this can give viewers the impression that Geralt’s, Yennefer’s and Ciri’s stories are occurring simultaneously, when in some cases they are taking place decades apart from one another.
This is perhaps the biggest issue with Netflix’s “The Witcher.” There is so much happening in each episode that it can be all too easy to miss important information. For example, both Geralt and Yennefer age far more slowly than the average person, making statements like how Yennefer has been a sorceress for 30 years quite jarring when she looks the same as in the previous episode. The chronology of events becomes clearer as the stories converge late in the series, but it makes for a rocky start of a relatively short season.
“The Witcher” also makes some attempts at incorporating the geopolitics of the books but largely falls short in giving the audience a good understanding of the players and motivations. A lack of geographical context can make it difficult to understand where the various empires and kingdoms are in relation to each other. The clearest description given is simply that the Nilfgaardian empire lies to the south of the collective “Northern Kingdoms” of Temeria, Cintra and Redania. Very little is given about the motivations or goals of each political player, which can lead to more confusion.
However, what the show lacks in coherent nonlinear storytelling and political intrigue, it makes up for in the performances by both Cavill and Chalotra. Anya Chalotra is wonderful in her role as Yennefer, as her transformation throughout the series in some ways makes it seem as though she is playing two different characters between her first appearance and the final episode. Cavill’s portrayal of the gruff, growly and cynical white-haired mutant is a perfect fit for the character, somehow making Geralt more endearing with each gravelly-uttered vulgarity. Sapkowski himself has said as much, comparing Cavill’s casting as Geralt to the iconic role played by Viggo Mortensen in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in an interview with People Magazine.
Cavill’s performance is hilariously complemented by Joey Batey as Jaskier, the womanizing bard who often accompanies Geralt on his adventures in search of material for his songs. In yet another standout role for “The Witcher,” Batey brings just enough levity to the show to keep it from being too serious too much of the time without going overboard.
In addition to its performances, the series also successfully incorporates both the visual and musical aesthetic of the video game adaptations. Costume and set design are clearly inspired by the Slavic middle ages look of the games, and the music is reminiscent of the Polish-folk soundtrack of “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” making for an impressive blend of both the book and video game mediums.
Of course, in a post- “Game of Thrones” world it can be hard to escape comparisons to the critically acclaimed HBO series, especially when you share such a similar setting. However, the two shows are much more different than they might appear at a glance. GOT placed its focus on the politics between people and kingdoms with a light seasoning of magic and fantasy, but “The Witcher” is much more unflinching in its portrayal of the more fantastical aspects of its world. There is no shortage of monsters, magic or mythical creatures on top of some familiar Grimm fairy tale elements.
For fans of either Andrzej Sapkowski’s book series or the games (or both!), I would highly recommend giving “The Witcher” a watch. It has its ups and downs but does a pretty good job of translating the world and its characters to the screen. I also recommend this show for any fans of the fantasy genre, but I will warn that the show may cater slightly more to those familiar with the source material than a wider audience. With a second season already greenlit by Netflix, I would venture a guess that the series will continue to follow the rest of the first book in the main series, “Blood of Elves.” With any luck, the issues with the first season will be cleared up with a more focused storyline, but only time will tell — it is a Netflix series after all.