Review: ‘The Witcher’

Henry Cavill | The Witcher | Netflix

***Light Spoilers Ahead***

The Witcher, Netflix’s most recent original series, is based on Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s eight book saga, not the games — an important distinction to make. The show surrounds Geralt of Rivia, a witcher — mutated for the purpose of monster hunting — as he navigates the world, where men often prove more wicked than beasts.

Showrunner Lauren Schmidt (Daredevil, The Defenders) had a lot on her plate when adapting Sapkowski’s novels. Would she be able to juggle the expectations of the book readers without displeasing the audience that only played the games? Would she be able to construct an easy introduction to the characters and world while covering three different timelines in three different plot lines? A lot of fans were skeptical going into the series, especially those who were familiar with The Hexer — Poland’s attempt at adapting the novels. With a full plate, was Schmidt able to deliver the goods the fans so desperately wanted?

The answer is… for the most part. For book readers (I’ve only read the first two) and hardcore fans that followed Schmidt’s process through pre-production — which she periodically updated on Reddit, found a lot to like, but some concerning decisions.

However, most of those “concerning decisions” have been squelched as most surrounded the questionable casting of fan favorite roles. The cast is fantastic, with palpable chemistry among the leads. Henry Cavill is the standout for the series, taking Geralt in a direction similar to the game’s voice actor, Doug Cockle. From the Brando-like minimal mannerisms to the speech pattern, the role of Geralt fits Cavill like a glove, making it hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. The supporting cast of Freya Allan (Ciri), Anya Chalotra (Yennefer — though a little young for the part) and especially Joey Batey (Jaskier) compliment their roles quite nicely.

Henry Cavill | The Witcher | Netflix

There’s a lot to digest in this meal beyond the cast. And to add another layer to it all, Geralt’s plot line only covers the first book (and one small part of the second). The first two books are a collection of short stories, essentially the miscellaneous adventures of Geralt, acting as an appetizer for the entree soon to come.

In regards to the books, Ciri and Yennefer’s plot lines are the entree — taking place at different timelines while rapidly jumping around and between each of them. The rapid jumping will cause non-book readers to be confused, oftentimes very heavily. As the series continues, this confusion seems to simmer as the series gives the audience clues, but non-book readers may not pick up on them as they could be suffering from information overload and lack of clarity.

As for the plot lines, there aren’t any real duds. All three are engaging and interesting from the beginning through the end, complemented with a great cast playing well-written characters that drive the story forward with compelling agency.

The macro side of the writing seems to be fairly sharp and consistent throughout. There’s only a few hangups which is par for the course when adapting multiple timelines through multiple novels. The show omits important information at times, butchering how Geralt got the nickname ‘the Butcher of Blaviken,’ completely missing the point from the first book. With the omittance of these beats, it lends itself to questionable character decisions that seemingly have no purpose beyond style. Why Yennefer is a master swordsman and Foltest — a beloved and honorable king — is now more akin to the third game’s Bloody Baron, don’t seemingly have a reason. These changes don’t give Geralt enough screen time in the earlier episodes, making it more difficult to build the world for audiences unfamiliar with the source material.

Newer audiences will struggle with the show’s attempt at building the application and rules of magic — how it works, the consequences of it, its limitations, etc. The Witcher universe leans toward low fantasy, with high fantasy elements. It’s the application of the magic system that dictates the threshold. With a tagline like ‘men prove to be more wicked than beasts,’ you’d expect more focus on the political intrigue, characters and the human condition. However series is ripe with magic and monsters consuming the majority of the screen time with little explanation or set up.

Where the show seems to falter a bit is on a micro side of writing. Oftentimes the dialogue is very rough and will take the audience out of the immersion. The show seems to have better success when directly using Sapkowski’s dialogue rather than its own. You’ll hear phrases like “living off the grid” or references to cannonballs — something not in the Witcher universe. This underwhelming dialogue coupled with the astronomical amount of times you’ll hear the word ‘destiny’ will likely deter some viewers unfamiliar with Sapkowski’s work. But newer audiences should be rest assured, hearing ‘destiny’ is akin to watching Star Wars and hearing ‘the force.’ They’re the driving forces behind everything.

Continuing with the micro side of storytelling, the show sometimes has very poor non-verbal actions from characters or visuals that almost play off as comedy. Whether it be a corny and cliche kiss in the middle of a fight scene, painfully obvious green screen or the goofy design of a ‘scary’ creature (yes, the Sylvan and the dragon), the show has a fair number of visual decisions that will make you roll your eyes or leave you wondering how something got past the storyboard phase. At its peak the CGI is passable, at its worst it’s laughably bad, making you wonder or plead you were just imagining the design.

While unfortunately the cinematography, directing, costume design and abysmal editing could be improved, the amazing fight choreography and well done score by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli stand out. There likely won’t be too many hang ups that prevent or deter audiences from finishing the eight episode season regardless if they’re familiar with the source material or not.

Netflix has already greenlit season 2 before season 1 even aired, so it seems Netflix has its full confidence behind the series and Schmidt. With some improvements — which can be chalked up to cleanup work — we could be in for one hell of a season 2.

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Cameron Craig

Cameron Craig

Writer and screenwriter based in the Boston area. I write film analysis, reviews and commentary and engage in leftist politics. Twitter@CameronCraig_93