The Witcher botched its chance to be a better show

The Witcher - Credit: Katalin Vermes
The Witcher - Credit: Katalin Vermes /

When ruminating on Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher, I’ve found myself coming back to something George R.R. Martin used to say about the changes that were made to the Game of Thrones adaptation: “How many children does Scarlet O’Hara have?”

You see, in the novel Gone with the Wind, Scarlet O’Hara had three children; in the 1939 movie, she only had one. It’s almost pointless to debate which is the “true” version — both are classics. The books were the books, and the movie was the movie. Two different versions of the same story. For me, it’s taken a lot of thinking on that Scarlet O’Hara thing to sort through my feelings about The Witcher.

Caution: There are SPOILERS for the show below, as well as for the first two Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. Ye hath been warned.

Before we get to the criticisms, let’s talk about some things the show did right. With The Witcher, showrunner Lauren Hissrich and her team have endeavored to make a show that rewards multiple viewings. From the short intro to the fast outro to the multiple timelines (which are much better on a second viewing), it is clearly meant to be watched several times.

The look, feel, and tone of the show are a spot on match for the source material. There are plenty of sections that are line-for-line from the books. And in a move that shouldn’t be surprising but for some reason is, the show was thoughtful enough to take a lot of its musical cues from the video games by CD Projekt Red. It was an excellent nod of recognition to those fans. The action scenes are top notch as well, and considering how many different kinds there were, that is no small feat.

Henry Cavill totally exceeded all expectations in his portrayal of Geralt — the dude was Geralt of Rivia. And Joey Batey’s portrayal of Jaskier was spot on (and hilarious) as well.

You might have noticed, however, that I failed to mention The Witcher’s female leads…and that brings us to the show’s issues.

The biggest and most glaring of those is The Witcher’s absolute mishandling of Yennefer. If you’ve never read the books or played the games, the hunchback-turned-sorceress who struggles to find her own source of self-recognition might seem like a cool plotline. She introduces us to the magic of the world in an interesting way, and does have some compelling material. It’s not necessarily that the writing for Yennefer is bad per se…it’s just utterly unrecognizable. In the Witcher books, she is the equal to Geralt in every way — one of the most powerful sorceresses around, a master of politics, and entirely capable of dishing out ruthless insults or layered innuendos without ever losing the tiniest bit of dignity.

The show made a conscious decision to spend a ton of time digging through all the unempowering aspects of Yennefer’s past…but not Geralt’s, and this ends up making them feel imbalanced. Whether Netflix was meaning to or not, it made Yennefer seem younger than Geralt (she’s actually older in the books), less experienced than Geralt, and generally more immature than Geralt. The tragedy of this is that Yennefer of Vengerberg is just as iconic of a character in The Witcher books as Geralt himself, but that seems totally lost on the show.

It’s the biggest “Scarlet O’Hara” thing to be found in the adaptation, so much so that debating whether it was wise to spend two full episodes on something which is drawn from a single paragraph in The Last Wish is almost pointless. What can be debated, however, is that the show took a woman who is always one of the strongest in the room, and instead made her story much more dependent on the men in her life. Yennefer struggles to find her feet until her romance with Istredd, a man in a position of power above her. In the books, Istredd is, yet again, someone she partners with on equal terms. Yen’s quest was ever for power, and while the show does tell us — a little too blatantly — that this is Yen’s ‘true love’, it spends such an agonizing amount of time ruminating on her desires for beauty and babies that it undermines itself.

Yennefer. The Witcher season 2. Netflix.
Yennefer. The Witcher season 2. Netflix. /

This issue is never more apparent than when the show features gratuitous nudity. The longer you watch The Witcher, the more it becomes clear that a very intentional choice was made to mostly use nudity for shock, and not in actual romantic sex scenes, which remain fairly chaste by comparison. Unfortunately, the nude scenes the show does have only further objectify Yennefer.

Take the climactic scene in “Bottled Appetites,” for example. During the Djinn sequence in the short story, Geralt catches a single glimpse of Yennefer’s skin through a rip in her shirt…but in the show, Yen spends almost the entire Djinn sequence topless for seemingly no reason. It’s a completely unnecessary objectification of the sorceress.

At the end of the day, these sorts of decisions come back to the show’s writing. There are a lot of beautifully written passages in the show, but there are also a lot of small sticking points that feel unnecessarily sloppy. Stuff like the bad guys telling Mousesack to run five steps before they kill him, the merchant in the finale trying to bury bodies in the middle of ghoul-infested woods (the books have his cart break, so he’s trying to fix it and save his wares before nightfall), and making it a point to not have Geralt or anyone around him actually use the word “wish” when he makes his wishes with the Djinn. These little things add up to the writing feeling haphazard. And because some of sections are more or less transcribed directly from Andrezej Sapkowski’s books, it actually serves to highlight how careless some of the other writing is. It’s an interesting predicament.

While the show goes through pains to illustrate how much it’s trying to honor the source material, in some instances, it doesn’t seem to quite get the themes and nuances of Sapkowski’s tale. The shoe-horned in plotline with the Doppler — a shape-shifting creature sent to hunt the wayward princess Ciri — is a great example of this. The episode “Bottled Appetites” begins with the Nilfgaardian knight Cahir telling the Doppler that he’s “different to other Dopplers — not good natured, or helpful.” This Doppler is an evil assassin. The main way that Sapkowski uses Dopplers in the books is that people don’t know they’re good natured, and assume them to be evildoers who have malicious intentions just because they’re different from humans, even though they look exactly the same. It is a creature made up to illustrate the perils of racism and xenophobia, which is a huge theme of the books. Instead of running with that idea, Netflix’s The Witcher reinforces the in-world stereotype about why Dopplers are bad, totally missing the opportunity for a more meaningful conversation.

The battle of Sodden, cool though it was, is another example. For all its awesomeness, The Witcher’s finale clearly wants to give us a Game of Thrones-style action set piece. It gives us this great battle, but some of the emotional impact from the books is lost. On the page, Sapkowski purposefully chooses to not describe Sodden, instead homing in on how losing Cintra and having this bloody stand-off at Sodden Hill has effected refugees, the politics of the Continent, and most importantly, Geralt, who believes that Ciri, Yen, and Triss are all dead. Instead, the show focused on the battle, in part to use it as a vehicle for Yennefer to come into her own power and finally start to look a little more familiar to book readers.

Or at least it would, if we didn’t hear the voices of every person who ever made fun of her running through her head while she steps up to bat. Yen hardly gets a good moment without some groan-worthy addendum to remind us that she shouldn’t feel empowered.

The timelines are another place where the show stumbles. Given that Geralt and Yen are well into their forties or fifties by the time Ciri comes onto the scene, doing multiple timelines makes sense, since this way they don’t have to wait to introduce her. But it’s almost as if the show didn’t want to totally commit to this conceit. Though The Witcher outright tells us years have passed between some episodes, there isn’t much in the way of characterization to really illustrate how that time has effected our leads. If days had passed instead of years, it would be hard to tell.

Ciri’s plotline makes that all the clearer, as for her, it is only days or weeks passing from the beginning of the season to the end. And once again, writing lapses rear their heads. Consider that Ciri’s entire season happens in the space of time between Geralt’s first two scenes in the finale. Does it feel like days or weeks passed there? When Yen goes back to Aretuza late in the season, decades after she came into her power, she ends up “mixing herbs” to inebriate some students and then bullying them. Does this petty move seem like the actions of someone who has lived several lifetimes?

And that brings me back to Yennefer. The show’s handling of her feels like a step backwards and a disservice for an incredibly strong female lead. Then there’s the way the show toes the line of camp in some episode, and how the language can vary from poetic to jarringly modern. It makes the show feel more at home in the era of adaptations like Legend of the Seeker than in a post-Game of Thrones world.

The Witcher
The Witcher – Credit: Katalin Vermes /

The good news is that these issues feel more like the growing pains of a show trying to find its voice than deal breakers. By the final episodes of season 1, the show actually backs off of humiliating Yen (mostly), the timelines are synced up, and it takes a stab at depicting what a battle between an army and a group of mages would be like. The Battle of Sodden also serves to emphasize an ideology that is at the core of Netflix’s approach to adapting this story, one stated in the title of the finale: “Much More.” That’s a nod to the story of a similar name in Sword of Destiny, but it also tells us that Netflix intends to give fans more than a word-for-word retelling of Sapkowski’s story.

Still, while the show does fulfill this mission statement in some ways, I can’t help but wish they had tried to understand why Sapkowski had made some of the choices he made a little better before deviating. And it’s hard for me to forgive the butchering of one of the coolest female fantasy leads in recent memory. But though I’ve griped quite a bit about The Witcher, so far there’s been more good than bad, and if you’re among the many who had never seen the world of Geralt of Rivia and his companions, it’s certainly to the good that this show exists.

Next. 20 books to read while you wait for The Winds of Winter. dark

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