Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s new fantasy epic, debuts on April 23. Ahead of its release, we spoke to author of Shadow and Bone and creator of the Grishaverse, Leigh Bardugo.
Bardugo detailed why she felt like a partner working alongside showrunner Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Birdbox) through the adaptation process, what it was like to see her creations come to life, and the one change she threatened to “stand in the street” over. Check out the video below, or stick around for the full text of our interview. Enjoy!
Shadow and Bone begins…on Netflix
It all started when Heisserer tweeted Bardugo about how much he enjoyed Grishaverse novel Six of Crows. “I believe he actually took a picture of Six of Crows in his lap on the way to the Academy Awards, which was quite the flex,” Bardugo told us. “He paid me a compliment, which from his end was just one creator reaching out to another, but my friends and I were like, ‘Oh my god the screenwriter from Arrival is reading your book!’ So there was this sort of, ‘wow, wouldn’t it be great if’ moment. And then when Netflix optioned the Shadow and Bone trilogy, I said to them, ‘Eric Heisserer, pretty impressive guy, is a fan, should we see if he’s interested in doing television?” So they did, but from what I understand from Eric he said he only wanted to do it if, ‘I can bring all of the Grishaverse books together.'”
The Grishaverse books are divided into the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, but Netflix only had the rights to the former. Once the company for the rights to Six of Crows, Heisserer signed on to the project.
With a showrunner of Heisserer’s caliber on board, Bardugo might have found herself pushed aside, but that wasn’t the case. “I think you can ask any author, there’s a lot of terror involved in the adaptation process,” she said. “We all know horror stories about authors being locked out of their own work. Not being allowed on set, not being allowed to contribute. But I sat down with Eric really early on, not our first meeting, it was actually our second, and I said, ‘I’m really freaked out. ‘We know what this process looks like for authors, particularly for women authors, and even worse for women who write young adult. I’m really afraid I’ll be locked out of my own house. And he promised me that wouldn’t happen.” Instead, he said:
"“I swear to you that by the end of this we are gonna be friends. We may not have a show, but we are gonna be friends!” To his credit, he may be the only honest man in Hollywood, but he stuck to that vow. He kept me involved, and when I was frustrated or upset about something, we would talk it out. I did not always get my way, that is not what collaboration is about. But I never felt disrespected by him or his writing team ever. Bardugo continued, “It’s good not to get everything you want. Sometimes I look back and say, “Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea.” Sometimes neither of you gets what you want, and the thing you get is better than what both of you were envisioning."
From the page to the screen
Once the adaptation process was underway, Bardugo got to watch her creations come to life. “I’ll be honest with you,” she said, “and I have not said this in a single other interview, so let’s hope Netflix doesn’t descend out of my ceiling on my head. But, when we had all the scripts and everything had been approved and we’re moving ahead, before I got to do my first set visit I saw the dailies. I saw the first set of dailies, and literally had [beforehand], ‘I don’t know how they are gonna pull this off.’ I couldn’t fathom the scope and what they were gonna have to pull together in order to make it happen. Then they sent me the first dailies and I said, ‘Son of a bitch they did it.’ ”
"There was this sudden shock in me, ‘This looks good, this looks expensive!'” And the chemistry between the actors was so palpable, I know that it was hard work and talent, but I have to believe there was a lightning strike, there was luck involved as well….Getting to visit set was a whole other animal. It was incredibly emotional. I think any fantasy fan knows when fantasy goes bad, it goes really bad. It does take an incredible amount of money and creative vision to bring a secondary world to life. I remember when they were making Game of Thrones, and seeing all the billboards around town, and I had not yet been published, I remember thinking, ‘if this goes badly, no one is going to adapt fantasy for another ten or twenty years.’ So we got lucky!"
Merging Shadow and Bone with Six of Crows
One of the biggest changes from book to screen is melding the stories from Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, which take place years apart. Bardugo detailed how that idea took shape. “Eric wanted to do that from moment one,” she said. “In our first meeting we talked about that, and I loved the idea. I wanted the world to feel big from moment one, and we understood that if we were lucky enough to continue the story, we needed to introduce these characters early on to make it possible for that to happen. But also, Shadow and Bone is very much a classic chosen one story, and Six of Crows is not. Six of Crows is a heist story but it’s also a story about people who don’t have grand destinies, royal blood, great magical power. It’s about those that are considered expendable, that are caught in the crossfire. To me, bringing those two perspectives together in that first moment was much more powerful. It throws Alina’s journey and Ravka’s status as this isolated country into much sharper relief.”
"It felt natural and organic to do that. The big challenge was how are we going to do it. You cannot take book one of Six of Crows and book one of Shadow and Bone and mash them together, largely because Six of Crows revolves around this drug Jurda parem, which has this tremendous effects on Grisha power. Once that gets in the mix with the Darkling and Alina, the whole plot blows up. It brings in an entirely different set of antagonists as well, so it becomes a crowded story as opposed to a compelling one.So what we decided early on, was we were going to Frankenstein the characters, we weren’t gonna Frankenstein the plotlines. I was actually on the phone with Eric and a bunch of the other executive producers when he said, ‘What if?’ and came up with the mechanism for these two groups would be coming into contact. There was a pause and we were all like, ‘yeah!’ As soon as he said it, it was so obvious, and I’m kind of dancing around it to avoid spoilers, but that connection was clear. And now we’ve created this alternate timeline where the characters’ stories remain intact. It’s not what happened in the Grishaverse, but it’s certainly what could have happened. It’s a very quality retcon."
Of course, not all of Bardugo’s characters made the transition during this shuffle, although some may show up later. “My hope is that, particularly like with Genya and David, that we will get to see more of them if we get a second season,” she told us. “I would definitely love to see Sturmhond and Nikolai make their appearance. There are smaller characters, Wylan is so essential to the plot of those books and the development of those characters. I think Wylan is one of the only few genuine teenagers in the books, he’s the only one person who had a sheltered life and a proper childhood. Everybody else has been through it, so I think it would be amazing to see him come into play in the second season. But all we can do now is cross our fingers and form a prayer circle.”
Representation in the Grishaverse
But if some things were subtracted, others were added, rethought and sharpened, including ideas about representation. “Eric and I in that first meeting, we talked about when I was writing Shadow and Bone, I was echoing a lot of the fantasy I read growing up. It’s not bad fantasy, but it’s very straight and very white,” Bardugo said. “Which is not what my world looks like. So as the books progress they begin to reflect the real world much more authentically. Which I think the show does a better job of. I said to him, ‘you can do this better than I did.'”
"I think having a character like Alina, who has spent her life being disregarded and disrespected because of the way she looks and her mother’s background, becoming a savior of a nation makes the story much richer and adds another dimension to it. For me too, the trilogy is told in first person POV, I’ve never written anything in first person since then because it drove me slightly nuts be the end of it. Writing a battle scene in first was not a great deal of fun. And it closes you off from some of the experiences of the other characters."
The show also makes use of some of the extra material Bardugo wrote that wasn’t part of the original books. “One of the things I loved that the show did was it went and excavated some of the bonus material I did, the Genya short story, the letter Mal wrote to Alina that was in the Shadow and Bone paperback, the short story Demon in the Wood that focuses on the Darkling’s youth, they took those and they really blew them out and expanded them for a better understanding of those characters. That I think is quite meaningful. Alina’s experiences at the palace are much different when you look at them up against a soldier who has no magical power, who has a rifle that jams in the worst possible circumstances, and is ill-equipped, being sent to die as canon fodder. That juxtaposition is powerful and tells you a lot, not just about the world, but about the characters.”
The one change Leigh Bardugo was adamantly against: “It cannot be”
As long as we’re talking book-to-screen changes, we asked Bardugo if there were any alterations she was adamantly against. “I’m not gonna be specific, but there was a costume (laughs) that I saw the sketches for, and I didn’t see a lot of the costumes until they were already made since we were on such an incredibly tight and intense schedule,” she said. “And I need to be clear, I think (Costumer Designer) Wendy Partridge is extraordinary, but this particular costume, there was no way for her to know, but I was just like, ‘No, it cannot be.’ It’s the kind of thing that probably no one would have noticed or picked up on, but I literally said to Eric, ‘I will go stand in the street outside Netflix stopping traffic before I let this happen (laughs).’ So he’s had to put up with a lot from me, let’s be honest.”
"There were times when there were choices about what a particular character knew or didn’t know at the time, where I had to sit down and say, ‘If this character had this knowledge and withheld it, that is going to make the audience hate this character.’ And I’m not really interested in characters being hated, even the worst antagonists I want to know more about them. I’m not really interested in writing a character that is that easy to write off. There’s not satisfaction in that. So there were times we had to sit and talk that through, and like I said collaboration can be intense, and there were certain things I fought for. But what I always felt was people were listening, which I don’t always think is the case. There’s a real sense with authors to say, “Don’t you know this is a television show, not a book?” And in this case I never felt like I was being dismissed or shunted aside.I won’t pretend that there aren’t things in the show that I would have done differently, but it’s not my show. The greatest thing that has come out of this, is this relationship, not just with Eric, but the writers, the producers, the actors, these incredible production heads, is that it doesn’t have to all be mine anymore. That trust is strong enough, and I’m so proud of what they did that sense of ego and ownership has been disintegrated. And I welcome that."
The future of the Grishaverse
Outside of the show, Bardugo recently released the latest entry into the Grishaverse, Rule of Wolves. Is there more to come? “I’m not saying I won’t ever write in that world again, I left some doors open, some big doors at the end of that book,” she said. “And certainly there are a lot of stories that I would like to tell, but I needed to take a step back and let the characters rest. I put them through a lot. Things have gotten very noisy lately, and I want to be clear, I’m very grateful for all of it. I know how few authors have the opportunity. But it’s different for me, I’m used to living a very isolated, in my bubble life, so I needed to take a step back. The Grishaverse is full of a lot of people right now, and it’s ok for it to have its own life. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday.”
Leaving the Grishaverse behind (for now), doesn’t mean Bardguo has stopped writing, of course; she’s simply moved on to another project, “As to what people can look forward to, I wrote a book called Ninth House, it is not suitable for children. So do not give it to your niece or nephew, but it is a dark fantasy set among the secret societies at Yale. We’re developing that over at Amazon, and I am working on the sequel, but I admit I am running late.”
"The big lesson [from Shadow and Bone] was choose the right partner. I can’t yet talk about who I am working with, but find the right partner, someone you can trust and work with, and have mutual respect. I’m more involved with this, I’m writing the pilot with this person, or at this point re-writing it. I feel grateful though, because this is new territory for me. It’s a different kind of story. I’m enjoying it a lot. The trick is to keep writing novels while I do all this TV stuff, because that is honestly the thing I want to do most. I waited a long time. I didn’t get my first book published until I was 37, so I waited a long time to have my dream job, and I don’t want to lose it because I can’t keep up."
Be sure to tune into Shadow and Bone when it debuts April 23 on Netflix.