Adapting a book for screen is always tough – but when it came to Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher saga, superfan (and Superman) Henry Cavill faced a particularly personal torment.
“The tricky thing is that you can’t fit everything in,” Cavill, who plays monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia in the new Netflix adaptation of The Witcher, told RadioTimes.com and other press.
“And for me, that’s always a little bit heartbreaking, because I love the lore, and I love the material so much. I wish we could fit it all in, but with the structure of an eight-hour series, you can’t.”
Based largely on Sapkowski’s first short story collection The Last Wish, with elements included from follow-up Sword of Destiny (and not the videogames, which are set years after the entire series of books), the Witcher onscreen is actually a pretty faithful retelling of the Witcher on the page.
And yet, as with any adaptation, plenty had to be cut – as well as added – to make the story work in its new medium.
“You know, it’s very difficult, because you have these eight books – 3,000-and-some pages of material. And it’s really about where to start the story,” showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich told RadioTimes.com.
“We’re trying to stick to the source material. That being said, to make the source material work for us, then we do have to add new things in occasionally.”
And when it came to starting this particular story, Hissrich had to make one of the biggest changes of all…
In an intriguing twist, the first series of The Witcher doesn’t actually all occur at the same time. Rather, the tales of Geralt, Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) and Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) are told in distinct time periods, often many decades apart, with subtle clues about the separation becoming clearer as the series goes on.
“I think that some fans can watch episode one and know that: ‘Wait, this story about Geralt doesn’t happen at the same time as the fall of Cintra,’” Hissrich said.
“If you know that? Great. Then you’re ahead of the curve, and you can start to be looking for – what would you say? – the breadcrumbs that we’re laying down.
“If you don’t know that? I think you can just sit back and also enjoy the story. Nothing is taken away from you for not knowing that they don’t happen at the same time.”
Apparently, in early discussions, Hissrich and her team considered whether or not to make the timelines more distinct – perhaps with graphics onscreen or captions – but in the end, she says, it got a bit too complicated.
“In some ways, trying to be more specific about it, actually made it more confusing to me,” she said.
“I’m not too worried about our audience being confused, because I think regardless of where your knowledge lies, or when the mystery starts being revealed to you, I think it’s still an enjoyable story to watch.”
And going forward, Hissrich thinks that establishing this loose sense of linearity will grant greater storytelling opportunities in future series.
“I think that one of the most fun things about playing with the structure in a show is to just trust the audience, and to say, ‘Our audience is smart. They don’t want to just be told a story,'” she said.
“I feel like we can continue to do that in season two, which is: to jump back and forth through time a little bit, and to use whatever tools we can to make sure that our characters are fully formed, and more filled out, than if we were just telling a linear, narrative story.”
Perhaps the biggest change of the series comes from Anya Chalotra’s sorceress Yennefer, who in the books is introduced as a powerful, impetuous figure who becomes the love interest for Geralt and adoptive mother to Ciri.
In the Netflix series, for the first time fans will be able to see Yennefer’s backstory, with Chalotra playing her through her younger years, suffering from a disability, learning magic and experiencing events which led her to become the more jaded witch familiar to book readers.
“It was really fun to take what was in the books, because Yennefer’s past is alluded to,” Hissrich told us.
“There are times where she will mention something about her family, about her father. Or we’ll hear Geralt try to surmise what her physical deformity had been before he met her.
“So as writers, we took all of those examples, and we pulled them out, and we looked at them together, and we started to say, ‘How do we form a cohesive story out of this?’
“It was probably the main thing that drew me to the project,” Chalotra said.
“A lot of the opinions on her character was that she had quite a cold front, she was quite cold-hearted. And I was just intrigued as to why – because no one is just that one thing, and I knew that Lauren was going to develop that character and interrogate why, and look into her past.”
Accordingly, Geralt and Yennefer don’t actually meet onscreen (in a story closely adapted from Sapkowski’s short story collection The Last Wish) until episode five, at which point Yennefer is much more like the character seen in the books.
“It was incredible to dig back in, and for Anya Chalotra to sort of play her as a broken 14-year-old, and to play her evolution into this woman that we meet in the books,” Hissrich said. “And I think it’s quite an onscreen transformation.
“But also, I think for audiences, they will feel much more for Yennefer. Even when she’s being cold and hard and bitchy, as she sometimes is in the books, you feel for her a little bit more because you know where she came from.”
While the storyline for Princess Ciri plays out more closely to the events of the books, bar a few changes – she ends up with the Dryads at a much later age, and her flight from Cintra has a few new twists, turns and new characters – it’s brought into the action a lot earlier. This is owing to key events from the second short story collection Sword of Destiny and the first full novel Blood of Elves coming to sit alongside earlier stories for Geralt and Yennefer.
“In the books, you don’t meet Yennefer until the end of the first book. And you don’t meet Ciri until the second book. And so to have all three characters as three leads from the very beginning, that’s a change,” Cavill said.
“And you really get to meet these characters from their early, early stages.”
“Ciri’s not big in the book of short stories, The Last Wish,” Hissrich said.
“So I wanted her to be more present. And how do we start to play with time? And play with space, to bring her up earlier in the story?”
“In the saga, Geralt is not the only character,” producer Tomek Bagiński added. “Actually, Ciri is the main character of the saga. And Ciri and Yennefer are not that present in the first short stories.
“So Lauren brought this idea to put in some additional storylines, and a couple of additional timelines into the mix. And we instantly bought it. I think this was one of the decisions that was — I’m sure it was not an easy one, but it was very easily accepted by everybody. Netflix, us, everybody.”
And as for Ciri’s future role in the books and games as a sword-fighting, teleporting heroine in her own right? Well, according to actor Allan we might be seeing that sooner rather than later…
“You probably will,” Allan teased. “I’ve maybe begun training…”
The artist formerly known as Dandelion
A small change here, but worth noting that Geralt’s sidekick and bard has a new (old) name in the TV series – Jaskier, his original moniker from the Polish novels.
Given that this name in Polish roughly translates to Buttercup, in English versions the character has consistently been renamed Dandelion, but in this adaptation the production team decided to keep things simpler.
There are also some minor changes made to Jaskier and Geralt’s backstory, with their meeting subtly changed and Jaskier added into Geralt’s first visit to Cintra in episode four among other moments.
Geralt and his adventures
As a character, Cavill’s Geralt is probably the least changed in the transition from book to screen – though the actor noted he’s a little less chatty in the Netflix series than he is in Sapkowski’s novels.
“That framework in the books is very much: the first book is Geralt having very long conversations with multiple people, and a narrative thread with [his friend] Nenneke throughout the first book, and in a monologue,” Cavill said.
“That now has changed, because we have three characters to focus on from the very beginning. And so I’ve drawn inspiration from some of the game stuff, because in the game, you don’t have lengthy monologues and conversations. You have some cut scenes, perhaps, and yes you have dialogue. But it’s not the same as the books.”
More generally, the biggest changes to Geralt come from his experiences and adventures, which are slightly reshuffled onscreen. For example, the third short story in The Last Wish (The Lesser Evil, when Geralt is forced to take on a young woman called Renfri who may be some kind of monster) becomes his storyline in The Witcher’s first episode, and according to Hissrich, this was all part of her plan for casting a new light on Geralt.
“In the first episode, you need to have something that makes him question what he’s been doing for the past 100 years, and if the next 100 should look the same,” she told RadioTimes.com.
“So I wanted to find a story that really sort of took Geralt and twisted him around. And so I knew it needed to be The Lesser Evil, because that’s the introduction of Renfri. And, you know, Renfri coming into his world makes him question everything he’s been doing up to that point.
“So once I had that in place, then it was a matter of just looking at the stories, and seeing, for various reasons, what are the stories that I thought could be woven together in a linear fashion to make a real narrative? And to give Geralt some place to start some place totally different to the end?”
Though of course, not cutting fan-favourite moments was also a concern.
“What are the things that are really iconic for fans?” Hissrich said.
“How do we pay service to those as well, and let them know that we’re thinking about them, and we want to honour what they love?
“So it was challenging, but also, I think, really exciting to approach the story in that way.”
Generally speaking, then, The Witcher’s only changes were to take the story in a new direction – and Cavill had some parting words for any viewers concerned about what may be left on the cutting room floor.
“I did see the other day that apparently the audiobook for the first book is 10-and-a-half hours long. So if we did it exactly like that – we still wouldn’t have enough time,” Cavill said.
“So adaptations are always going to be different, and that is the tricky position of being a showrunner. If you’re the boss, you’ve got to bring your own vision to something like this. And that’s what Lauren has done. She’s brought her own vision. She’s brought a broader lens. And she’s adapted it to what she wants to make it.”
If you find yourself upset to see a favourite moment cut, never fear – because you might see it turn up in the already-confirmed season two.
“A lot of what we’ve set up in season one will come into play in season two,” Hissrich said.
“We will get into some stuff from [first novel] Blood of Elves. But I also think there are things that we wanted to adapt from The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny that we didn’t have time to do.
“So to be blessed with a season two, and to know that we can go back and revisit some of those things, is really exciting.”
The Witcher is streaming on Netflix UK now