Originally published in the early 90’s in Polish, Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels follow a grizzled monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia, a member of a dying breed of monster hunters known as Witchers, who’s enhanced abilities and magical powers allow them to go toe-to-toe with things that go bump in the night. Given that they were only available in Polish, Sapkowski’s novels remained a hidden gem for some time, until a Polish video game company named CD Projekt RED struck a deal with the author, and began creating games based upon his stories and characters. The first two games received a modest but warm reception from both gamers and critics, but the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015 was met with critical acclaim, and remains one of the most awarded and highest rated game of all time. Sapkowski’s books were being released in English during this time, and the excitement surrounding the latest game meant a lot of players were checking out the books. Sapkowski has since found himself being compared to the likes of J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling.
Fans the world over were delighted when Netflix announced it had acquired the rights to make a streaming adaptation of the books, and the excitement only increased when it was announced that Superman actor Henry Cavill would be starring as the jaded monster hunter. Cavill had previously spoken in interviews about his love for the books and games and his desire to one day portray Geralt, so this was some excellent casting on Netflix’s part. As excited as we all were for the show, there was some trepidation, would the series be able to live up to the quality of the source material, or would it fall flat on its face?
As a fan of video games, my first encounter with The Witcher was via the excellent video games, particularly The Witcher 3, which saw me spending countless hours tracking down monsters and scouring the countryside upon Geralt’s faithful stead, Roach. When Netflix announced it would be creating a series based on the books, I decided it was high time I check out the source material and, at the time of writing, I am on book five of the eight-part series that makes up Geralt’s adventures. Having greatly enjoyed my time with the books so far (check out my review of the first novel in the series), I was eager to check out the Netflix series, which made its debut on December 20. So, has the streaming giant managed to capture the magic of Sapkowski’s works, or is this going to be more akin to that terrible Eragon film that tried to cash in on the Lord of the Rings hype?
I’m going to save you the suspense and tell you right now that I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching The Witcher. What struck me the most upon my first time viewing, I intend to watch it through again, is what a labour of love it feels like. I do have issues with the show, and we’ll get to those, but the more I watched, the more I got the feeling that everyone involved with the show felt passionate about the source material, and about doing their best to create a TV adaptation worthy of the games and books. While it’s clear the show doesn’t have a Game of Thrones sized budget, it’s obvious that a great deal of effort has gone into The Witcher and there’s an attention to detail that puts many other shows to shame. All too often, profit is prioritised above quality, something that has become abundantly clear with Disney’s ‘live-action’ remakes of their classic films, which lack originality or soul but make more money in their opening weekend than some small countries do in a year. What I’m trying to say is, it’s nice to enjoy a piece of media that feels like the people who made it were aiming for more than just a pay check.
It’s not just the crew who are obviously giving their all, the main cast feel equally invested in the show, but none more so than our star, Henry Cavill. With his tall, dark and handsome stature, not to mention his imposing physique, Cavill looks like the sort of guy who would much rather spend his time playing rugby, driving fast cars, and chatting with beautiful women, than be playing video games and reading fantasy books. Yet, by his own admission, Cavill is as much a fantasy nerd as any Witcher fan, actively pursing the role of Geralt when the news broke that Netflix was working on a series adaptation. It’s clear Cavill has a passion for The Witcher, and that passion shines in every scene he’s in. Cavill clearly relishes donning Geralt’s sword and armour, and he appears to be enjoying himself so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if he agreed to do it all for free, if only to play a character he loves.
It’s not just Cavill who’s clearly having a blast with his character, Anya Chalotra shines as the troubled but beautiful and powerful sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg, and young Freya Allan who, despite her age, does an excellent job playing the young princess Cirilla, who’s world is torn apart by fate. Joey Batey is also a delight to watch in the role of Jaskier, a charming young bard who’s ambition outweighs his talent. Not only does he add a great deal of humour and wit to the series, but his scenes with the stoic Geralt or not only hugely entertaining, but also allow viewers to glimpse Geralt’s gentler side. He also provides us with one of the catchiest songs on the small screen, one which is already becoming an anthem among Witcher fans. The extended cast also features a number of excellent actors you’ll hope will have meatier roles in the already confirmed second season, including Emma Appleton as Renfri of Creyden and Lars Mikkelsen as the scheming mage Stregabor.
The first two instalments of the books are The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, both of which consist of short stories that set up the main characters and world of The Witcher. The Netflix show combines stories from both of these books to create its first season and to establish major characters and plot points. This brings me to my first real gripe with the show, it’s difficult, especially for total newcomers, to understand exactly when certain events are occurring. Initially, it seems everything is being shown in chronological order, but it soon becomes apparent this isn’t the case, and I would blame anyone for becoming confused about when certain events are happening. Ciri’s scenes are set in the present day, whereas as many of the scenes featuring Geralt, Yennefer, and Jaskier are set decades before Ciri’s birth, something that isn’t made clear at first. It did finally click into place for me in the final episodes, and it is good to see some of Geralt and Yennefer’s history prior to meeting Ciri, but I can’t help but feel this could’ve been tightened up a little to avoid confusion. I would assume that from series two onwards, we will be following a mostly linear timeline, which is probably the right move.
In terms of its story, The Witcher sets up an intriguing world full of interesting characters, as well as setting the stage for a number of plot points that certainly have the potential to keep viewers compelled for many series to come. It enjoyable to watch our main cast meet one another and it ends on a moment that has me eager to see where the story goes next. It may not be quite as grand in its scope as Game of Thrones, but there’s still plenty of time for it to expand and evolve, and it’s certainly on par with the likes of other Netflix hits such as Stranger Things. Fans of the books will be pleased to find that there’s a great deal of respect for the source material, and it’s much more faithful than most TV and film adaptations of popular books, though understandably there are a couple of changes. There are lines and scenes that do feel clunky, especially in the first few episodes as the show tries to get a feel for itself, but I found these occurrences became rarer as the series progressed. The music for the series is also spot on. It clearly takes cues from the soundtrack used in the video games but, given how well those games were scored, you might as well go with what’s been proven to work. Not to mention how enjoyable it is to listen to Jaskier craft ballads about his travels with Geralt, some of which are intentionally bad and funny, and others which are absolute hits, such as the aforementioned track Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.
Visually, The Witcher is a very pretty show, with a number of wide open vista shots that show off the fantasy land Geralt treks across. These moments rival anything you’d see in Game of Thrones or even Lord of the Rings, and it does a lot to help viewers feel like they’re experiencing a real world. In more intimate scenes there are a few missteps. While everything generally looks fine, there are one or two character outfits and sets that reveal the modest budget. There’s nothing fundamentally terrible, but some characters do outshine others and there were a few costumes that felt more like cosplay attempts when compared to some of the more impressive armour and outfits worn by other characters. While Yennefer’s gowns look amazing and highly detailed, I wish the same could be said for the armour of the Nilfgaardian troops, which, as many fans have pointed out, has the texture of a particularly wrinkly scrotum. In the same vein, while most sets look fine, there were one or two that felt less immersive than the rest. Overall, the costume designs and sets are very good, but that makes it all the more noticeable when one fails to achieve the overall standard.
Perhaps the The Witcher’s biggest weakness is its CGI. When used in moderation, such as when Geralt uses his magical signs, its fine, but there are certain episodes that are forced to rely heavily on it, and it’s clear the show’s budget wasn’t enough to get it as polished as it should be. I get the impression the creators were aware of this, as practical effects are used whenever possible, and they look excellent. However, now and then Geralt will encounter a creature that has to be brought to life with CGI and that CGI certainly has plenty of room for improvement. Given that we’ll no doubt see plenty more fantasy creatures in the future, I hope the CGI is something the show focuses on. Its forgivable for a show’s first season, but I will be disappointed if the quality doesn’t improve.
Finally I want to touch on The Witcher’s action scenes. Sure, watching Geralt take on a beast is certainly entertaining to watch, though more so when he’s fighting a prosthetic one rather than one that will be added in later with CGI, but its the sword on sword action that easily steals the show. Rather than chopping up the action with fast edits, the show allows most action scenes to breath, and lets us watch uninterrupted as Cavill expertly dispatches his foes with deadly efficiency. As a Witcher, Geralt is a master swordsman with years of experience, and the show absolutely nails this. In the first episode, it’s made clear what a powerhouse Geralt is with a sword, and no one can deny that Cavill clearly put a great deal of time and effort into making sure he knows how to look convincin. The show pulls no punches when it comes to the brutality of combat and Cavill clearly doesn’t mind putting in the hours to make sure you feel like you’re watching Geralt, not an actor or stuntman. When it comes to swordplay, The Witcher is in a league of its own.
Overall I found The Witcher to be a flawed but still thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s certainly a must watch for fans of the books and games, and definitely worth your time if you’re fan of fantasy in general. It’s certainly not perfect, and there’s plenty of room for improvement, but the first season sets a solid foundation and the source material and strong cast means it has the potential to become a genuinely great show. With a little care and an increased budget, I could easily see The Witcher becoming another big hit for Netflix.