Netflix's The Witcher series faced some incredibly difficult challenges on its journey from the pages of Andrzej Sapkowski's original short stories and books to the small and large screens of 2019. Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich needed to attempt to please not just fans of the decades-old source material, but also players of the tremendously popular Witcher video games, who are devoted to a completely different set of Witcher stories that the show would not be addressing.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for Netflix's The Witcher. If you haven't watched the series, look away now.
Even the very nature of the original Witcher stories themselves provided problems that needed to be solved. For example, whereas the short stories compiled in The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny were told from Geralt's perspective, Schmidt Hissrich was determined to make Yennefer and Ciri the witcher's equal co-protagonists. Since they weren't around for much of the stories that the show would be adapting, the showrunner had to significantly change their backstories--and, in Yennefer's case, completely make one up--then try to seamlessly weave their plotlines together with Geralt's to create a single, coherent story.
The result is a show that jumps backward and forward in time to characters and storylines that are set decades apart, yet seldom gives any indication that it's doing so. Here's what's going on: Think of Geralt's scenes as the present. Ciri's plot, including the sacking of Cintra in the very first episode, takes place years after that present. Yenn's origin, meanwhile, is set decades before Geralt's plotlines in the first half of the season. After several jumps forward in Yennefer's timeline, her story finally intersects and merges with Geralt's. Then, toward the end of the season, Geralt's storyline finally catches up with the start of Ciri's, and we see the sacking of Cintra again. After more time passes, Geralt's storyline catches up with everything that happened to Ciri after the first episode, and in the season finale, Geralt and Ciri finally meet. With that, the conjunction (no, not that conjunction) is complete.
Whether that all works is a matter of personal opinion, but when we got the chance to speak with The Witcher's showrunner, we couldn't help but ask about this inherently confusing structure.
"It came from two really practical, logistical pieces," Schmidt Hissrish told GameSpot. "One, I wanted to bring Yennefer and Ciri to the forefront of these stories. To me, Geralt is very well painted. He will always be our lead character. But you have these two women who in the books are very strong and very powerful and independent, but you don't really know where they came from."
"At the same time, The Last Wish was the first [Witcher] book that I read, and I fell in love with it," she continued. "It's so good, and the reason it's so powerful is because it's building the foundation of this world that all of these other stories will rely on. So obviously, you're meeting Geralt, you are understanding what a Witcher does, their place in the hierarchy of the continent, the political dynamics, the kingdoms, all of that, and then these adventures and dealing with these monsters and sort of how that informs his moral code. I knew that I wanted to do those stories. Well, these things don't meet."
Therein lies the problem: Geralt encounters Yennefer and Ciri at various points in the original short stories, but because the stories are always told from Geralt's perspective, you don't learn much about the other characters until the viewpoint shifts in the novels, starting with Blood of Elves. Yet Schmidt Hissrich needed to find a way to take Geralt's stories and weave in not just Yennefer's backstory (decades before the Last Wish stories), but also Ciri's (which takes place after most of the stories in The Last Wish, during which time the princess hadn't yet been born).
"I knew that I was going to have to fool with time to do it," the showrunner said. "I had a lot of different sort of half baked ideas of how to approach it. There was a way that I thought was going to be perfect. It was not perfect. As soon as I started writing, things collapsed and fell apart."
The Dunkirk Solution
Her approach changed when she saw Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk, in which three separate storylines that take place across different spans of time are adeptly woven together. Schmidt Hissrich read an interview with Nolan in which he explained that the storylines are told simultaneously to convey that they're all equally important, despite one plot taking place over a week, one over a day, and one lasting about an hour.
"And I thought, 'Could I do that with these characters? Could I interweave their stories when Ciri's story takes place over about two weeks, and Yennefer's story takes place over about 70 years? Could I make them feel equally important and jump through time separately and all of these timelines?'" the showrunner recalled. "I literally had one of those moments where I hopped out of the shower and I said to my husband, 'Am I crazy? Could this work?' It was a huge challenge, because you're having to track so many different things, people's ages, and how much time is passing. But the writers really embraced it as a challenge too. And to me, it's one of my favorite parts of the storytelling."
Even with that structure, the show might have included title cards to indicate when the time and place shifted, subtitles to divulge the year in which a given scene takes place, or any number of other small but obvious ways to communicate to the audience what is happening. We asked the showrunner why it doesn't.
"It's something that we debated a lot," she said. "In fact, I was very adamant from the beginning that I didn't want any sort of year markers or place markers. I didn't want chyrons to tell you where you were and when you were. Also, when you're dealing with three storylines, it's really hard, because what do you say? 'Two weeks after the other storyline, but three years before this next one that you're going to see?' It's super complicated."
There are definitely clues that particularly attentive viewers will pick up on. Schmidt Hissrich brought up one example from the very first episode: In a Ciri scene, the princess and her grandmother discuss a long-ago military victory in the town of Hochebuz. Later, in a Geralt scene, a character casually mentions that the victory there has just taken place. "What I hope is that people will go back and re-watch episodes and see," the showrunner said. But she also acknowledged that for casual viewers, those moments will likely not register right away--and that was exactly her intent.
"There's little moments like that, but the idea was, no, to not hit the audience over the head with it--to let them be on the journey, to let viewers even believe these things are happening at the same time, and then allow them to discover [it eventually]," the showrunner said. "To sort of be on that experience with us and let that mystery unfold."
She believes most viewers will pick up on the fact that the show's three storylines are not taking place simultaneously by the fourth episode, when a character who we saw die in Episode 1 reappears looking perfectly hale.
Anya Chalotra, who plays Yennefer in the show, told GameSpot that she hopes viewers stick with the show until that point, and beyond.
"I think if you stick with us, you know, it will become clear," the actress said. "You just need to get used to the language we use in The Witcher. And like anything, if you give us time, you'll totally be on board. I'm sure."
The Witcher Season 1 is streaming on Netflix now.
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