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Hearing a video game is being adapted into a movie or a TV show often causes many gaming stalwarts to grimace. Netflix’s The Witcher transcends those preconceived notions and delivers a high-fantasy romp worthy of your time. Many have naturally drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, and yes there is a Tolkienesque vibe that suffuses the air, but that is where the commonalities begin and end – thankfully.
Based on the books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski – and the popular video games of the same stories – this eight-part series follows the grizzled Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a rare breed of monster hunter known as a Witcher. These supernatural and mutated beings are unique to Sapkowski’s tale with Geralt serving as the leading protagonist. He spends his days roaming the quasi-medieval world and slaying the nasty beasties that torment the commonly inebriated locals – for the right price, of course.
Showrunner Lauren Hissrich was obviously eager to demonstrate Geralt’s otherworldly skills, the opening scene foists us into a rancid swamp, where our titular Witcher is locked in battle with a grotesque, gargantuan spider. This scene sets the stall for the series perfectly, while encapsulating a major hook of the Geralt narrative: an utterly terrifying monster being expertly dismantled and cruelly executed by a hulking hero.
Henry Cavill has donned the lushest white hair and leather garbs, and though fans scoffed at his casting, his performance is possibly the strongest aspect of the entire show. Fans are overly protective when it comes to Geralt – his personality, and particularly his voice, can send the most hardened fantasy fans’ heart all a-flutter. Cavill, a passionate fan of The Witcher series himself, clearly understood and embraced the pressure that accompanies the role; he is brilliantly understated, warm, humorous and his voice would melt butter. In short, our Witcher is safe in Cavill’s big, lovely arms. But while those traits make him true to the source material, there is a clear absence of character development, nuance and depth for Geralt. Though a couple of episodes challenge his morals and values, The White Wolf is somewhat divorced from the larger plotlines.
Peppered throughout the series are fun monster-of-the-week style episodes. Their singular nature is enjoyable for any viewer – stalwart or not – with the show continually exploring new vistas and creatures, but the lack of connective tissue between each adventure feels perfunctory. There is a skeleton of an overarching plot which season one follows, but one would hope that future seasons employ a more unified, novelistic approach, which would be far more fulfilling.
The backdrop for the show is much grander than mere monster hunting. Geralt becomes embroiled in a conflict between two bellicose human nations: the Nilfgaardian Empire and Northern Kingdoms – the fallout from their quarreling informs each characters’ arc. One of the most fascinating traits of the Netflix series is how the narrative is separated across three characters and their respective timelines – Geralt, the young princess of Cintra, Ciri (Freya Allan) and the sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra). Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – which was broken into three timelines covering a week, a day, and an hour – The Witcher attempts a similar approach but fails to inform the viewer leaving them a tad bewildered.
While Geralt’s and Yennifer’s arcs span years, Ciri’s is mere days – and is quite the slow burn compared to the formers’ more explosive adventures. Even for the devoted, astute viewer, it’s initially daunting, as you’re regularly synthesising the plotlines in your head to a point where you’re being distracted from The Witcher’s jaunty pace and quirky dialogue.
Some advice, focus on each story individually; it will culminate in a satisfying conclusion. Only Yennifer’s storyline feels truly fleshed out, almost certainly because her backstory was written for the show and seamlessly weaved into the larger Witcher tapestry. Acting as an origin story, Yennefer’s path is tragic, dour and wholly compelling, though, as the character becomes stronger, she seems less important.
Geralt is the driving force behind most of the show’s action sequences, which feature some of the best swordplay seen on television. The action is fast, brutal and beautifully shot, with the camera tracking Geralt fluidly as he weaves and scythes his way through his foes. The direction fully embraces its high fantasy, video game lineage, rejecting any sort of realism. Though, some of the show’s visuals often flip-flop between a cheap SyFy production and a prestige HBO epic – hopefully the show’s growing popularity will lead to a hefty improvement in production for coming seasons.
The score, however, is glorious. Scrolling through Twitter, you’ve undoubtedly come across a few people declaring their love for ‘Toss A Coin To Your Witcher’ – a composition of Geralt’s loyal companion Jaskier (Joey Batey), and an absolute banger – but the entire soundtrack brilliantly captures the idiosyncrasies of Sapkowski world and builds a signature atmosphere that is rarely explored.
There’s a lot to like about Geralt’s maiden journey into the murky forests of the streaming world, but ultimately it lacks substance. While the monster-of-the-week style can be fun, for a really rewarding watch, a more involving and immersive story is needed. The greatest appeal of the Witcher is Geralt and how he impacts the conniving and manipulative land he traverses. That said, anchored by a committed performance from Cavill, the blockbuster fantasy series has all of the tools needed to evolve into something worthy of the iconic White Wolf.