The Witcher is now streaming on Netflix. And for those who have been waiting to see the story of Geralt of Rivia in live-action, it’s been a long time coming. Some folks have been dreaming of seeing The Witcher on the big or small screen since Andrzej Sapkowski‘s creation of the character and mythology in the early 1990s. But that group is in the minority. The Witcher may have been famous throughout Sapkowski’s homeland of Poland throughout the 90s, where the first TV adaptation was originally released as The Hexer, but it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the original tale came to international attention. And that’s thanks in a big way to Polish video game company CD Projekt Red.
In a now infamous deal between Sapkowski and CDPR, which resulted in an equally infamous lawsuit that seems to have come to a mutually amicable end as of this year, the author essentially signed over the video game adaptation rights to his creation for a single lump sum. That proved to be a mistake, by Sapkowski’s own admission, because The Witcher games introduced a worldwide audience to the title character of Geralt and planted the seeds for a lucrative franchise that continues to this day.
So now, after nearly 30 years of The Witcher mythology, fans have a series of novels and short stories at their disposal, along with three video games, and the new Netflix series led by Henry Cavill; we’ll just pretend that 2001 Polish series The Hexer is only for the super-fan. That’s a lot of content. But not all of it is created equal.
The Sapkowski texts may be the source material, the font from which Geralt and his potions and signs charisma flow, but they’re also a rather cumbersome collection of tomes. It doesn’t help that English audiences are reading translations, even the best of which will miss some of the subtleties of the author’s native language. Further complicating matters is the combination of short stories gathered together in collections alongside novels released in a series, though some texts that were written later in chronology occur earlier in The Witcher mythology. That’s your standard confusing bibliography of just about any and every massive fantasy franchise, but Sapkowski’s style of writing confuses things further. While Wikipedia summaries for, say the first novel “Blood of Elves”, paint a cohesive picture told in a a naturally progressing style, the story itself is anything but that. The story throws you into and out of action without much preparation or explanation, characters come and go at the drop of a hat (or the appearance of a portal), and both time and geography seem to slide by in a manner fully understood only by Sapkowski himself. That’s not to say the books are bad, they’re just difficult reads for all the reasons mentioned above.
So how does Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher handle that? Well, that’s up for debate. There’s more going on in The Witcher than is obvious at first blush; you’ll probably figure out what’s going on by about Episode 3 or 4. For better or worse, the series opts for the same drop in and drop out style of storytelling that Sapkowski’s writing embraces, an approach that keeps the pace of the series up but could also leave the audience scratching their heads. Character introductions are handled well, better than geographical waypoints or political/national affiliations anyway (Would it kill them to just drop a signpost in whenever we reach a new area?), but many of those characters are “here one minute, gone the next” types. Cavill’s Geralt is a constant, the one character who’s either always on screen carrying out the action or is the center of attention or conversation; that’s helpful, because it’s not always that way in the books; there, he’s almost treated as a supporting character at times. So in terms of giving fans a heaping helping of Geralt with strong support from the world’s other colorful characters, The Witcher series is a step up from the books in consistency and cohesiveness. But it’s got a long way to go to deliver on the compelling mythology at the core of The Witcher’s very existence.
This is where the video game series excels. In fact, the games excel in just about every category when compared to the books and the live-action series, a rare distinction. Instead of occasionally checking in with Geralt as the books do, or watching Cavilll cavalierly deal with the Monster of the Day in his own way, gamers get to control just what Geralt will do, how he’ll do it, and when and where his journey will take him. Gamers get to know Geralt better than readers or viewers do because there are no barriers between them. Gamers can also chose just how surly, sweet, charming, or standoffish their version of Geralt is going to be in any situation, while the books and the TV show make that decision for us. But, to be fair, that’s long been the difference between interactive media and passive consumption. So where else does The Witcher video game series stand above?
For me, it’s the lore, the mythology, the bestiary, and the world itself. You can immerse yourself as much as you want in the games, which gives players numerous quests to do things like gather herbs to concoct potions, poisons, and weapons; ferret out intel from townspeople, the local authorities, and even corpses and the desecrated land itself; and prepare to do battle against incredibly powerful opponents which each have specific strengths and weaknesses that Witchers are known to account for. In other words, Witchers like Geralt aren’t just accomplished swordsmen, knowledgeable herbalists, intuitive sleuths, or competent magic-wielders, they’re all of the above and much, much more. So while The Witcher series only beats around the bush as to the creation of Witchers–which comes about through a strange combination of magic and medieval science–and the particular peculiarities of their trade, the video games revel in it, and that makes all the difference.
So while I’ll continue to read Sapkowski’s The Witcher lore, and I’ll be more than happy watching the rest of Season 1 of Netflix’s new show (as well as Season 2, which has already been ordered), the real crown jewel in the franchise remains with CD Projekt Red. Here’s hoping the renewed interest will help push the game developer a little further down the road to publication of a new, highly anticipated title. Geralt may be nigh immortal, but we’re not.