Monday, 20 December 2021

Unsolicited "The Witcher" Series (or Season) 2 Review (spoilers)

Excellent, but could still be improved.

In response to precisely no demand, I thought I'd put down a few thoughts about the most recent series of Netflix' The Witcher. Really, and for fairness, I should have done this for Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time, but I didn't. And I suppose it's better late than never to do a blurb. I hope that my perspective as a very minor fantasy author will add something different to the myriad opinions already out there.

Perhaps improperly, my first introduction to The Witcher was through the third game. I've spent a long time inside it, and I'd love to make the joke about being glad that Ciri never made it to Skellige in the TV series because of the exhausting side-quests, but unfortunately someone else got there first. After the first series came out, I was finally prompted to turn to the books. They're good fun, by the way. I generally prefer Rothfuss or Jordan's style of stuff for the world-building, but they're still great reads. 

As anyone else who has either read those books or played the game(s) will know, the storyline of the Netflix series is quite a departure from both versions. It's unclear if Geralt's memory problems will ever feature (and hence the subsequent Triss thing), or if he will be taking small sailing dinghies into the middle of the sea to dive for weapons caches. Only time will tell. But do authors get annoyed about having their carefully honed and perfected stories messed with for telly?

No. Far from it. Unless an author is supremely arrogant, a re-jig for television is far more of an excitement than it is a concern. Yes, it can be disconcerting for readers with fully formed expectations, but for an author, it's immensely flattering to have your work looked at and developed into something completely new. Many of us don't write in sequence anyway. We create a pile of scenes and draw them together later - the order can be changed, and frequently is.

And do not forget the feelings of validation and joy that come from finding a buyer for those TV rights. Those of us at the more obscure end of Amazon rankings can only dream of being in a situation where such disappointment is even an option. I recall GRRM once said that no author he knew ever begrudged a poor adaptation of their work, especially not when it had paid for their new garage.

And let's face it, Netflix' The Witcher is not poor or half-hearted. The CGI was faultless, the costumes and monster make-up appropriately beautiful and horrible, and the sets pretty spectacular. Kaer Morhen was a personal favourite. Vast, empty and ruined; it told its own story without requiring any dialogue. I was always disappointed that the books didn't linger for very long here. Plus, placing the Nivellan story in the second series rather than the first worked quite well, in my view. It added to the sense of distance travelled for Ciri and Geralt that would otherwise have been filled with landscape cutaways and Enya (c.f. LotR).  An unfaithful adaptation is, therefore, no bad thing. 

Cavill requires no more fanfare than he already receives, lest his head grow too large for his dusty grey wig. I will say that when I originally heard he was cast to play Geralt, I thought it would never work. I could not have been more wrong, and it's surprises like that which keep me glued to multiple series rather than a single episode. Chalotra gave a brilliant performance as the tortured hunchback in the first series, and I absolutely believed she could be seduced by the darker side of her own personality, but I felt her character deserved something more than frequent defeat in the most recent episodes. If I had been writing, she would have had many more wins to enjoy. She also got a bum deal with the Ciri storyline.

Fringilla deserves a mention - seeing the other side(s) of her in this series was much-needed. Hers, and to a lesser extent Cahir's, were the best pieces of character development this time round. No longer were either of them evil cardboard cutouts from wicked Nilfgard, but with a little more complexity. Everything else not mentioned below was generally good, or not negative enough to be memorably bad.

Geralt did a lot more talking in this series, which isn't a bad thing, but I do worry that if heavily pursued, chatter could lead to a loss of what makes Geralt so special. As viewers and readers, we know how much is going on behind those yellow eyes during his frequent silences, and that whole monologues are encapsulated within his "Hmm"s. He is brilliant because he doesn't need to talk and talk, and Cavill has proved himself quite capable of communicating all this with a grunt, a clenched jaw or furrowed brow. It's a thin line to tread when adding dialogue. 

Onto the proper negatives. There was something wrong with the first two/three episodes that I could not put my finger on at first. I thought the dialogue a bit ponderous and under-edited, but that wasn't the larger problem. It took a second viewing (admittedly, while I was doing other work) before I figured it out - a kind of deadness. And the source of that was Jaskier - or rather his absence. The moment he bursts on screen, the whole thing came back to life for me. It's not just his music, but the optimism and comedy he brings. He's a necessary foil to the darkness, and I feel he was badly underserved by the scripting in this series (his main song - Burn Butcher, Burn - was fabulous and I was swearing at Netflix for auto-skipping the credits, however).

This is a familiar experience for me. When I was writing books four and five, I was repeatedly struck by waves of this same emptiness because of Silar's absence. 

The dark scenes become unbearable when there is no relief; it becomes difficult to write with any degree of punchiness, and if the writer feels this way, you can be certain the reader will feel it too. I needed Silar to make the other parts of the story work, and so does The Witcher. The comic relief is far from an afterthought for the LOLs; it's an essential and necessary part of the whole. Plus, Joey Batey is not a thing to be wasted, but a hugely valuable asset to the show. So that is my main criticism - not enough of him or the chemistry he creates with the other characters. I think the writers got Jaskier and Yen wrong too. Jaskier, after all, is a dandy and a seducer of women. As frightening as Yen is to him, I think he would have recognised and acted upon his attraction to her with Geralt out of the picture. This, combined with the inevitable rejection, would have made for much better comedy, and it needn't have been overt or repetitive or seedy.

The other characters using "fuck" or variations thereof ended up depowering it too significantly. "Cannot think of a side from which you are not completely fucked," was a great line, but the Fire Fuckers either side of that felt flaccid in comparison. Swearing is not bad per se, nor is plenty of it (c.f. The Thick of It), but it does need variety. We are fortunate to have a language with the some of the most fantastic and varied swearwords, euphemisms, and insults known to humankind. I wish they could have been more creative and experimental with the swears. Tinderbox Twat, Campfire Cunt, Burning Bollocks Bastard, Sparky Scale-Faced Cesspit Sewer-Dweller are just a few alternatives off the top of my head. 

I spotted one Geralt-branded "Fuck," and it was not given the correct timing by the other bits of soundtrack around it. I know there can be a sense of cliche with such character-specific catchphrases, but the viewer is waiting in hope for it, and it's surprisingly hard for these things to become as tired to the audience as they perhaps seem to the actor. It also gives the writers endless opportunities for messing with expectations. Remember Bond's "Do I look like I give a fuck?" response to the martini offering? Perhaps Geralt's expletives could be played with in reverse fashion.

Vilgeforz - one of my favourite supporting characters, but I'm not sure why he has a wild and angry outburst with Tissaia. It seemed rather unjustified.

I wasn't convinced that Geralt would have dangled Ciri in front of the dragony beast. It was an opportunity for an heroic moment, but I'm afraid it jarred for me.

Nitpicky stuff: 

Yen's escape from Fountains Abbey using an axe was somewhat contrived. 

Yennefer's unicorn was referenced, but I was actually rather gutted that they hadn't gone for a visual Easter Egg instead. How brilliant would it have been if the stuffed unicorn - broken or otherwise - had appeared in the background of a scene, completely unreferenced or acknowledged? I do prefer subtlety...

They killed Roach. True to the games, and probably intended as an in-joke. But still. It's like the trauma of Bela all over again. *wipes tear away*

There was a scene where Ciri begs to start eating her dinner. Two minutes later, or perhaps even less, Geralt tells her it's time for bed. At least give the girl some time to eat - she's got trials to complete! This could have done with better editing or writing. 

Use of "gotten" instead of "got" or some other synonym. Use of "wrote me" instead of "wrote to me." Gah. I think some more Americanisms crept in there too. These make perfect sense in American accents, and do have their roots in older English, but are surprisingly jarring to a Brit ear in Brit/RP accents. 

That's all. I feel I've spent an unfair amount of time on the negatives as it's still an excellent set of episodes. The perfect is, after all, the enemy of the good. I eagerly await the next batch - and here's hoping Yen and Yaskier get the things I've requested. 

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