The Witcher, and why some adaptations suck

First of all, it’s worth noting that this will not just be a piece of bashing on The Witcher. Many have done plenty of that already, and while I personally don’t enjoy the show, I’m not going to try to take that joy away from anyone who does. The Witcher is not a good adaptation, and at times it can feel like it’s not even trying. Still, that’s not all. That’s not the only reason the show doesn’t work, in my opinion, nor would everything be better if it was suddenly like re-reading the books on a big screen.

But looking at The Witcher, I’ve wondered, what makes a good adaptation? Why do some succeed where others fall flat on their faces, and is it as simple as the more accurate a show, game or movie is, the more praise it’s going to earn? There’s not really a clear answer to any of this, but in hopes of knowing as much as we can, let’s dive into some successful and unsuccessful adaptations to see if there’s a real formula for success.

The Witcher

Since it’s still fresh in our minds, let’s start with The Witcher. Things looked promising for this series at first. Aside from Nilfgaard’s armor looking like a scorched bollock, we were okay with most of the other major changes from the books. Skipping the first meeting between Ciri and Geralt because Freya Allan was too old made sense, and otherwise, even if we weren’t on the book’s path 100% of the time, the show remained fine, with many hoping it would get better once the bumpy road of short stories was crossed.

Then we got season 2. This is where the wheels fell off the wagon in terms of accuracy. There is an eerie feel to The Witcher’s second season as a book reader, as the actors bear the same names as the characters you know, but are otherwise completely unrecognizable. Also, things like fire magic being illegal, the forest witch who stole Yennefer’s magic and the dreaded monolith focus all served as bad additions to the story we knew, adding layers of fat when you’d really hope to trim it in an adaptation.

The Witcher

Where The Witcher goes wrong, as an adaptation, is that it messes with many of what many fans consider core elements of the series. We could survive the aforementioned extras if the arcs and characters in the middle were as solid as they remain in the books. However, this is where things fall apart, as it seems that one of the key rules for making a solid adaptation ensures that no matter how sideways you get, the viewer should always be able to see the familiar light at the end of the tunnel. Wondering where something is going when you should already know the answer sometimes feels bewildering.

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Looking like a more successful fantasy series (at least for most of its run), Game of Thrones retains the big moments and story beats that you know, while trimming the fat and adding things we loved. Hardhome here is the biggest example of something book fans didn’t get to see, but didn’t complain about by the time the episode ended. That moment where the White Walkers showed how dangerous they were might not have paid off by the end of the show, but during season 5 it felt like it fit right in with everything we had seen so far. It maintained the tone, mood and overall atmosphere for lack of a better word where something like The Witcher pulls you out of that experience with its inconsistency.

The Witcher

It is also important to remember that there are reasons why fans prefer The Witcher to the scores of other fantasy stories they can read. It’s unique, and yet none of that feels reflected in what Netflix puts out. The big red N is rarely bold, but with The Witcher, there is a constant feeling that you are just watching an old fantasy show, and not something that grabbed readers decades ago and defined an entire generation of gamers. Instead of making the world we see feel lived and real, The Witcher’s dialogue treats everything from land names to magic as if the characters are revising for a test on them, listing as many details as possible as if they had a world history exam tomorrow. It fails to immerse you, both visually and through its treatment of the world as something that could exist.

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In contrast, when we look at something like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, not only does this distant future feel like something grounded and realistic, but it is clear that there is a love of the source material at its heart. When I read the books now, I imagine the characters I saw on screen, which is an amazing feat for any adaptation. Villeneuve didn’t go into making Dune with another sci-fi project in mind; he wanted to make something from Frank Herbert’s original work. I’m not sure we can say the same for The Witcher, which sometimes wants to reach far beyond just a show representing the books we know. You can’t help but feel that the showrunners and Netflix wanted to make a fantasy show, and then just bought the rights to The Witcher because they knew people knew about the name.

The Witcher

The Witcher is not the worst adaptation out there. It takes a lot of liberties, and not all of them are good, with some even getting to the point where it can just be confusing to watch the show as a book reader, but adaptations that deviate greatly from the source material don’t necessarily make a bad show. Watch The Boys, and you’ll see what I mean, as the show takes on incredibly different topics than the original comic and is still heavily praised. Instead, unfortunately, The Witcher is neither a great adaptation nor a great show, making fans wish it could have at least been the first. That wouldn’t have solved all the problems, because a great adaptation doesn’t just stick to the source material, but enhances it from a place of great understanding. For whatever reason, it seemed that the one person who held the books in high regard has now left the show. A sad ending, but hopefully it now teaches the lesson that a solid adaptation comes not from sticking entirely to the source material or changing it en masse, but by doing a little of both. Seeing what works for the medium you’re making and what doesn’t. There are still a lot of great adaptations out there, so let’s hope for more of them in the future.

The Witcher

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