I am standing in contractually-mandated silence in what I believe to be a royal wine cellar as Henry Cavill, this generation’s Superman, prepares for the arrival of assassins for around the six millionth time.
It’s difficult to make Cavill out. Though I can see that he’s wearing glimmering black armour and sporting a shoulder-length grey wig, there’s thick, moody smoke everywhere – the lingering kind that streams from the mouths of shisha smokers. The cellar itself, a stone network of domed caverns that smells like a barn after rain, is illuminated by high powered set lights. These cast artful beams of gold light, the kind which might whisk the Baby Jesus up to heaven, or abduct an unlucky terrestrial. With each take, Cavill must pass through these beams on the trajectory to delivering his final line.
In the scene I’m privy to, the director just shouts “We need to see more of Henry!” or “We need to see less of Henry!” over and over, and Cavill – along with set hands who surge about the scene like tentacular extensions of the director’s will – must respond accordingly. Each time he starts again, Cavill must feign the same indignant look across his face, embody the same leonine roll of the shoulders, and growl the same unnaturally passionate lines with renewed unnatural passion.
I watched Cavill deliver these lines – which were ponderous on first delivery and by the end had spiralled into a kind of musical torture – back in April, on a set visit to The Witcher, the latest big budget extravaganza from Netflix. It’s aimed squarely at the massive audience pulled in by Game of Thrones – but make no mistake, Game of Thrones this is not. And that’s a pretty big problem.
Cavill is the star. He plays the titular Witcher – aka Geralt of Rivia, the Butcher of Blaviken, or ‘the one known in the elder speech as Gwynnbleid’. Geralt is the protagonist of a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski, written in Polish and first released in 1992. They are high fantasy novels of the Tolkien ilk, filled with their own takes on sorcerers and elves, but with a lot more explicit sex and explicit racism. The books are “cult classics” in Poland – a film adaptation, Wiedźmin (The Hexer in English), was produced in 2001, followed by a 13 part television series. Both are widely acknowledged to be unwatchable.
A witcher is a profession – a monster hunter for hire. Geralt is a particularly competent example of one, with a gruff vibe evoking Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. “He’s not all chocolate box and cuddles,” explains Cavill, and you believe him – Cavill is so stacked he resembles a Grecian urn, an impression only enhanced by the fact that he turns up to interview accompanied by his grinning akita Kal, a dog the size of a mountain lion.
“Ever since I’ve started reading fantasy books when I was a kid I found wonderful examples of character, personality and how to be and how not to be,” he says. “And all within fantastic settings which were very engaging and enthralling and and really, you know, tickle my brain.”
In the early 2000s, a small Polish game developer called Cd Projekt Red approached Sapowski about licensing the stories for a video game. According to an interview with Eurogamer, Sapowski doesn’t remember the details of the conversation, only that Cd Projekt Red provided “What I expect from an adaptation: a big bag of money.”
The three games, vast, graphically lush RPGs set in steadily more open worlds, are considered some of the best ever, and have sold more than 33 million copies, elevating the studio founders to celebs in their home country and Geralt to a household name among gamers. That includes Cavill. Despite not possessing the jawline of a man who enjoys LAN parties, he’s a big gamer – currently playing Total War: Warhammer – and this is a real passion project for him.
It should be emphasised here, as it was to me repeatedly throughout the trip, and months later by panicked email, that this version of The Witcher is not an adaptation of the games. Other than Cavill, who seemed genuinely enamoured by the entire universe, everyone I spoke to had either purposefully avoided them, or assures me they’ve played them only coincidentally.
And it’s fair to say that, though this series is obviously aiming for the game’s audience, it is also aiming for a lot more. “I always called this the mom test – because my mother would never ever ever watch The Witcher in real life,” Lauren Hissrich, the series showrunner, told me. “So how do I get my mum – a 60 something year old woman in Ohio – to want to watch this?”
This goal is not at all a false hope. We’ve come a long way from the idea that the marketing category “Mum in Ohio” might be considered an impossible target audience for a show that features lines like “Greetings I am Stregobor. Master Stregobor the Sorcerer.”
The Witcher wants the same as audience as Game of Thrones – everyone. If you can’t see what Netflix is trying to do, you’ve been – as Cavill had to bellow repeatedly in the cellar scene – “hiding your head in the saaand.” But dig a little deeper, and The Witcher proves to be nothing like the HBO series.
There were at least two key factors behind the success of Game of Thrones. The first, to crib a phrase often thrown about when describing the show, was its “intricately woven” mesh of addictive, soap-like plots. Drawn from the War of the Roses, these stories were (usually) thematically sophisticated – smart and compelling takes on the ways one might gain and hold power in a feudalist patriarchal society. Game of Thrones was interesting to the “Mom in Ohio” because it was fundamentally a show about politics.
The second reason was the source material’s general resistance to classical fantasy tropes. George RR Martin’s books are in tune with the fact that for large swathes of stereotypical high fantasy, criticism of the genre as conservative trash is appropriate. Instead, his books are relentlessly sceptical, which manifests as an engaging mix of humour and bleakness. Tolkien-esque conceits like destiny and fate are mocked; handsome wisecracking princess brides get their heads ripped off; characters motivations cannot be intuited just by their race or appearance; war is chaotic and ignoble.
The results weren’t perfect – in the show, for instance, women’s naked bodies were still deployed as exotic set design, and the medieval-influenced world got populated by models who had access to buckets of runway quality makeup everyday – but teenage boyish aesthetic decisions coexisted with often brilliant and thoughtful writing. Even during my set visit, while gorging on my salty hotel breakfast, I shouted (and made gun fingers and pow pow sounds) at my laptop, as Arya leapt forth and iconically shanked the Night King.
On set, it was impossible to discern how The Witcher differed from Game of Thrones at all. The show presented all the indicative trappings of high fantasy. There were, for instance, sets with fantastical names like Tower of Gulls and Cliffs Head at the End of the World and Blaviken Inn. One journalist demanded the latter’s etymology. ”It’s just a town name that he came up with, the writer I mean, so um yeah,” said our PR guide, which was a fair and factual answer.
There were also knights and sorcerers. The former, tactically adorned in generous helpings of detritus, sat around on the back of moving vans smoking cigarettes, playing on their iPhones and appearing notably pleased that they were dressed as knights. Later, we all ate hotdogs together. Another journalist and I found ourselves flanking a man in full sorcerer’s garb at a urinal. “It’s hard to get out of this thing, and it’s hard to get it out of this thing” referring to his gold sorcerer’s gown, and his penis.
It’s only on watching that you see how the The Witcher differs to Game of Thrones. It falls down in exactly the same areas where its predecessor succeeded – it lacks a sense of politics and it lacks the same scepticism towards high fantasy tropes.
The latter shows in the script, as I feared in the royal cave. Mothers stroke the cheek of their daughters and whisper “sweet child” over and over; men give their daughters away, bellowing “She’s no daughter of mine!”. Groups of medieval louts mutter “We don’t want your kind around here, Witcher” and characters give straight faced speeches about “forging destiny” and “chosen ones”, without a cynical wisecrack from a Tyrion, a Bronn, (or indeed a Mountain, to rip their head off) to temper their mysticism. It’s often Geralt delivering these lines, and as a central force he doesn’t rise much above an emotionally deficient muscle bound alpha male.
The second issue is more grievous. From the very first episode, The Witcher lays out its conceit, its diversion from Tolkien – that morality isn’t absolute. “Evil is evil, Stregobor,” says Geralt, in a quote taken directly from one of the books. “Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same.”
The problem is that this conceit manifests as a focus on individual morality, and this just isn’t that interesting in a fantastical universe so controlled by evil institutions. This is a problem entwined with The Witcher’s structure – though an overarching plot about a girl with a magical scream simmers away in the background, the show substitutes thickly plotted dramatic arcs for a monster of the week structure. Think X-Files. Should Geralt believe the sorcerer or the witch? The King or the King’s guards? The parodically British townspeople or the wailing little goat man? Usually Geralt must fight something, like a knife-toothed harpy or a wailing little goat man. Despite protests to the contrary, you can feel the logical machinery of video game side quests whirring under these stories’ hoods.
“You know, I think that it will draw comparisons, because they’re both huge fantasy shows” says Hissrich, when asked about comparisons to Game of Thrones. “I also think they’re very different types of shows. And I say that being a huge fan of both of them. I think people will see that we’re taking a different twist on fantasy.”
The problem with The Witcher is that its twist is too gentle. If the show succeeds, it will not be for the same reasons that Game of Thrones did. It presents a less radical kind of fantasy.
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