The Witcher games, particularly Wild Hunt, have seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to the titular Netflix show. Though the books and games are divergent, they naturally have much in common – sharing a universe’s history, rather than strictly the present.
The Witcher is set in a medieval fantasy world, created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In this world, monsters and humans both came about through an event known as the Conjunction of the Spheres. The native creatures, such as elves and dwarfes, could not fight off these new alien beings and eventually were dominated by the humans. However, humans still needed to deal with the monsters – this led to the creation of mutant humans, known as Witchers. These are children – almost always boy children – who are taken from a young age by Witcher Schools, trained to a physical and mental peak, then altered by various elixirs. They then live a hard life, known as freelancing to most of us, attempting to obtain work – where they can find it – for pay.
This is a world filled with multiple nations, politics, and species. Drawing from different mythologies, beings such as djinn live alongside vampires and elves. Norse mythology and rituals exist alongside witch-hunting barbarism and mob violence. But the common thread throughout it all is Geralt, the legendary Witcher.
Geralt in the games, books and TV show is a somewhat grumpy mercenary, who shows his heart though he hates to admit it. He tells himself the creed is “don’t get involved” but then is standing next to kings and queens, shaping court intrigue and affecting the fate of nations.
This makes for a great telescopic lens for the audience: an initial small entry point that gives way to vast oceans of plot. With this in mind, the TV show seems to be trying to fill the epic scope of Game of Thrones. To me, this misses out on what a Witcher TV adaptation would’ve been ideal for: a monster/murder of the week with Geralt as detective.
Geralt’s intelligence is perhaps my favourite quality. He knows every plant, animal and monster – their strengths and weaknesses. He has occasional Sherlock-levels of deduction, from examining bloodstains and the angle of attack, to deducing the height and weight of the perpetrator (something Sherlock did often and is logically possible to do, given the factors he obtains).
Why the creators didn’t use this as a basis for a monster-of-the week is beyond me. While the show has sometimes done this – see especially the story with the princess monster, a famous Witcher story – to me, the show should have leaned into this completely: Geralt pitches up at some ramshackle village where the most valuable thing is the well bucket; some dirt-stained farmer would plead with Geralt to help him or the village, because someone was attacked, the farmer’s daughter is afflicted with a mysterious poison, etc. etc. And Geralt must solve it. House MD but the answer is always werewolves (but never lupus).
The show should’ve ditched the grand tale of Ciri and her godlike powers – in fact, Ciri should’ve never been a character at all, except maybe to be the first female Witcher due to Geralt’s choices (the Law of Surprise, etc., which I won’t bother to get into and which made many go “ehhh?”). It seems to me, the show wants to walk two paths simultaneously: a monster of the week procedural show, as well as messing viewers around with its flashbacks, stories about Yenn and her boring rise through the ranks, and some story of big politics and grand magic. It tears viewers down both paths and yanks them back and forth, losing the thread since we can’t get time to wrap our heads around one thing.
Why both paths worked in the game
See, this worked in the games, because players had options. One wonderful aspect of the games was every side story was lovingly crafted, but could be dipped into and out – making it ideal for those who wanted a grand fantasy story, but maybe didn’t have time that week. Maybe your headspace wasn’t in it to remember the hundreds of names of characters, political figures, nations, etc. Instead, maybe ,you wanted to figure out what the ghost at the well was about? Maybe you want to know who’s killing guards in the dead of night? Maybe you want to find out why that island in the middle of the lake has strange lights at night?
This, obviously doesn’t work for a TV show, where viewed are pulled along with no option at all. One episode Geralt’s helping some princess, the next Ciri is being manipulated and with dryads, then… er remember this dude? Yeah he was in this flashback but then also he was in the present? No? But now he’s a doppelganger actually so…
The TV show should’ve ditched the big politics, Ciri and focused solely on Geralt’s wandering adventures as a freelance detective and monster-slayer. We could watch him grow, learn and become softer – there could be hints of a bigger story at play, but they would not be essential to enjoy an episode on its own. Viewers could then dabble into any episode, at any point, much like the games.
By trying to fill the gap Game of Thrones left, Witcher to me is trying to do too much, on too little, when it could be doing so much more by doing less. Ditch Ciri. Focus on the dirty farmers’ problems. Become fantasy Sherlock.