First there were the books, then there were the games, and now there’s finally an internationally released series (we won’t be talking about 2002 series The Hexer here, as that never got officially released outside of Poland) based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy series The Witcher. This is likely to be familiar to most people through the series of games released to critical acclaim by CD Projekt Red, starting in 2007 with The Witcher and running all the way to the conclusion of its story in 2015 with Witcher 3 – Wild Hunt.
Then all went quiet, apart from the occasional crossover appearance of series protagonist Geralt of Rivia in games such as Soul Calibur VI and Monster Hunter World, until rumours started to swirl that Netflix had acquired the rights and were planning a series. It is fair to say that when the first photos were released showing lead actor Henry Cavill in the Geralt armour, the response was mixed. Mostly tentatively hopeful, but plenty of people, your humble reviewer among them, were not entirely convinced by this choice of casting. But here we are now, the entire series dropped on the 20th of December 2019 and I am here to tell you… that it is everything fans hoped for and any doubts can be put aside. The Witcher is pure fantasy excellence.
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For those who haven’t read the books or played the games their first question might be “What the hell is a Witcher anyway?” and that’s a good question. Short answer? They’re monster hunters for hire. Longer answer? They’re mutant monster hunters for hire, created through a secret ritual known as “The Trial of the Grasses” which has a 70% chance of killing those undergoing it. If you survive it mutates your body, granting you enhanced reflexes as well as other enhancements, at the cost of rendering you sterile and giving you the “viper-like” eyes which are the most visible mark of a Witcher. In this world though, the home of the Witchers was attacked and those who knew how to conduct the trial were killed, so Witchers on this continent are now a slowly dying breed as no new ones can be created.
Henry Cavill is perfect in this role. Rather than attempting to mimic the gravelly voice made famous by Doug Cockle, who voiced Geralt in the games, he instead does his own version of it. Gruff, with flat inflection, it still carries so much personality and it’s a far cry from the terrible and maligned “Batman voice” from the Nolan series. So much of his performance is in his expressions, his eyes, and in the occasionally perfectly punctuated “Fuck”. Cavill is simply a delight to watch, whether it be during the meaty, grimy, messy fight scenes which allow him to show his physicality or when he trades dry, sarcastic barbs with the other characters.
In fact, all the casting is spot on. Freya Allan brings both fragility and believability to Ciri, Anya Chalotra OWNS the role of Yennefer and Joey Batey is pitch perfect as the bard Dandelion, here going under his original Polish moniker of Jaskier, which frankly sounds a whole lot better, especially as the games insist on pronouncing it “Dandilion” which just sounds weird. The only casting choice that might disappoint fans of the games is that of Triss. In the games she is the archetypal “spunky redhead” while here she’s played by Anna Shaffer with a mass of curly dark hair. It’s an odd choice when so much time and effort is put into making the world and all the other characters faithful to both game and book descriptions; Triss is an oddity in being so very different from either.
The series runs to eight episodes and the one thing to keep in mind when watching them is that the plot plays very fast and loose with the timeline. The story jumps around all over the place, to the present day following Ciri, to the past with Geralt making his way in the world, meeting friends, occasionally crashing weddings, helping out dragons and accidentally claiming children. There’s no transition, no indication that the timeline has shifted, the only way the audience can tell where they are in the timeline is “Oh, that person’s not dead, I must be in the past” or “Oh, that city was burnt to the ground, we must be in the present”. It mostly works, but especially in the last two episodes it sometimes isn’t entirely clear when events are taking place relative to each other. But this is a nitpick.
The eight episodes mostly consist of the most well known of Geralt’s adventures. Episode 1 shows how he came by the nickname “The Butcher of Blaviken”, episode 3 shows a scene familiar to anyone who played the original Witcher game, with Geralt tackling a fearsome creature known as a Striga, and episode 5 shows us Jaskier’s near fatal encounter with a Djinn (seriously, genies in this world are just bad news) among other stories.
Each episode usually follows two or three different storylines, following the lives of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri, filling in the backstory of each, fleshing out their characters and relationships as well as keeping abreast of the Nilfgaard Empire’s invasion and their relentless pursuit of Ciri for reasons unknown. There’s plenty of action, a fair amount of nudity, lots of mud, lots of blood and more monsters than you can shake a Witcher’s silver sword at. Each episode is just long enough, it doesn’t feel rushed but doesn’t outstay its welcome. There’s the occasional moment of levity, mostly involving Jaskier and Geralt, to lighten the mood and make sure it doesn’t feel too dour. The dialogue is spot on, with Cavill nailing Geralt’s dry, biting wit. There’s not a single bad performance to be found, every character memorable, every story an engaging one.
I, for one, am very glad to hear that this has already been renewed for a second season because it deserves one and while sometimes it smacks of studio arrogance to declare a second season before the first has even aired, in this case it’s entirely justified. Fans of the books and the games should watch this. Fantasy fans should watch it. Cavill fans should watch it. Anyone who liked Game of Thrones should watch it. EVERYONE should watch it and come along on the journey of Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer of Vengerberg and Ciri, the Lion Cub of Cintra.
And always remember to toss a coin to your Witcher.