First Thoughts Review: Netflix’s The Witcher (2019)

Chloé and Tom report back on the first four episodes of The Witcher

Official Synopsis
“Based on the best-selling fantasy series of books, The Witcher is an epic tale of fate and family. Geralt of Rivia, a solitary monster hunter, struggles to find his place in a world where people often prove more wicked than beasts. But when destiny hurtles him toward a powerful sorceress, and a young princess with a dangerous secret, the three must learn to navigate the increasingly volatile Continent together.”

Please note: this review looks at the first four episodes only

Based on the series of novels by the same name by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, “The Witcher” books inspired and led to the creation of several video games of varying success, from “The Witcher” in 2007 through to the most notable “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” in 2015. This gained critical acclaim and proved extremely popular; popular enough that given the (then) immense popularity of Game of Thrones, Netflix decided to throw some money at the license and create its own eight-part dark fantasy. The writers of the show maintained that they would be working from the books and not the CD Projekt Red games that most people would be more familiar with. To that end, they have adapted several of the short stories in the first two Witcher books (“The Last Wish” and “Sword of Destiny”) which introduce our titular character “The Witcher”, Geralt of Rivia.

The internet was abuzz with anticipation at the various stages of the production of “The Witcher”, but fans seemed initially annoyed at the synopsis summary, and the fact Netflix has a certain notoriety of adapting things badly. It was Henry Cavill’s addition to the project that made a few people have a bit more hope, then a series of early test shots and bad wigs made expectations drop. As more information and casting were announced, there were ups and downs of anticipation. In a post-“Game of Thrones” season 8 world, would this project live up to the hype created by the game that brought the series its new audience? Optimistically, “kind of.”

In an attempt to bring in more of the additional characters early, the series follows the lives of three of the main protagonists; Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri. These scenes are played out each episode and through the series these characters will be brought together though Destiny (proper noun intended). To be honest, the first episode seemed overall dull in comparison to what we were expecting… It would have perhaps been a bit more enticing and attention-grabbing if the first episode had shown Geralt fighting a monster for more than one scene, however the writers are on record saying that they wanted to additionally focus on the two female leads rather than have Geralt killing endless Drowners in a swamp. But it did the job of setting the scene and following episodes were more engaging.

Going in blind to this show, it may be a relatively hard timeline to follow.  There is no explanation of the world or narration at the start, we just jump straight in. Like the books, the world of The Witcher is built up bit by bit by taking each episode and world-building through seemingly throwaway dialogue serving as exposition.  After the first four episodes you might not have even pieced together that you have watched three different characters stories over a span of 30+ years as they will inevitably be brought together. And even then, you are not watching these events in sequential order.

Taken as a fantasy series, it does it fairly well. Most of the scenes and settings seem fitting for the world that the series is trying to create. There is a degree of dirt and grime to show the world as a lived-in functioning society rather than the sterile, predictable sets of mid-1990s fantasy TV shows. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and some of the early camera angles are a bit jarring, there is some weird lighting and over-used lens flares, the odd bit of slightly below average CGI crops up, but despite its budget it is still a TV show rather than a big blockbuster movie.

Given the difficulty of translating this project from books and the games to a live action show, it does an acceptable job. There are a few casting choices that are not going to suit all tastes of existing fans of the franchise due to the unavoidable preconceived images of certain characters one develops when reading novels, and the undeniable bold appeal of the character designs in the game series.

Story-wise, for older readers it will remind you of Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller”, taking elements of European folklore and mixing it up a bit into the darker fantasy setting The Witcher is attempting to build.  Assuming the series continues to follow the books, there will be some folktales most will recognise from Disney-esque adaptations mixed into the grand plot alongside the “monster of the week” and “trying and failing not to get involved in politics” Geralt seemingly has a knack of getting caught up in as the “main” story become more apparent.

The Witcher is probably better than you were expecting, so it’s worth a look to see if you can get over any pre-established ideas you have in your head and enjoy it for what it is rather than what you’d hope it was going to be.

Chloé and Tom Kneebone

The Witcher is now available to stream on Netflix.

Chloé Kneebone produces the 90s Nostalgia show on Bunkazilla. Tune in each week for an hour of almost-forgotten 90s earworms and hits, and a little bit of chat and nonsense about requested songs and weird and wonderful memories.

Tom Kneebone is Chloé’s husband. He survives of a steady diet of dank memes, Monster Energy drinks and cynicism.