At the tail-end of second term during my MA I re-watched the much-maligned Polish television series Wiedzmin (2002) i.e. The Witcher to see if it still held up. I saw the first few episodes on a trip to Poland when I was 14, which would have been a year after the theatrical release of the film, the same film that cut a two hour running time out of thirteen one-hour episodes, resulting in what I would charitably call an incomprehensible mess. The movie wasn’t well-received in Poland, especially not by fans of the books it was based on. The show, unsurprisingly, didn’t attract a very large audience as a result.
The Witcher is adapted from The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, two short story collections by Andrzej Sapkowski. They centre on the albino mutant monster-hunter (AKA “witcher”) Geralt of Rivia and his encounters with various twisted fairy tales. The subsequent novels got a lot more serious in tone, but the chief draw of the stories, for me, is the humour–the situations you get into by dropping a grim and overpowered character straight out of a 60s sword and sorcery novel into a world ruled by Hans Christian Anderson. At least, that’s the chief draw until the last two stories in The Sword of Destiny, which pack a huge emotional punch that I can’t say I was prepared for.
The show isn’t much like that.
If I had read those two books first, I probably would have been angry. Key scenes and characters from the stories are mixed and moved about, placed into a new overarching plot that’s vaguely drawn from the first Witcher novel, Blood of the Elves. While there are moments of levity, the series is mostly dour and full of portent, and while some of the scenes are taken nearly word-for-word from the stories, the atmosphere surrounding them is very, very different. Episode 7, probably the most faithful episode wherein Geralt and his friend Jaskier experience hijinks, feels decidedly out-of-place here, in a show where you can expect Geralt to talk about Doom and the Injustice of Man at least once an hour.
The upside is, oddly enough, that the show does take itself seriously despite a budget that results in poorly-rendered CG and unconvincing rubber monsters. It helps that monster-hunting isn’t the main focus, that the actors actually have some talent, that the fight choreography is by-and-large still impressive. Costuming choices are odd, like witchers carrying katanas, or Peruvian-style elves, but they are consistent. Having real-life castles to shoot in helps give the fantasy world a nice weighty feel. And the soundtrack is great, perhaps the best thing here, often mournful and otherworldly, sometimes intense and pounding.
It was a gritty fantasy series before Game of Thrones stormed HBO, full of gore and sex and nudity, and as I teenager I was spellbound. On the re-watch, I still found myself drawn into the show despite myself, despite how I knew this series did a disservice to the original stories. The first eight episodes are undoubtedly compelling, and by skirting the fantasy elements the show runners managed to make things work. The problem is that the meat of the show, the father-daughter-like relationship between Geralt and the princess Ciri that takes up the last five episodes, loses the air of high adventure found in the earlier instalments. This is where the grimness and darkness becomes so heavy it’s oppressive, and the story slows into endless flashbacks and long sequences of Geralt just riding his horse around. One of the original stories (“The Lesser Evil”) gets shoehorned in here, but by and large it’s new material and not very well executed. And yet still the last episode manages to pull things back together into a satisfying conclusion–again, by reproducing the last story in The Sword of Destiny faithfully enough that the emotional punch, while watered down to more of a light shove, remains.
In short, I still like the TV series despite its flaws, and I can see why I was so taken by the series back in high school.
I don’t know how my reaction could have been different–this show was formative in cementing my love of fantasy back in the day, of making me look outside the Anglosphere in my later teens for inspiration, towards Eastern Europe, towards Germany and Scandinavia and Russia. It’s one of those cases where a less-than-stellar work of art can still be important to you, if you experience it at the right time and in the right place.