Home Entertainment The Witcher showrunner on confusing timelines, short story format and more

The Witcher showrunner on confusing timelines, short story format and more

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Hey, have you tossed a coin to your witcher today yet? And if your answer to that question is “ARRGHHH I HATE YOU KERVYN! I JUST GOT SONG OUT OF MY HEAD!!” then chances are you also watched and enjoyed Netflix’s great adaptation of The Witcher recently. The adaptation of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy stories has been a huge hit for the streaming service (not to mention the video game franchise it also spawned) thanks to its great sword and sorcery action, intriguing world, and likeable characters. Casting hunky Henry Cavill as the titular Geralt of Riva also certainly didn’t hurt. That’s not to say it was perfect though.

To adapt Sapkowski’s sprawling tale to the screen, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich took a few liberties and made a few tweaks to the storytelling. Some of these went down better than others with fans. And in a recent AMA on Reddit, the showrunner addressed a number of these decisions.

Easily the most controversial creative choice was to have [SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING] the story actually play out across three different timelines, with this approach only being made clear to the viewer about four episodes in. As Hissrich explained though, in the initial stories, Geralt is the lone central figure with Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and Ciri (Freya Allan) only appearing in much later tales, hence why some timeline twistiness was needed to introduce all three to the audience at roughly the same time.

The narrative structure was put in place so that we could tell Geralt’s short stories (the foundation of the whole Witcher world, in my opinion), while Ciri and Yennefer could also be a part of the action. They’re stories that don’t happen simultaneously, so we knew we needed to play with time a bit. This will definitely change in season two, as they’re stories have begun to converge.

Honestly? I didn’t expect this to be one of the most hotly-contested part of the series. I’ve heard a lot of people say “I didn’t figure it out until episode 4!” — which is exactly when we expected people would do it. I think it’s a matter of personal choice. I like movies with structures I have to figure out as I go — other people may not. In this case, the people who hated it will luck out, because S2 is structured differently. 🙂

Well, that’s good to know. While I agree that there was no other way to introduce all three central figures in this story simultaneously except through overlapping timelines, I do think that Hissrich and co could have done more to make the timelines be more discernable from each other. One aspect could have been in how they depicted characters ageing seeing as the story actually takes place over a number of decades.

Yes, magically gifted characters like Geralt and Yennefer don’t age like normal people, but others like Jaskier or Calanthe appeared to almost be the same age throughout despite years passing by between their appearances. In this regard, Hissrich agreed that they “dropped the ball”.

It’s hard to show the passage of time when everyone looks the same, so we’ll be approaching that differently in S2.

Some fans have suggested that what should have been done is to adapt Sapkowski’s early short stories chronologically, adopting a standalone episodic format featuring Geralt alone until Yennefer and Ciri got introduced in later episodes/seasons, at which time they could then embark on their main story together. Hissrich didn’t agree with this approach though.

What we tried to do is adapt the short stories as Sapkowski wrote them, to an entirely different medium. Shows like Black Mirror are episodic, as you point out, and not serialized. That works because Black Mirror will never become serialized. There is no bait-and-switch in season four, where you suddenly start following one single character episode after episode; if that happened, the built-in audience for Black Mirror would be confused. The rule with television is: the first episode has to represent what the series will be. That’s how television is sold (ie, the studio that’s footing the 100 million dollar bill knows what they’re purchasing) and it’s how television is marketed (ie, the audience that shows up knows what they’ll be tuning in to watch for the next year or two or seven.)

The same goes for the characters. Yes, you can always introduce more characters as you go along in a show. We’ll be doing that as well — there’s a whole new set of fun characters coming in S2. But it was important to me that from the very beginning, the audience know that this story is about Geralt, yes, but it’s also about Yennefer and about Ciri and — most importantly — about what happens when they find each other and become a family.

I actually have to agree with Hissrich here. One of the few complaints lobbied at Disney’s The Mandalorian recently is how the opening episode appeared to sell it as a serialized tale, only for the show to adopt an episodic format thereafter before switching back to serialized. That change in tone was very jarring and that was just over the course of a few episodes. With The Witcher’s timelines, it would probably have required about a season of standalone Geralt episodes before changing narrative gears.

I do wish though we got a bit more of Geralt by himself just so we could dig more into what a Witcher actually is and what they can do with magic and potions. Having played the games, I didn’t need this explanation, but my wife, who watched the show with me and was a complete newbie to this franchise, needed me to fill her in several times. This was intentional though, as Hissrich and co “decided to save some tidbits of witcher lore until… you actually meet more witchers.”

What you’ll also get more of season two is a bit more nuanced representation of Nilfgaard. In both the Witcher stories and games, the Southern nation is depicted as ironfisted, but whose military expansion is driven by trade and commerce and which boasts a fairly advanced society. In the show though, Nilfgaard – and its main representatives, Cahir and Fringilla – very much come across as bloodthirsty, fanatical cultists, murdering their way across the land in bloody conquest.

Interesting about Nilfgaard. Yes, we felt like we needed to set up a “bad guy” in S1 — but it’s our hope that we’ve added enough layers to Cahir and Fringilla that the audience thinks “Wait, but THEY don’t seem insane. So what do they see in Nilfgaard? Maybe there’s more there than meets the eye?” Perhaps we didn’t go far enough in S1, to see more behind Nilfgaard’s curtain — but it will definitely be explored more thoroughly in S2.

Netflix had already renewed The Witcher for a second season before the show premiered last month, but the streaming service is yet to announce a release date.

Last Updated: January 10, 2020

50 Comments

  1. RinceThis

    January 10, 2020 at 13:25

    They should have called it the Witch and the Witcher. I loved Yeneffer, but far too much time was given to her when the story is literally about Geralt.

    Reply

    • Caveshen Rajman

      January 10, 2020 at 13:25

      The story is about all three of them. The games may follow primarily Geralt but the books focus more on Ciri than on Geralt or Yen.

      Reply

      • Admiral Chief

        January 10, 2020 at 13:30

        I guess the games, and my love for TW3 was probably why I didn’t enjoy this a lot

        Reply

      • RinceThis

        January 10, 2020 at 13:30

        I haven’t read the books so my mind is skewed towards the games. I still hold that a bit more time could have been given to Geralt. We get a few flashbacks while he is feverish to his past, but full episodes to Yennifer’s. Felt unbalanced.

        Reply

        • Kervyn Cloete

          January 10, 2020 at 14:03

          But wouldn’t you say this is a bit of a “you” problem, as shitty sounding as that is? (which is not my intention) Because they stressed repeatedly that this is not an adaptation of the games but of the books. And these books that they adapted here is actually the collections of short stories that take place BEFORE the main Witcher saga which the games get into.

          I do agree though that I wanted a bit more time to be spent on just who or what a Witcher is and that would have given lots of insight into Geralt as well. But as the showrunner mentioned up above, they wanted to keep those reveals for S2 when they get more witchers on the scene (which may or may not work out).

          Reply

          • RinceThis

            January 10, 2020 at 14:09

            Oh totally, it is a me thing. I meant that when I mentioned the video game. That is my only point of reference. That said, from a purely critical point of view, his character received far less backstory than Yennefer’s. I would have liked to hear about what made him as much as what made her. I got the very real feeling that they focused on her in part because of the level of sexuality that was on display.

          • Kervyn Cloete

            January 10, 2020 at 14:09

            Oh yeah that’s definitely a possibility. I have no issue with how much Yen was on display (cough cough) though coz I think she’s a great character.

          • RinceThis

            January 10, 2020 at 14:09

            Agreed. Cough, she is. But I did feel it was sometimes shoehorned in at an almost GoT level. I enjoyed the season, I won’t lie. But it had plenty of issues that stopped it from being an excellent start. Issues with simple logical story decisions left me pissed off at the stupidity of some things.

    • Stoompot

      January 10, 2020 at 14:46

      The Witcher and the Tits

      Reply

  2. Admiral Chief

    January 10, 2020 at 13:25

    I really didn’t like it.

    – No indication when they are jumping between timelines
    – The show name is incorrect, it should have been “Yennefer – Boobs boobs anger boobs and more boobs”
    – Needs moar Geralt
    – The epic song was not played enough

    Reply

  3. Kromas

    January 10, 2020 at 13:25

    My biggest gripe, because those who watched with me was super confused, was about the sacking of Kear Morhen and the conjunction of spheres. Boy I had to explain that like 4 times and had to pause the episodes while I was doing so. It was annoying as fuck.

    Reply

    • Admiral Chief

      January 10, 2020 at 13:25

      Yeah, those are MAJOR events that were not even elaborated on

      Reply

  4. Admiral Chief

    January 10, 2020 at 13:30

  5. Admiral Chief

    January 10, 2020 at 13:40

    The best series I watched in December:
    – The Mandalorian
    – Final Space (S1 & S2)

    Reply

    • Kervyn Cloete

      January 10, 2020 at 14:09

      I bailed on Final Space a few eps in. I just couldn’t get into it. Found the lead character annoying as fuck.

      Reply

      • RinceThis

        January 10, 2020 at 14:09

        If you are talking about season 1, he tones down quite a bit. Season 2 was excellent. Certainly better character development than the Mandalorian.

        Reply

        • Kervyn Cloete

          January 10, 2020 at 14:24

          Yeah, I think I only got halfway thru ep 3 of S1 before I tapped out.

          Reply

          • RinceThis

            January 10, 2020 at 14:39

            Give it another shot. You were on the cusp of when he calms the fuck down and other characters get more attention. It’s well worth it. Some of the character arcs are phenomenal.

          • Admiral Chief

            January 10, 2020 at 14:39

            Except KVN…

          • RinceThis

            January 10, 2020 at 14:39

            KVN has more character development than any character in Mandlorian https://media.giphy.com/media/Vg0JstydL8HCg/giphy.gif

          • Admiral Chief

            January 10, 2020 at 14:46

            Ahhh, just like Nic in that scene, you are high on something strong

          • RinceThis

            January 10, 2020 at 14:46

            Reality is a great drug, yes.

          • Admiral Chief

            January 10, 2020 at 14:46

            So the Mando didn’t develop as a character? Without going into spoilers here, what is your gripe with the series?

      • Admiral Chief

        January 10, 2020 at 14:24

        That’s the thing, he is over the top, and the episode tone is funny and jokey and then BAM, suddenly DEEP AF.

        Give it a go dude, what a show!

        Reply

      • cloudzn

        January 10, 2020 at 16:43

        That’s one of the few times I agree with you. I think they tried to make him like a badass/renegade type but he ended up being too douchey

        Reply

  6. Dresden

    January 10, 2020 at 14:46

    I’m not too upset with the direction they took. It’s difficult to adapt such a nuanced and intricate series for the general public AND hardcore fans. I enjoyed the show and gave it leniency where I thought was due, HOWEVER, I do have some gripes with what they did to Nilfgaard.

    The approach they took to make out Cahir and Fringilla as the big baddies were heavy handed and especially in Cahirs case I feel they could’ve done a better job. Not going to spoil the show but they really go over the top with his character. I just hope they do right by them in season 2 and also with Vilgefortz, I enjoyed his character so much in the books.

    *Small correction, Nilfgaard is a southern nation. Praise be to the great sun! ⚫/

    Reply

    • Kervyn Cloete

      January 10, 2020 at 15:19

      Oh crap, you’re right! it’s the people in the North that fear them!

      Reply

  7. cloudzn

    January 10, 2020 at 16:50

    I throughly ended season 1 and look forward to season 2

    Reply

  8. Caveshen Rajman

    January 10, 2020 at 13:25

    • Admiral Chief

      January 10, 2020 at 14:03

      “for anyone who still reads the comments”
      Que?

      Reply

    • Kervyn Cloete

      January 10, 2020 at 13:46

      This is a great read.

      Reply

  9. Pariah

    January 10, 2020 at 14:24

    I have to say that the timeline split was the most confusing thing for me, up until about episode 4 when it all actually clicked (as I guess, was intended). It was frustrating up until that point, but in retrospect I really like how it was done. It was done really well, without letting on that it was happening.

    Also, Witchers are mysterious in nature, so not focusing on the history and origins of that makes sense. And then only getting into it when other Witchers are in the mix, also makes sense. Shared history and all that.

    Can’t wait for season 2.

    Reply

  10. Mark Treloar

    January 10, 2020 at 22:09

    The most important part of this series is this interview at 2:32

    Reply

  11. For the Emperor!

    January 10, 2020 at 19:11

    I took me more that 4 episodes to figure it out! But when it clicked it made sense. Also, their explanation makes sense. Plus I love how they are open to the critique, have a valid reason and are not like that ‘toxic fandom’ crowd in Hollywood about this! Looking forward to season 2 🙂

    Reply

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