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

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

7 min read

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

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