‘Shadow and Bone’: Fantasy adaptation done right
With the demise of Game of Thrones, Netflix seems best poised to offer a replacement—with The Witcher gearing for a second season and now Shadow and Bone taking the internet by storm after premiering on April 23, 2021.Announced in 2019, the series was to combine into one seamless story, the Grisha Trilogy novels with those of the Six of Crows series. Fantasy is notoriously hard to adapt well, especially ones with complex world-building like the Grishaverse, but author Leigh Bardugos's inclusion in the creative process as executive producer meant that the changes in the show were, in a way, rewrites of the original stories while remaining true to their essence—a rarity in adaptations.
Shadow and Bone is set in Ravka, a fantasy version of Russia, which is split in two by the Shadow Fold—a large strip of darkness inhabited by nightmare creatures, all created by a "Shadow Summoner" of long ago. The only hope to destroy the Shadow Fold is the legendary Sun Summoner. Being a classic "chosen one" hero's tale, we find our protagonist Alina Starkov discovering that she is the Sun Summoner of legend, and being recruited into the Grisha—this worlds' mage—army, and trained to destroy the Fold. As word gets out of her existence, the gang from the Six of Crows books are hired to kidnap her, thus bridging the two originally distinct series.
The entire cast of the adaptation is excellent, and their on-screen chemistry is downright combustible. This is especially true of Alina and her best friend/love interest Mal, whose on screen chemistry forms the emotional core of the story, and the Crows, whose scenes have a momentum to them that is reminiscent of heist classics like Ocean's Eleven (2001). Characters like Jesper, Inej, and even the side characters Zoya, Mikhal, Dubrov, and Ivan are all portrayed with a depth and nuance that truly bring life to the show.
But Shadow and Bone would not be an adaptation if it did not have some very prominent changes from its source material. In most cases, these changes serve it very well—and most were made by Bardugo herself, or with her permission. Changes like Alina now being mixed race help flesh out the politics of the world, and explore the racism within the world without being too blunt. Her relationship with Mal, too, who is no longer the womaniser he is in the books, finds room to breathe and grow, helped by the changing viewpoints of the screenplay. And the years added to each character's age allows the series to explore darker themes, like abuse, corruption, propaganda, manipulation, and human trafficking without breaking audience immersion or pulling punches, as is the case with too many YA adaptations.
The changes that disappoint are the alterations made to the world building to make the story flow better on TV, a lot of which could potentially weaken the plot in later seasons. While Alina's story sticks to the books for most major plot points, the Six of Crows group are given a new prequel story, set before the events of their first book. Sadly—and this might come across as a spoiler—tying the two stories together via Alina means the Crows' heist was doomed to fail from page one, thus robbing it of any tension or gravitas, especially for the book's readers. A fair number of things are also left unexplained or unexplored in the series, which may leave viewers who have not read the books, confused.
That said, Shadow and Bone is an ambitious adaptation of Leigh Bardugo's beloved series, and for the most part, it hits all the notes it needs to to be a success. Brilliant production, animation, costume design, and set direction, combined with a stellar cast with electrifying on-screen chemistry, serve to compensate for any lacking that comes with merging two non-connected series into one. It is a rambunctious ride from start to finish, and a great binge for any lover of fantasy.
Yaameen Al-Muttaqi works with robots and writes stories of dragons, magic, friendship, and hope. Send him a raven at firstname.lastname@example.org.