For some, Leigh Bardugo had written »the« Fantasy novels: Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows have been success stories. Given their popularity, it was only a matter of time before an adaptation for the screen followed. But did Netflix’s bold move to adapt both book series into one TV show pay off?
By Tom Rösner
Picture: David Appleby/Netflix © 2021
Adapting books to the screen, whether big or small, has long been common practice in the entertainment industry. With varying success, pretty much every genre of literature, from romance drama to comic book or fantasy saga, has found itself represented in cinema or, especially recently, television. To nobody’s surprise, the streaming platform Netflix has dabbled in book-to-television adaptations as well, no doubt in hopes of drawing in the original source material’s loyal fan base. One of its newest additions is Shadow and Bone, an adaptation of the »Grisha-verse«, consisting of two of Leigh Bardugo’s book series, the Shadow and Bone duology and the Six of Crows trilogy, that are set in the same universe.
The »Grisha-verse« is named after the special kind of humans that inhabit the kingdom of Ravka: the witch-like Grisha. Each Grisha is born with a specific gift, ranging from manipulating an element to manipulating the human body. The most important Grisha though is the fabled »Sun Summoner«, a myth that promises the arrival of a Grisha with the ability to summon light that is powerful enough to tear down a horror-filled wall of darkness that separated Ravka into two, known as the »Fold«. Naturally, the story begins with Alina Starkov, the show’s protagonist, discovering her sunlight-abilities while attempting to cross the Fold with the rest of her regiment and getting attacked by the horrors within. Considered by the Grisha and half of Ravka to be their greatest hope, she is taken to the palace for training, where she soon finds herself charmed by the mysterious General Kirigan, a Shadow-Summoner.
But Shadow and Bone offers more than just Alina’s storyline. While her childhood best friend Mal is trying to track down a legendary white stag in hopes of reuniting with Alina, not everyone’s intentions are so benevolent. A trio of criminals calling themselves the Crows – consisting of their elusive leader Kaz, a stealthy acrobat-spy Inej, and a gun-wielding gambler, Jesper – is promised a large sum of money to kidnap Alina. And the Fjerdans, a neighboring nation motivated by its religious hatred for Grisha, sends witch-hunters to seek and kill any of their kind, leading to the capture of an undercover Grisha, Nina – and her escape. When the prisoner-ship is hit by a storm, she is forced to work with one of the witch-hunters, Matthias, to survive.
A Two-in-One Deal
While some of the storylines appear to be unrelated to the show’s central Sun Summoner plot at first, the viewer will soon realize what the gleeful reader already knows: everything is connected and happening for a reason, even if that reason may just be establishing characters that will become relevant later on. It is an ambitious endeavor after all, especially given Fantasy’s notoriety for being a genre heavy on intricate world-building and special-effects-requiring magic: five books worth of characters, lore and story and one season of eight episodes to do it well enough to get a second season. Granted, the first season does not touch on the plot of the Six of Crows series yet, but it already introduces its characters and sets up their future storyline by giving them a plot of their own. Similarly, it does not yet cover all the events of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but only the beginning. And as convoluted as it may sound, the show actually manages this pretty well.
Due to its limited number of episodes, the plot moves along quickly, with alliances struck and betrayed in the span of an episode or two, yet the show never feels too fast-paced to follow. Readers of the books will have an easier time keeping up with the »who is who« and will already know, what a »Squaller« or a »Heartrender« is – they are two types of Grisha in the series – but even so, those unfamiliar with the story shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping up. Though some have also criticized its (mis-)use of Russian culture (names and fashion have a strong Eastern European influence), Shadow and Bone does a great job at creating the perfect atmosphere of an immersive fantasy world to get lost in through its cinematography, music, decent enough special effects, most of its costume design and storytelling.
This isn’t to say that Shadow and Bone is without fault. While some of its elements feel familiar – magic that controls the elements, for example, does not reinvent the wheel – and yet are still enjoyable, the series does rely on some tropes that are almost too familiar: the »Chosen One«, who was an outsider before being chosen. The »Dark Lord«, with dark shadowy powers for that additional subtlety. And, of course, the obligatory love triangle. While the show does a good job with how it portrays many of the characters and the development of their relationships (particularly regarding the Crows and the captured Grisha Nina), it does seem to rely a tad too much on the audience’s familiarity with these tropes when it comes to some of Alina’s story. Some elements of the story feel contrived, almost as if relying on the hope that the audience would just accept these tropes because these boxes have to be ticked for a Young Adult Fantasy series, rather than them being the result of a development that feels natural.
Where There Is Light, There Must Be Shadows (and Bones)
Netflix has made the undeniably brilliant move to bring the books’ author Leigh Bardugo on board as an executive producer, and it shows. The show-runners brilliantly navigate their way through the story, managing to bring in the cast of The Six of Crows in a story that originally did not include them. For readers of the books, the show provides an adaptation that is faithful enough to its source material, yet different enough to still be exciting. The audience gets to see events take place that were only mentioned or maybe not even explored at all – Nina and Matthias meeting or Inej being freed from indenture or how the Crows operated before there were six of them. Non-readers will find a fast-paced Fantasy story that still feels familiar enough to not be overwhelming or confusing, while having its own distinctive charm.
Despite some of its less successful aspects, Shadow and Bone still makes for a very enjoyable binge-watch that can bring in new viewers, both familiar and unfamiliar with the original source material, and therefore does exactly what Netflix wants it to do. The show is not as complex or morally gray as some of its incredibly successful Fantasy predecessors like Game of Thrones, but it also does not want – or need – to be. It does not intend to make the viewer question right from wrong, good from evil, it is clearly meant to just be enjoyed. The trio of Crows remains a highlight of the show with their witty banter, tragic backstories and different heist skills, perfectly embodying what the show is: a blend of classic fantasy with a great cast of characters that range from mysterious to eccentric, a lot of humor and a lot of heart.