The Witcher: Netflix Series Brings Magic and Feminism to Fantasy
Creator Lauren Hissrich and stars Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan talk bringing The Witcher series to life as the next big fantasy series.
Lauren Hissrich was about to step on a plane when she discovered The Witcher had gotten the greenlight from Netflix. A writer and producer with credits that include Daredevil and The Umbrella Academy, Hissrich had successfully pitched a fresh take to Netflix for adapting Andrzej Sapkowski’s beloved fantasy novels for the small screen, but still didn’t even know for sure if she had a show until boarding an aircraft headed toward Poland. There she would be in Sapkowski’s homeland and the well from which his popular books (and the video games they also inspired) sprang. It was also there her first steps at building the next big fantasy series would begin.
“I had never been to Poland before,” Hissrich says during our interview at San Diego Comic-Con. “It was so important to me to go and obviously tour the country. Our [executive producer Tomasz Baginski] was with me for the entirety of it. But one of the most exciting things was going in bars and going in restaurants, and just sitting and talking to people, because to me it was really important that we shot in Poland, and that was probably my favorite location.” It was more important still to capture what Hissrich describes as the “Polish Spirit” that is inherent in The Witcher series, both on the page and in the video game console.
The Witcher itself is a media property on the cusp of cresting into pop culture stardom with this new Netflix series. Once viewed as a “cult” literary series that only about 10 years ago began being translated into English, the overarching Witcher narrative is based on two collections of short stories and five novels published between 1992 and 1999 in Poland. The saga follows a monster hunter named Geralt, who in the series is played by Henry Cavill as a hulking, platinum-haired badass in possession of unique skills. And despite being a loner, his life is very much defined by the relationships he develops with an ancient sorceress with a dark past named Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and Ciri (Freya Allan), an orphaned princess with a shadowy connection to the 13th century monster hunter she winds up relying on.
It was these particularly layered women in Geralt’s life that truly set Hissrich’s mind aflame.
“One of the things that was most interesting when I met with Andrzej is that I said I was very surprised at the strong women that were in the books,” Hissrich recalls. “And he said, ‘You never met my mother, did you?’” Hissrich says that Eastern influence, where a culture was led by women after men died in medieval warfare, is one of the many standout aspects of a universe she’s become intimately familiar with.
In preparation for pitching on the series, she read the books cover-to-cover, and then after getting the series, she “imprinted” them to memory by listening to them again as audio books on her daily commute. (She also played the video games, as best she could while admitting gaming is not her natural habitat.) In it all, she came to a realization that it is in those strong women and the earlier short stories where the foundation for this series could be built. What made her vision of The Witcher most persuasive to Netflix wasn’t that she was rushing into the epic saga so many gamers might have already memorized, but also digging into the earliest short stories compiled in books like The Last Wish.
Says Hissrich, “I think anyone who pitched on The Witcher kind of immediately started on the saga, because it is the most serialized storytelling. It is the easiest place to start. You can sort of see episode to episode. But I felt if we skipped the short stories, we would miss the juiciest world-building and sort of the foundation, the environment from which these characters grow. So I knew I needed to include the short stories, and I wanted to tell them with Yennefer and Ciri at the forefront as well as Geralt, even with The Last Wish [set] before Ciri is born.”
It also offered major roles for relative newcomers like Chalotra and Allan. The British born Chalotra especially enjoyed an added duality to the character that was only ever hinted at in the books and video games. Before she was an all-powerful sorceress, Yennefer was born with a hunchback and very much abused and vilified by her own family for it. Both sides to this character, told in the present and via flashback, provide two different challenges for a character who on the page was initially defined by her mysteriousness toward Geralt.
“What’s been exciting is the backstory is new, that it’s not explored in the novels,” Chalotra says in a separate interview. “So I got the chance to explore all the complexities, all the layers that are underneath the Yennefer we know and love.” One of the most intriguing is unpacking the trauma left by living with physical disability. Because even in a world where magic can take away physical scars, the psychological ones remain.
“I had a mouth guard, and I had prosthetics. I had a hunchback, and that was very exciting, three hours in makeup,” Chalotra recalls. Also as a fan of dance movement from her training in theater she got to explore both Yennefer’s struggles from behind a hunchback, as well as how she moves decades later after still enduring that strained muscle memory. Nevertheless, Chalotra can only smile when she is asked which is more fun to play.
“Definitely the older version,” Chalotra says while alluding to the Yennefer fans might be more familiar with. “The older character was very fun because I got to manipulate people and try to be sexy and find out what I knew of sexiness and what I could bring to that.”
Allan, meanwhile, seems to be at the center of a whirlwind she still hasn’t fully adjusted to, not that she is complaining. Only a year ago, she was studying acting and now she is one of the three stars on a Netflix fantasy saga which finds Ciri at a point earlier in her life than gamers might know, although that is a gift for Allan who feels like she can naturally play Ciri by growing with her.
“It’s nice because she’s so young that she hasn’t yet gotten all those layers,” says Allan. “That is what I’m now creating. In this season, she’s going through all these traumatic things and all these things that are going to make her who she is… You’re not going to see straightaway the badass Ciri you expect. You can see hints of it.” For now, she is a young woman dealing with a recent tragedy when she finds her power threatened and a monster hunter at her door.
“Ciri’s had a very protected, sheltered upbringing, and so she doesn’t really know what the real world is,” Allan says. “For her, it is just disguising herself as a boy and going out and playing on the streets. But she hasn’t seen the true brutality that the world can hold.” Although how much each actor knows of this world differs. Both Allan and Chalotra have read some of The Witcher source material, albeit varying amounts.
“I didn’t have the time to read all the books before I started filming, so then I read two short stories whilst I was filming,” Chalotra tells me. “But I found it really difficult to split. I was getting so confused with the script and the books. I was like, ‘I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to stop one or the other, and the script’s my bible, so…’”
Conversely, Allan accidently read ahead, starting with the first novel when she got the part, which is further down the road than the short stories The Witcher series is based on.
“I accidentally did read ahead, because I read Blood of Elves [and] I didn’t realize there were short stories when I got the role,” Allan says with a laugh. “But I haven’t read further, because I want to develop with it and not have anything in my mind. I want to live through the character and in the present.”
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Who those characters are will also help distinguish The Witcher from what’s come before, along with its focus on magic and monster battles.
“The thing that I think we have frankly changed the most is that anyone will tell you that The Witcher is about Geralt, the Monster Hunter,” Hissrich says. “And it is, but the thing that was really important to me was carving out Yennefer and Ciri in this story, especially bringing them to the forefront and providing them backstories, so that they weren’t introduced to the world only through Geralt.” The result is a series that appears more human, which could be a necessary complement given its increased magical affectations. Unlike the early seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Hissrich and Netflix are not coy about this being a show with magic and monsters.
“I always like to say The Witcher is its own complete thing, but truthfully, Game of Thrones opened a door, at least,” Hissrich considers. “Even for me, I told the panel I was not a fantasy writer, wouldn’t have called myself one. But the truth is good fantasy relates to real-life, right? It’s not about fantasy at all, it’s about what’s happening in a real and grounded way. It’s about family and monsters. What we get to bring to it, which is different from other fantasy shows, is you’re going to see a ton of monsters and a ton of magic. There are times where I will refer to our show as a magical horror show.” And yet, that horror can be fairly grounded too.
She adds, “I think it is impossible to write a fantasy without relating the current real world to it. The good news is that these books are incredibly political. They deal with racism, they deal with xenophobia, they deal with feminism.”
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As for the future, that will be determined by how The Witcher is received when it lands on Netlfix later this year. Everyone involved though is eager to expand on this story and find out what monsters lie ahead. Allan even has a challenge for her former Superman co-star, should The Witcher be renewed.
“I’m so excited, I love the idea of doing training and things like that,” Allan says. “I’d probably get very competitive with Henry as well. Not sure how that would go because he lives in the gym, but I’d be up for the challenge.” It seems Geralt’s rivalries have only just begun.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.