‘The Witcher’ review: A riveting show, but falls just short of being truly great

Polish author, Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels about the adventures of a solitary monster hunter, a witcher, Geralt of Rivia gained worldwide fame after the action role-playing game developed by CD Projekt Red. The novels and short stories were written between 1992 and 1999 with the stand alone novel, Season of Storms coming out in 2013. The first Witcher game came out 2007 with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings coming out in 2011 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt coming out in 2015.


  • Episodes: 8
  • Run time: 60 minutes
  • Starring: Henry Cavill, Freya Allan, Anya Chalotra, Jodhi May, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, MyAnna Buring, Mimi Ndiweni, Therica Wilson-Read, Joey Batey
  • Show runner: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich

The eight-episode show which dropped on Netflix on December 20, however, has used the books as source materials to the extent of even reproducing lines of dialogue including Yennefer telling Geralt on their first meeting to have a bath as she can tell the age and colour of his horse from the smell! Speaking of which, in the book, Geralt and Yennefer’s exchange in the bath is charged with magic and eroticism as she does a reverse striptease, which would have translated well on screen. Why the makers chose not to go with that and rather went for standard-issue orgy remains a mystery.

The five episodes that were made available as advance screeners, is almost completely based on Sapkowski’s The Last Wish (1993) a collection of seven short stories where a Witcher, Geralt, is recuperating from the wounds inflicted by a monster. He reminisces about his adventures in seven short stories with a frame narrative. Witchers are not liked by the general public, who view them as mutants.

The show focuses on Geralt (Henry Cavill) and the two women in his life, the mighty sorceress, Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and the princess Ciri (Freya Allan). There are monsters for Geralt to tangle with as well as palace intrigue, conniving wizards, a touch of incest, nudity, swearing, curses and forbidden love. The bard who provides comic relief is called Gaskier (Joey Batey) from the Polish original and not Dandelion as he is called in the English translations and the games.

Cavill makes for a believable Geralt, white hair and all. The mutations and elixirs to enhance his powers turned his hair white — which is not such a great price to pay considering what Yennefer had to go through. While he does not smile nastily as often as his print avatar, he growls like his game avatar and has got down the world weariness and moral ambiguity of a monster hunter down to the T. Allan is wilful and vulnerable as Ciri while Chalotra’s Yennefer hides her horrendous childhood under a cloak of sarcasm and subterfuge. Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, Ciri’s grandmother, is imposing and Emma Appleton as the unfortunate Princess Renfri is brittle and brilliant.

The handsomely-mounted show moves at breakneck speed. The battles are thrilling and gory, and there is no shying away from violence in individual set pieces either as heads get lopped off and gouts of blood flow on the flagstones. The monsters are suitably scary — the Striga reminds one of the alien aboard the Nostromo with many, many needle-sharp teeth. The costumes with cloakes, leather (hopefully faux) pants with a hint of bondage are lovely and the music is stirring.

If there is a complaint against The Witcher, it is the similarity to other medieval fantasies. This is a world we have seen in sword and sorcery sagas from The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones and every other pretender in between. One could wander in Middle Earth, The Continent or Westeros as far as clothes, arsenal or landscape go and not be any the wiser. But then Tolkien did say all who wander are not lost.

Maybe the bigger question for learned anthropologists and cultural commentators could be the continued fascination for medieval times, which any historian worth his salt would tell you is nothing like as seen on screens big and small.

The Last Wish was fascinating for its revisionist take on fairy tales. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella — Geralt wryly talks of a prince who wants his help in finding a maiden who ran away leaving behind a shoe, Snow White, the genie and three wishes and princesses locked in towers, all get a reboot as does the fascinating “Law of surprise.” These are stories we have read or heard in various forms from time immemorial and to see them re-purposed and realigned, looked through another prism is to see the stories as completely different beasts.

If The Witcher had explored that path, it would have been the richer for it. In its present form, (the second season is already announced) The Witcher is a riveting show. It has the chance to be great, if only it had taken some risks, in terms of language, or storytelling. Like a Philip K. Dick story, it could have rendered the familiar, strange by making minuscule changes. Could have, should have, where is the genie when we need it?

The Witcher streams on Netflix

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 6:42:46 PM |

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