One of the recurring critiques aimed at Netflix’s The Witcher is that the show starring Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan simplified some complex and interesting things from Andrzej Sapkowski’s books and as a result, a lot of the book-reading viewers felt that some of those aspects of the story were simplified too much.
Now that Season 3 has come and gone, the fandom was struck with a new (albeit, smaller) wave of changes from the source material, and with it a new wave of questions. In one new interview, conducted and published in Polish for Wyborcza, executive producer Tomek Baginski had a lot of interesting things to say about Season 3. During the interview, Baginski was asked about some of the season’s most controversial changes from the source material, and we’ve translated his response here.
You can read the full interview on Wyborcza (follow the above link), it includes some new hints at how the show will address the recasting of the role of Geralt.
Simplification of Polish context for American writers and audiences: “It’s painful for us, and for me too”
One of the things Baginski pointed out was that sometimes there can be a difference in understanding Sapkowski’s writing and his themes and historical analogies, since he borrowed a lot from Polish history.
Baginski tells that sometimes he had to explain some of this Polish context and political nuance to American production team members since a lot of that nuance is easily understandable to Polish readers, but not so much to American writers because Americans and Poles had a different historical and political upbringing.
Interviewer: Some writers have changed. It’s also a normal process, but you’ve seen for two seasons who works fine, both in terms of consistency with the showrunner’s vision and the vision of the world from the books. Who feels “The Witcher” better. From a misunderstanding of the source material comes the approach that we know how to do it better? Some people criticize the show for making up weird plots that changed what worked well in the books.
Baginski: But when you start discussing it, it usually turns out that screenwriters thought this solution out, that it’s not completely crazy. It’s no secret that we often disagree. Things are created in the discussion. Michał Niewiara does a great job, he is kind of our tester, checking what fits with the world from the books. Sometimes he sends us lists of things, pointing out that we’ve diverged in many places. But there’s always a reason for it.
Sometimes the changes are the result of production chaos, because, for example, an actor fell ill and his plot needs to be edited and rewritten within a few hours so that it can be shot the next day, because this is not a plot for which the whole production machine will stop. There are many understandable reasons why controversial decisions are made, but the viewer lacks this context, so sometimes they might be hurt because something was better in the book.
We, Poles, see various political events differently because of our history and experiences. We see more nuances.
There’s also the matter of the viewer’s sensitivity. I often point this out to others, e.g. how politics are simplified in a storyline. We, Poles, see various political events differently due to our history and experiences. We see more nuances. Especially in the context of what is happening across our eastern border. We can identify this gray area where various influences and powers flow, for us it’s clear and transparent. E.g., this one is good, and that one is bad, but also a bit good, and here it’s mostly gray, and we understand why the good hero does some unpleasant things. We get it in three seconds.
I had the same perceptual block when I presented Hardkor 44 [a never-made variation on the Warsaw Uprising] abroad years ago and tried to explain: there was an uprising against Germany, but the Russians were across the river, and on the German side there were also soldiers from Hungary or Ukraine. For Americans, it was completely incomprehensible, too complicated, because they grew up in a different historical context, where everything was clear: America is always good, the rest are the bad guys. And there’s no complexity.
When you’re making a series for a vast audience, with different experiences, from different parts of the world, and a large part of them are Americans, these simplifications not only make sense, they are necessary. It’s painful for us, for me too, but a higher level of nuance and complexity will have a smaller reach, it won’t resonate with people. Sometimes it might go too far, but our team has to make these decisions and come to terms with them.
Baginski further talked about debating American writers on the meanings in Sapokwski’s books in another part of the interview, speaking about the Aelirenn scene in the premiere episode of The Witcher Season 3:
Interviewer: I liked that you took that book dialogue when Geralt shows Ciri the rosebush and rewrote it so that Yennefer is also involved, who had to be here due to the events of Season 2. In the series, she takes part of the burden of explaining Aelirenn’s history, symbolism, and what neutrality is all about. Father says something, mother says something, you can see that they are a family. It worked out. But when Geralt says that you won’t get a monument for neutrality, but you will keep your life, it distorts the words from the book for me. And I was wondering why, even taking something word for word from the book, the writers are still looking for a way to change it and, as a result, weaken it?
Baginski: It happens. The decision is made after heated arguments and exchanges of comments, and finally the showrunner makes the decision, so then we all stick to one direction.
We Poles read Aelirenn’s story directly as a commentary on the Warsaw Uprising. To the hecatomb of young people who followed a certain ideal. And this also required an explanation as to why it had this meaning and no other.
This is one of those stories thanks to which Geralt could also change a bit, learn something. We didn’t want him to be the guy who knows everything, always answers correctly and gets to the point. This works well in Andrzej Sapkowski’s books, but here we have a genre series for a wide audience, where the so-called the character arc, or the mental journey of the hero, must be found, even if it was not originally there. Characters have to evolve, change, so sometimes they can be wrong.
How The Witcher has simplified the books’ politics in Season 3
Season 3 of The Witcher is, in many ways, a much more faithful adaptation of the novels than the previous season. This is partly because the novel Time of Contempt is so much more eventful than Blood of Elves, which Season 2 adapted very loosely. Even so, there were some notable and rather large changes to the plot in Season 3, and most of them had to do with politics and the storyline of Yennefer of Vengerberg.
In the behind-the-scenes feature, The Witcher: Making Season 3, which is available now on Netflix, Baginski addressed this simplification. “In the books, it’s a little bit more politically complex, and we decided to simplify it a little bit and put it all on Yennefer. So, Yennefer is the main force behind calling for the Conclave.“
For those who haven’t read the books, we’ll describe this change briefly. The books Blood of Elves and Time of Contempt spend many pages carefully laying the groundwork for the epic climax of the Conclave of Mages at the Isle of Thanedd.
In the books, the Conclave was organized by the mage Vilgefortz of Roggeveen. There Vilgefortz was the “Hero of Sodden”, who led the mages to victory in the Battle of Sodden Hill, a victory which then paved the way for the retreat of Nilfgaardian forces from the Northern Kingdoms and the end of the First Nilfgaardian War.
In the show, it is not Vilgefortz but Yennefer who saves the day at Sodden Hill, but it is mentioned briedly in Season 2 that Vilgefortz would get that title because of politics. And, it is Yennefer, too, who organizes the Conclave in the show.
In the books, it’s a little bit more politically complex, and we decided to simplify it a little bit and put it all on Yennefer.
In the books, Vilgefortz knew what would happen after the Conclave, of course, as he was already in league with Emperor Emhyr var Emreis of Nilfgaard. The plan was to gather in one place all of the Northern Kingdoms’ most powerful mages, who were the main reason for Nilfgaard’s defeat in the previous war, and kill them all.
In the show, it seems this was not a plan of Vilgefortz and Emhyr, but rather a happy coincidence caused by Yennefer, whose reason to gather the mages is quite different, and a direct consequence of another major deviation from the novels which occurred in Season 2.
We are talking, of course, about the scene in which Yennefer refuses to execute Cahir in front of all the kings and queens of the Northern Kingdoms, and instead frees him and escapes as a fugitive. This event in the show caused many kings to cast aside the mages, believing they are not to be trusted, and so Yennefer hopes the Conclave will be a chance to regroup, make amends, and negotiate a path back to the courts of the Northern Kingdoms.
But it’s not just the Conclave that was complicated politically in the books and simplified in the show. The Thanedd Coup was also simplified, as Baginski says in the same behind-the-scenes feature. “We had to simplify politics behind it, because the Thanedd Coup is very, very complex politically because at the same time, we have Nilfgaard, Redania, mages, Scoia’tael, and Vilgefortz playing all their games.“
All of these factions were present in the show, but this was deeper and more complex in the novels. For example, the elven mage Francesca Findabair is a queen of the elves in the show even before the Thanedd Coup. She has been openly leading the wandering elves through various forests, and even led the Scoia’tael guerrilla warriors to battle in a few cases. On top of that, she has never been part of the Brotherhood of Mages.
In the books, this is not the case. Not only is Francesca a member of the Brotherhood, but also one of the select few who leads the Brotherhood, a group called the Chapter of Wizards and the center of attention at the Thanedd Ball. Francesca’s relations with the Scoia’tael, and indeed with Nilfgaard, are one of the many shocking twists of the Thanedd Coup.
These complicated conflicts between mages of the Brotherhood were largely omitted from the show. In the books, there were three distinct factions in the Coup.
The first mage faction is the Northern loyalists, led by Philippa Eilhart. In the books, Philippa led a force of mages and soldiers from various kingdoms, a coalition banded with the aim to find, arrest, and execute Nilfgaardian defectors in the Brotherhood of Mages. Philippa is another key member of the Chapter of Wizards in the books, so she has a lot of influence in the Brotherhood and recruits many mage followers.
In the show, Philippa was seemingly forgotten in Season 1, and then was an owl throughout Season 2, so in Season 3 the writers had to think of an excuse as to why Philippa was missing in past seasons. Their answer was to make Philippa no longer a member of the Brotherhood since before the Battle of Sodden Hill, and instead serves a narrower pro-Redania agenda. Philippa and her partner in crime Sigismund Dijkstra did get their moment early in Episode 6 when they arrested all the mages, but this moment is brief and quickly makes way for a simpler fight between the Nilfgaaardians and the mages.
The second faction of mages in the book’s version of the Thanedd Coup is the Nilfgaardian defectors. In the show, only Vilgefortz and Lydia Van Bredevoort appeared to be part of this faction. It is possible that the mage Artaud Terranova is among them as well because he attacks Dijkstra in the middle of the Coup and is on the Nilfgaardian side in the books, however, this is never communicated outright.
In the books, there are many other mages in this faction, whereas in the show there are only Francesca and Fringilla Vigo, who were not members of the Brotherhood to begin with.
The third and final mage faction in the books is a group of mages who, aware of the rising tensions and incoming conflict, chose neutrality. Leading them is Tissaia de Vries, who was for generations the Rectoress of the Aretuza school of sorceresses, Yennefer’s mentor, and, in the show, her adoptive mother of sorts.
In the books, Tissaia recruits Yennefer and a few other mages who are determined to stop the Coup before the ensuing conflict consumes and destroys the Brotherhood. Tissaia even manages to convince Yennefer to bring Ciri into the mix.
In the books, Ciri’s prophetic abilities were used during the Conclave of Mages in Tissaia’s desperate attempt to prevent infighting. As in the show, Tissaia releases all the mages arrested by Philippa from their chains. Tissaia and her team are not aware at the time of the depth of Vilgefortz’s treachery, of the fact that Nilfgaardian commandos led by Cahir and an army of the elven guerilla fighters of the Scoia’tael were sneaking into Thanedd. So, as in the show, Tissaia’s plan backfires and, for this reason, she feels entirely responsible for the death of the Brotherhood.
What did not happen in the books, regarding Tissaia, is her romance with Vilgefortz. Indeed, in the books, it was a more complicated political struggle, while the show opted for a lover’s quarrel with terrible consequences.
One of the things that Tissaia’s death does is that it empowers other mages, because they want to continue what she started. And Yen is actually one of the ones who heads up the Lodge of Sorceresses that we will get into in later seasons.
The political aftermath of the Thanedd Coup is also immensely complicated in the books. An unsent message from royal courier Aplegatt fails to arrive to the generals on the front lines when Scoia’tael soldiers shoot him down. This leaves the frontlines of Northern Kingdoms unaware of an incoming attack at Dol Angra, and Nilfgaard easily breaches the defenses of Northern Kingdoms, who no longer have their mages to rely on.
Meanwhile, a series of royal assassinations leave the Northern Kingdoms in disarray. Most of these events do occur in the show’s adaptation in some shape or form. This part wasn’t simplified, and like in the books, it was mostly communicated through dialogue. One might expect the series to follow a “show, don’t tell” approach, but in this case, they stuck close to the source material.
There are, however, other changes and simplifications in the political story, and one change in particular will have major consequences. In the books, Yennefer spends most of the rest of the story as a prisoner of various people. In the show, Yennefer will be a leader of the Lodge of Sorceresses, as showrunner Lauren Hissrich confirms in the behind-the-scenes feature. “One of the things that Tissaia’s death does is that it empowers other mages, because they want to continue what she started. And Yen is actually one of the ones who heads up the Lodge of Sorceresses that we will get into in later seasons.“
The Lodge is a group of the most powerful and influential sorceresses of the Continent, including some from the Nilfgaardian side and from the Northern Kingdoms, who come together at the behest of Philippa Eilhert to decide the future of the Continent.
The first iteration of the Lodge has already appeared in Season 3, when Yennefer gathers her fellow sorceresses at the end of the season, although the word “Lodge” has not yet been used. Curiously, the founder and mastermind of the Lodge in the books, Philippa, was not among the group Yennefer gathered.
It’s possible that, beyond the writers’ understandable aim to give Yennefer more to do in the rest of the story, they also aim to simplify the politics by continuing the trend of Season 3. With a main character such as Yennefer leading the Lodge, there will not be a need for an additional story to follow detached from the “main trio”. Where that leaves Philippa in Season 4 and beyond remains to be seen.
The Witcher Season 3 is available on Netflix. Meanwhile, production of Season 4 has been delayed to next year.
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