When TV producer and screenwriter Lauren Schmidt Hissrich first got the nod from Netflix to helm its eight-episode adaptation of the beloved series of The Witcher novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, her response was immediate.
“Thanks, but no.”
It was such a potentially massive undertaking, she remembers thinking at first. The franchise is so well-established, it offers a mix of fantasy and magic that’s helped the books garner an intense, global fanbase — and, even more important, Hissrich remembers questioning whether she was, in fact, the right showrunner to bring this story to life on the streamer.
The Witcher Netflix series
This might sound like a strange way to begin an interview about how she ultimately set out to help bring Netflix’s Next Big Thing to fruition — with the showrunner having, you know, turned it down at first and all — but how she got to “yes” is part of what will no doubt make the show sound so promising to fans.
“I’d just come out of — I’d been working for Netflix for several years,” Hissrich told me in an interview about the series, which will debut on the streaming service on December 20. “I’d done a couple of things with Marvel, I’d done another comic book adaptation called The Umbrella Academy, so I had a little genre experience. But I didn’t have any fantasy experience.
“To me, I like fantasy, but my thought was someone who’s really entrenched in it should be writing this story. And my friends at Netflix were like, ‘Well you know what, why don’t you just tell us how you would approach it, then?’”
That’s what opened the door in her mind — and what ended up changing it. The Witcher saga is comprised of eight books, which means that while there’s a ton of source material to draw from, Hissrich also began to think through her own approach — the parts that would definitely need to be kept, but also opportunities to emphasize this and de-emphasize that. And unlike the knock against a certain dragon-filled mega-hit on HBO, she was insistent that any sex and violence be in service of the story and not feel gratuitous.
She could fill a writers’ room with talent that complements gaps in her own experience, and — yeah, this could actually work.
Asking Hissrich how she would approach things “was a great question for them to ask because it allowed me to sort of dig into the material and find — what’s at the core of it?
“What I felt like I could really bring is life to these three main characters, to Geralt, to Yennefer, and to Ciri. Specifically, to grow them up each in their own individual ways, like humans do all over the world. And then sort of bring them together and see how their interactions start shifting and changing each other.”
‘A story about a broken family’
The character at the heart of the story is white-haired monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, portrayed in the Netflix series by Henry Cavill. He’s something of a loner and outsider, not really sure of his place in a world where, as the story goes out of its way to present, the people often prove more wicked than the monsters he slays. Destiny brings him together with a powerful sorceress, as well as a young princess carrying a dangerous secret. And together, the trio sets out to navigate an increasingly dangerous and volatile world together.
“To me, the idea of writing a story about a broken family, an adopted family that doesn’t necessarily want to be together but are compelled to be together and have to learn what life means with each other in it — that excited me greatly,” Hissrich said. “So, from there, I looked at this world and said — great, I can write that story. I can write the story of a broken family, and then I can hire really brilliant writers who have more experience with monsters and magic, and then I feel like I can do this show justice.”
The show’s writing staff includes a diverse collection of talent. There are writers who were existing fans of the books, writers who have experience with fantasy but who weren’t necessarily familiar with The Witcher franchise, and writers who are “huge video gamers.”
The show’s pilot episode drew from The Last Wish, the first book in the series — particularly, the short story The Lesser Evil. In it, Geralt meets a gang leader bent on vengeance, which sets up the dark, treacherous world that the series will introduce us to.
Adds Hissrich: “One of the biggest storytelling shifts that I made was — we actually meet Yennefer and Ciri before they meet Geralt.
“In the books, Geralt is our lens through which all the rest of the world is filtered. So, you’re on Geralt’s journeys, and Yennefer sort of comes in from the side. I wanted to know who she was before she met Geralt. And there’s a lot of things in the books that alluded to this. We pulled together a lot of those instances in the books, and then we made that story the present day. As opposed to just a character waxing poetic about something that has happened to them in the deep past.”
About Cavill, Hissrich adds: “He’s a dream to work with, but even more than that, and the fact that he’s a genuinely nice human being — he is absolutely obsessed with Geralt in a way I could not even fathom when we met.
“He has so thoroughly steeped himself in this world. He’s a huge gamer and knew the games very well. And then when he realized Netflix was making the show, he went and read all of the books, so he’s really a scholar of the material that’s come before us. What I love is also what Henry has brought to his own Geralt. With any actor, a little piece of them comes into the role they’re playing. Henry has a stoicism to him and sort of a quiet thoughtfulness that he has instilled in Geralt.”
As far as Hissrich, her past writing credits range from shows like The West Wing to Marvel’s Daredevil, also a Netflix series (which has since been canceled). Even with past experience like that, it’s no wonder she says The Witcher tries to be more than a sword- and magic-heavy fantasy tale. She wanted it to also grapple with interesting and complicated ideas, to try and tell a story that audiences will feel is “deep and meaningful.”
Politics, adventure, romance – and violence
“We tackle what would be considered sort of heavy political issues — racism, xenophobia, feminism, when to use magic, what you lose of yourself to be able to access a skill. However, the show is also really funny and fun. The show is an adventure. It has some romance. It has some violence. It has some fun, sexy moments. And I think at the end of it, you’re left thinking about what you saw, but also having thoroughly enjoyed what you saw.”
She brings up the show’s tagline about the worst monsters being “the ones we create.”
“That, to me, is the central core of our show. Which is, we have a world with humans and with monsters and, oddly, sometimes humans are the more monstrous creatures. One of the things we tackle a lot on the show is the simple dichotomy of good versus evil. We want to deconstruct that and show there is no simple good and there is no simple evil.”
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