2019 was an important year for fantasy. It saw the end of an era in the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, easily the most influential fantasy show of the decade, a show that succeeded in bringing the previously niched genre of high fantasy to mainstream audiences. And while the last season of Game of Thrones was almost universally panned, the show’s unprecedented popularity and impact on pop culture cannot be overstated. After an 8 year run, its (wholly unsatisfactory) end left a massive void in the public consciousness, with fans clamoring for their next big-budget fantasy fix. Cue The Witcher.
And so it Begins
Released on the tail end of that same year, the ambitious fantasy saga seemed to be the answer for those wondering what would come after the immensely successful Game of Thrones era. Starring a broody Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher (basically a super-powered monster hunter), the show was a massive hit. While adapted from novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapowski, most people had, in fact, come to know Geralt from the popular Witcher games developed by CD Projekt RED, which proved fortuitous for Netflix.
The game’s ubiquity coupled with Cavill’s star power made for a winning formula. Fans ate it up, the show even surpassing the likes of Stranger Things and Daredevil to become the most highly-rated production on the platform. Not surprisingly, season two has already been greenlit and there are even talks of the series continuing for at least six more seasons. So surely The Witcher’s success is great news for the high fantasy subgenre, right? Well, yes…and no. I’ll try and explain.
Prior to Game of Thrones taking the world by storm, high fantasy (also known as epic fantasy) had mostly been a neglected subgenre in film and television. Now, for the sake of clarity, it’s important to highlight that YA urban fantasy properties like Harry Potter and Twilight are not high fantasy. The simplest way to differentiate the two is that high fantasy refers to worlds that are universally fantastical, whereas urban fantasy is based in a real world setting but with fantastical elements in the story. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings set the benchmark for what we’ve come to know as high fantasy today. Fittingly, the film adaptations of that same saga would reintroduce modern audiences to high fantasy at the turn of the millennium. But ensuing genre films would only enjoy moderate levels of success, if that. None would manage to reproduce the resounding commercial and critical success that Peter Jackson’s trilogy had achieved. It wasn’t until a decade later that the troubled subgenre would re-emerge from obscurity. And surprisingly, the next breakout hit in epic fantasy would not be on the big screen, but on television.
Series of Thrones
Game of Thrones succeeded where many fantasy adaptations had failed by subverting all the tropes that people had come to expect from the genre. George RR Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice & Fire books that the series was based on, used his academic background as a medieval historian to bring a refreshing grittiness and verisimilitude to his world of Westeros. He rejected all the tenets of Tolkien-esque high fantasy that were emulated by so many of his peers, rubbishing them as “Disney Middle Ages”. Gone were the noble kings, sagely wizards and evil dark lords. Everything we’d come to expect from fantasy was turned on its head. His world was brutal, his characters were complex and his “heroes” were as fallible as anyone of us.
When the books were eventually picked up by HBO and adapted into a series, it wasn’t successful because of the CGI’d dragons or pitched battles. It was successful because it introduced us to a world that was nuanced and believable, with real stakes and real consequences. Contrast that with The Witcher. It would be a stretch to call the show subversive in any capacity. It ticks almost all the boxes of every conventional fantasy trope imaginable. Elves, mages, druids, wizards, it’s all there. And this is not to say that you can’t have all that without telling a good story, but The Witcher doesn’t really try to do anything new or particularly interesting with any those elements. When watching it, you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen all this before.
More of the Same
In Steven Erikson’s Malazan saga, for example, the author completely reinvents races like elves and orcs into his own unique and fascinating civilizations with their own nuances, magic systems and over one hundred thousand years of detailed lore. An anthropologist by profession, Erikson uses his expertise to meticulously realize the world of his books in a way that’s both refreshing and believable. But it’s not just about worldbuilding. For his breakthrough novel, Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson eschews the traditional “prophesized quest” to destroy a dark lord and instead writes the story as a heist. And in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books, the stereotypical “sagely wizard companion” is re-imagined as an obnoxious, cantankerous old man prone to murderous fits of rage. All of these bring a fresh approach to conventional fantasy tropes that have grown increasingly stale over the years.
Some books take it even further. NK Jemisin’s award-winning Fifth Season imagines a geologically volatile planet with a complex political hierarchy that rivals Frank Herbert’s Dune. In British author Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor saga, he envisions a world with four distinct races of people, fraught with religious politics and impending war all while on the brink of ecological disaster. Er, sound familiar? Again, by comparison, The Witcher (which plays out on a continent imaginatively called…The Continent) feels positively uninspired. And perhaps that’s understandable. The original Witcher books were first published three decades ago. Fantasy has changed a lot since then. Authors are consistently pushing the boundaries in the worlds they create and the stories that they tell. A generic medieval Europe backdrop just doesn’t cut it anymore for most fantasy readers, and perhaps it’s time Hollywood caught up with that.
Fun But Disappointing
I wanted to enjoy The Witcher. I really did. But I cannot help but feel the series does a huge disservice to the genre. Instead of showing how imaginative, topical and ethnically diverse epic fantasy can be, The Witcher only reinforces outdated and ill-informed notions of the genre. I’m aware that a lot of people enjoy the show just as it is and there’s nothing wrong with that. For fans of the books or the games, or anyone just looking for a bit of post-Game of Thrones escapism, there is certainly a lot to enjoy in The Witcher. But for a long-time fantasy fan looking for something a bit meatier to chew on, the show is a bit like a pie with no filling.