Fantasy adaptations are alluring for those who’ve read the books and those who haven’t for different reasons. For book readers, there’s interest in how the show will make the characters and locations from the original text come to life; those who haven’t read the book are interested in finding out what all the fuss is about. Shadow and Bone is the latest in Netflix’s fantasy adaptations game, and it’s a fascinating example of how to update a 9-year-old book in necessary ways to create a TV show that feels like it was written yesterday.
In Shadow and Bone, the country of Ravka is cut in half by a monster-infested region of pure darkness called the Fold. The Fold was created long ago by a Grisha — a magic user in their world — but in the hundreds of years since it appeared, the Grisha have become a respected part of Ravka’s military. When a young woman named Alina Starkov discovers she not only is a Grisha, but one with a mythical power that could theoretically destroy the Fold, she is ripped from her friends and thrown into the dangerously political and brutally magical world of the Grisha. Also, some cool kids are doing a heist and a couple of hot people are on a boat. More on those two subplots later.
Shadow and Bone succeeds as a fantasy show by rooting its story in an amazingly well-realized world that looks incredible and expensive as hell. The production design is flawless, and between the costumes, hairstyling, sets, and CGI there’s never a moment where the Grishaverse doesn’t feel real and lived-in. With the exception of a few exposition dumps, the script shines too, and its attention to delineating the cultures that form the geopolitical heart of the Grishaverse makes the show more immersive than those that handwave the hows and whys of their worlds to get to the plot faster.
One of this show’s best and clearly deliberate choices is to pack the cast almost entirely with new faces. Jessie Mei Li stars as Alina Starkov and plays Alina’s journey from a humble soldier to a self-possessed savior with pitch-perfect YA heroine sensibilities. Kit Young is another standout as gangster Jesper Fahey, whose skills in sharpshooting and yanking everyone else’s chains are equally prodigious. Freddy Carter (who plays Kaz Brekker), Amita Suman (Inej Ghafa), and Archie Renaux (Mal Oretsev) are similarly less than household names, but this casting department’s eye for spotting diamonds in the rough should catapult all of them to stardom.
The one exception in the cast of unknowns is Ben Barnes, whose casting as General Kirigan (aka the Darkling) is a long-held Tumblr dream come true. Barnes is known for cornering the market on complex villains who are so unbelievably good looking their faces are essentially superpowers (see: Dorian Grey and The Punisher), and Kirigan is the apex of the archetype. Shadow and Bone‘s script works hard to give Kirigan the benefit of being a bad guy who’s actually kind of right sometimes, which keys flawlessly into Barnes’ performance as an expert manipulator who uses all of his gifts to achieve his ends.
Casting Barnes, who is visibly older than most of the other cast members and especially Jessie Mei Li as Alina, is another clever adaptational shift that makes his role in the story clearer than it was in Bardugo’s book. In the first novel, the Darkling appears to be Alina’s age but is actually significantly older. Alina doesn’t learn about his age until after he’s seduced her, which is, you know, gross. Alina doesn’t interrogate the issue of consent in the first book, but by showing the Darkling as a fully adult foil (Barnes is 13 years older than Li) to the younger Alina, the creepiness of their age gap, power dynamic, and general “hey maybe don’t kiss that guy” vibe is present from the start.
Many of the show’s best choices that update or change the meaning of plot points from the book are similarly smart but subtle alterations.
Many of the show’s best updates and changes to the meaning of plot points from the book are similarly smart but subtle. Casting half-Chinese Jessie Mei Li to play Alina, who was white or “Ravkan” in the original story gives the show opportunities to explore the social dynamics of its multicultural fantasy world. The general East Asian analogue in the Grishaverse is Shu Han, and Alina is often targeted by her peers and authority figures for being half-Shu. This externalizes the conflict Alina experiences as a result of being different from everyone else, a theme which is textually conveyed in the character’s internal monologue and benefits from the more obvious parallel on screen.
Other changes are more significant, world-shifting even, and those are not nearly as successful in making the show better. The decision to use the Shadow and Bone as an adaptation of Bargudo’s Grishaverse books as a whole instead of simply the eponymous trilogy leads to the show’s biggest swings and biggest occasional misses. In order to stitch Six of Crows to Shadow and Bone, two subplots featuring characters that appear in Six of Crows are just kind of there. The heist plot featuring Kaz, Jesper, and Inej is the better of the two, since those characters are universally dope and their actions in Shadow and Bone constitute an original prequel in which they do eventually meet Alina. The second subplot is where the stitches get messy to the point of falling apart.
Another pair of characters from Six of Crows, Nina and Matthias, have an established backstory by the time they show up in their first book. Shadow and Bone puts that backstory on screen and doesn’t really bother to explain why. Readers of Bardugo’s books will recognize those characters and understand that where they end up at the close of the first season of Shadow and Bone is more or less where Six of Crows picks up, but anyone who didn’t read the books will be well within their rights to wonder why these people matter at all. Nina and Matthias’ subplot is the one major adaptational failure Shadow and Bone makes, but considering it’s the most forgettable part of the show, we’ll call it a wash.
Shadow and Bone is a gorgeous, well-cast show that solidifies Netflix as a major player in the post-Game of Thrones fantasy TV landscape. It’s enjoyable even if you’ve never read a word of Bardugo’s books and fascinating if you have. As it stands, Shadow and Bone is proof that adapting someone else’s work doesn’t mean adapting all of their choices — it’s possible to be bolder, more introspective, and in some cases corrective to the original story and come out looking better than ever.