What the Netflix Adaptation Gets Right About Shadow and Bone (and Six of Crows too)

When I first read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, I thought it would make a great adaptation, with one caveat—to do justice to the world Bardugo created, expense could not be spared. I don’t mean simply in terms of money, though it certainly is an epic tale that needs an epic budget. I also mean an adaptation couldn’t disregard the fandom of the “Grishaverse,” as fans have dubbed the massively popular book series. Fortunately, Netflix kept those fans in mind and it shows. Oh, how it shows. The eight-episode series is exciting, sumptuous, and everything we need to transport us to another world when ours has trapped us on our sofas for the past year.

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone not only follows the story of Bardugo’s bestselling trilogy of the same title, but it also weaves in characters from her duology Six of Crows, set in the same world two years after the end of Shadow and Bone. Fortunately, with Academy-award nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival) as showrunner and producer, the beloved books were in safe hands. The decision to play with the timelines in the book series—threading them together until the two dramatically collide mid-season—is an interesting gamble, possibly polarizing for the fandom, but one that ultimately works.

This is where I warn you that spoilers are coming, for both the book and the show. If that doesn’t deter you, please, read on. But if you are a stranger to this world, you may be safer not crossing the Fold.

Shadow and Bone
Photo courtesy Netflix © 2021

The series rather faithfully follows the plot of the Shadow and Bone trilogy. Audiences are swept away with Alina Starkov, played by Jessie Mei Li, to the Little Palace once it’s discovered she’s the prophesized Sun Summoner. We watch her struggle in training and fall for the Darkling, who, despite his rather ominous title, would cause anyone to swoon, as played by the charming Ben Barnes. Where the book only offers readers Alina’s point of view, the show allows us to watch her best friend Mal’s story unfold before our eyes as he tracks the mythical stag with his army buddies into enemy territory with the fool’s hope of reuniting with Alina. Spoiler: things don’t go well for either of them.

As a fan of the books, I was almost amazed at how faithful the writers were to this storyline. Rarely do readers see such an honest adaptation, so close to the source material that direct lines were lifted from the novel. Yes, minor changes were made, but at no expense to the heart of the story. As an author myself, I can’t imagine the joy and gratitude Bardugo had upon seeing her bestseller translated with purity to the screen. Actually, we don’t have to imagine. Bardugo has stated it was emotional. She had legitimate fears of being shut out from the creative process due to the notorious contempt in the film industry for YA authors and their fans. But Heisserer assured her that wouldn’t happen, and he built a writer’s room capable of generating ideas and episodes that excited Bardugo.

But with every flip of a coin, there is the other side.

In the Grishaverse fandom there are those who believe that Six of Crows is the superior series. The duology has die-hard fans. Rightfully so. Six of Crows is a heist story with rich settings and memorable characters who leap off the page. Heisserer and the writer’s room made the bold choice not to follow this beloved series faithfully, as they did with Shadow and Bone. Instead, they placed Kaz and his team in the same timeline as the earlier book—two years BEFORE Six of Crows begins. There is no hiding this. In fact, when the show opens Inej is still indentured, whereas in the book Kaz has already paid her debt. In essence, the Six of Crows storyline is more of a “what could have happened” to this motley crew during the rise of the Sun Summoner.

Shadow and Bone
Photo courtesy Netflix © 2021

This may prickle fans, but I implore them to give Kaz and his team of Dregs a chance, to ride along on this new journey with their favorite characters. Fans may fall in love all over again. The plot may have changed, but the characters haven’t. They snatch the soul of their books and hold it tightly as if wielding Kaz’s cane. Enough to make the most cynical fan a convert. As the Apparat would say, “Faith!”

Why does this peculiar adaptation, which on one hand is so true to the source material and on the other is a departure from a loved series, work? Because no expense was spared.

The cast is impeccable. It is as if the actors were born to play these roles. As a fan of the books, I was skeptical while watching the trailer. All unknowns. Then Ben Barnes appeared and I immediately knew he was the Darkling. He is perfect for this character. Honestly, if the Darkling’s eyes weren’t described as “slate” in the books, I’d think Bardugo wrote this character with a picture of Ben Barnes taped to her laptop. The seasoned actor created a list of Darkling quotations from the books he brought to the set, hoping to weave them into his dialogue, even if they weren’t in the scripts. Texting with Bardugo during production, Barnes discussed ways to shape and humanize the Darkling, which is evident in subtle interactions like when he amusingly suppresses his annoyance with David’s quirkiness to allow the Grisha to speak.

Li is exactly how I pictured Alina while reading the books. The moment the door to her palace bedroom closes, leaving her alone for the first time since being ripped from her world, and she collapses in sobs made a larger-than-life heroine empathetic. I wasn’t sure Archie Renaux could exude teenage pining while carrying the strength Mal needs, but he does so heartbreakingly. Perhaps the creators worried that audiences may feel the same, which is why Renaux’s opening shot is a shirtless boxing scene. Daisy Head as Genya, Sujaya Dasgupta as Zoya, Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) as Baghra, and all the palace are perfect. My only gripe, and it is minor, is that I wish they went full Rasputin with the Apparat.

Shadow and Bone
Photo courtesy Netflix © 2021

The same care went into casting the Six of Crows crew. Freddy Carter as Kaz brings an almost 1920s mobster vibe to the role, and Amita Suman is captivating as the ninja-like Inej. But it is Kit Young’s portrayal of Jesper that I’ve fallen for. Young breathes life and soul into Jesper that isn’t even on the pages of the book. I found myself searching him out in every scene, as the twinkle in his eye and smirk on his face disarmed me, which is exactly what this sharp-shooter is supposed to do. I want to thank casting director Suzanne Smith for introducing us to these fine actors. They are all fantastic. It’s like they spilled from Bardugo’s mind onto the TV screen.

No expense was spared in production design either. From the army camp at Kribirsk to the gorgeous keftas worn be the Grisha to the colorful and seedy streets of Ketterdam, every detail is there. Something as simple as a bad CGI on the volcra would’ve killed the adrenaline of the show. But it is beautiful. Well, maybe not the volcra. Leathery wings and nasty teeth, you know.

However, the main reason the Shadow and Bone show is rich and sumptuous is because Bardugo was on board as an executive producer. True to his word, Heisserer didn’t exclude her from the creation of the show. When a production understands the importance of keeping an author involved, the show is elevated. SyFy’s The Magicians was a significant departure from Lev Grossman’s novels, but the show remained honest to the characters and the heart of his trilogy because they kept Grossman on as a consultant. The Magicians ran for five seasons. Freeform’s Shadowhunters series tried to do the same by rewriting the novels’ plots, but without author Cassandra Clare’s expertise, the show suffered and ended after three short seasons.

Shadow and Bone may not satisfy all Grishaverse fans, but it is 100% enjoyable. Totally binge-worthy, it feels like a large movie that flows seamlessly from one episode to the next. You find yourself justifying, “Just one more,” much like a good book when you come to the end of a chapter. “Just one more. Then, I’ll go to bed.” But probably not, because there’s a whole season to finish.

For more Shadow and Bone coverage check out our Watercooler Pick recommendation by Liam Matthews.

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