Adaptations are a thorny business. It’s a juggling act between appealing to a preexisting fanbase while creating an original identity for itself to court a broader audience – and risk failing to appeal to anyone. Why license a franchise if you’re unable to give people what they want?
To many, Henry Cavill didn’t seem right for the role of the series’ protagonist, Geralt. He just wasn’t old enough. He looked too “clean”. He was too much of a pretty face to play the rugged main character. His personal enthusiasm for the role and his passion for the video games mattered little to anyone who called themselves a fan – to anyone with any interest in watching The Witcher.
Doug Cockle, the voice actor behind Geralt in the video games, had already established Geralt’s personality. His appearance in the games, as depicted by its Polish creators at CD Projekt RED, made Cavill seem an odd choice. Fans wanted someone who looked and sounded the part in the role. Mads Mikkelson came to mind, and Cavill – a great actor in his own right – bears no resemblance to either Mikkelson or the Witcher of the video games.
Further reports that the casting of one of the series’ main characters, Ciri, was potentially going to an actress who did not resemble her video game counterpart even in ethnicity soured many to the show’s creation. Naturally, cultural commentators were quick to unleash claims that their complaints and concerns were driven by some form of bigotry – it was a narrative that drove a deep wedge between The Witcher’s fans and the show itself. Credit to Lauren Hissrich, The Witcher’s showrunner, for putting an end to the rumours and addressing the fanbase with empathy and understanding.
The same can’t be said of all showrunners who fight the same battles. When Star Wars: The Last Jedi was met with apprehension from the decades-old fanbase, its director, Rian Johnson, accused critics of entitlement and even misogyny. A narrative driven by both Johnson and cultural commentators who seized upon the popularity of the Star Wars franchise to promote their political views was to accuse its original fans of being cultural dinosaurs who hated the movie’s “woke” overtones. Ignored were criticisms about everything else wrong with the film and its treatment of the original trilogy’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker.
“I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he’s Jake Skywalker – he’s not my Luke Skywalker,” said actor Mark Hamill in a pre-release interview, who later regretted voicing his “doubts and insecurities” about Johnson’s direction of the role that made him famous.
Hamill wasn’t wrong, and he didn’t need to apologise. He was voicing the same concerns that everyone familiar with Luke Skywalker raised about Johnson’s decision to turn The Last Jedi into a subversion of everything Star Wars fans wanted and expected from the film. There’s an argument to be made about subverting expectations – but it shouldn’t potentially collapse the entire franchise.
It was an expensive gamble and one that hasn’t paid off for Lucasfilm with the failure of the Han Solo standalone film at the box office – the series’ first financial loss. The idea that a Star Wars movie could even perform badly was unimaginable years ago before Johnson’s success in alienating the core audience. As it stands, the new trilogy fails to appeal to its base, and it isn’t doing a good job distracting the younger crowd away from Fortnite and The Avengers. Only time will tell if J.J. Abrams manages to steer Star Wars back on course with Episode 9.
It’s worth noting that as a video game series, The Witcher is itself an adaptation of fantasy novels by Andrej Sapkowski. The only difference then was that most of the non-Polish speaking world had no idea what they were getting into. There is enough originality in the games to render the source irrelevant. Even though the Netflix series, like the games, is based on the novels, Hissrich and her team must deal with catering to the only group of people in the world even interested in watching the show, whose interest in The Witcher is the only reason it exists