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Netflix's Shadow and Bone lives up to its name -- it almost gets lost in the dark

  • "There are many shadows, and there are definitely bones," says Kathryn VanArendonk of the fantasy series. "Based on the popular YA novel of the same time, the new Netflix series has some bones that show up as a key plot point late in the series, but until that point the shadows are everywhere. The show is often plunged into an inky magical blackness, rendering it scary and mysterious while also being pretty hard to follow. Someone definitely pushed someone else off a boat, but who? Is that lady in a cape and fur collar standing in the glowering dimness the same as the previous lady we saw in a cape and fur collar, or is this a different one? The darkness is the series’ key world-building device: It’s a massive chasm of Stygian fog called the Shadow Fold (a.k.a., The Unsea) that splits the fantasy world’s map into distant nations. Navigating through it involves treacherous hours on a land-boat-thing and crossing your fingers that the monsters who live there eat someone else in your party. It’s magic; bad magic. The show’s heroine Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) has a secret capacity for very special, good magic. There is also a bad not-quite boyfriend character and a good not-quite boyfriend character, although revealing who is who is a bit of a spoiler. Shadow and Bone is both defined and hampered by endless exposition about the details of how this world’s magic works, beginning with the existence of the Shadow Fold and then continuing with a lengthy explanation of all the magical systems. People who can use magic are called Grisha, but there are a dozen different flavors of Grisha and a long history of anti-Grisha sentiment that makes them both powerful and feared. There’s also big magic and small magic, and some kinds of Grisha that are special beyond just the regular Grisha-ness. For every line intended to clarify how it all works, Shadow and Bone seems to accidentally do the opposite. It dunks viewers into its scary, volcra-infested world (volcra are monsters!) and repeatedly points out, even several episodes in, all the stuff that it still needs to explain."


    • Shadow and Bone takes every sexist cliché in the books and throws them all out: "The show takes its title from writer Leigh Bardugo’s first book, from 2012, which was based on Russian folklore but wildly derivative of paths already trod by Twilight and The Hunger Games. And, like its predecessors, it had a main character who was torn between two men and who rarely (if ever) stepped up to take charge of her life," says Ani Bundel. "But unlike its predecessors on film, this Netflix adaptation sets about improving on the source material’s tired, sexist clichés at every turn, creating a lead character worthy of her own adventure series. Played by up-and-coming actress Jessie Mei Li, this Alina is no passive narrator buffered about by fate, and she doesn’t stand around while men puff their chests at each other over her. At every turn, she makes choices that steer her own story. Some of these decisions get people killed, some of them save lives and one of them hilariously has her accidentally assist in her own kidnapping. But even if fans disagree with what she does, no one can argue she isn’t the driver of her own fate."
    • Shadow and Bone is the rare successful adaptation of a beloved book series: "Adapting a beloved book is one of the trickiest high wire acts there is in television," says Caroline Framke. "Change too much and risk the wrath of a passionate fanbase; change too little and risk losing the magic in replicated story beats that make more sense on the page than the screen. Despite their constant overlap, television and narrative fiction are two entirely different mediums that usually require entirely different approaches. Embodying what makes a book sing for its readers isn’t as easy as casting a bunch of telegenic actors for the parts. It doesn’t just require skill, but flexibility to well and truly adapt the material beyond a basic transposal. Netflix’s sharp Shadow and Bone adaptation, from Arrival writer Eric Heisserer, tackles Leigh Bardugo’s popular fantasy series. Comprised of a central trilogy and various spinoffs in its 'Grishaverse,' this is the kind of series with so many of its own terms, languages and traditions that turning on the subtitles might be advisable; otherwise, the constant allusions in invented languages might blend together into one indecipherable syllable soup. Yet it didn’t take long for me to become fully enveloped in it, lured in by clever choices, engrossing acting and costuming and production design that dances on the knife’s edge of lush and camp."
    • Shadow and Bone is a muddled, joyless checklist of fantasy tropes: "Superficially, Shadow and Bone offers a lot to satisfy former Game of Thrones fans," explain Aja Romano and Constance Grady. "It’s high fantasy, set in a totally different fictional world, like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. It’s got a large and diverse ensemble cast, spread out over the world’s fictional topography — from barren battlefields to opulent cities modeled after places like Amsterdam, Vladivostok, and Moscow. It’s got high-budget graphics and action sequences. And it’s got plenty of sex, with an array of teens flirting and scheming their way across the realm. But beyond the superficial, Shadow and Bone fails to deliver any of the charm and emotional engagement of a Game of Thrones (when that show was at its best), or even a Winx Saga (which is objectively terrible, but in an enjoyably ridiculous way). Again and again, Shadow and Bone forces unearned story beats and melodrama. Its character-building is lackluster; its worldbuilding is mostly incoherent, and its script careens from one-liner to one-liner without much substance in between — all while the weak writing torpedos the efforts of its talented cast. A frenetic, demanding action score accompanies nearly every minute of every episode, as if allowing us a moment’s silence might reveal that most of what’s happening onscreen is actually uneventful. Shadow and Bone’s opulent settings and production design work against it, because the story isn’t rich enough to fill it. And Alina herself is glaringly one-note, with actor Jessie Mei Li delivering constant wide-eyed shock but little else. It’s not entirely clear how an adaptation of such a beloved book series could have fallen so flat."
    • Shadow and Bone is about as miraculous as its leading lady, Jessie Mei Li's Alina Starkhov, is herself: "It’s a brilliant adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse books that feels as dense as Game of Thrones and as thrilling as your favorite CW show," says Meghan O'Keefe. "It also hits Netflix at a time when TV fans are clamoring for their next binge-worthy obsession. Shadow and Bone delivers pure escapism with timely social commentary and good old fashioned soapy storytelling. It is the next big fantasy sensation." O'Keefe adds: "Ironically, if there’s one quibble I have with Shadow and Bone, it’s directly tied to how great it is. This show is extremely dense. Not since the early seasons of Game of Thrones have I seen such a show immerse viewers so deeply into a new world. For fans of the books, like myself, it’s a joy to pick up on every reference — from a 'DeKappel' hanging on the wall of Kaz’s room to a character’s penchant for waffles — but for Grishaverse virgins, Shadow and Bone could prove to be overwhelming."
    • The eight-episode first season definitely feels like it's a smushing of two not-particularly-synchronous books: "Viewers coming into Shadow and Bone without any of the background from Leigh Bardugo's novels are likely to feel at least somewhat thrust into darkness by all of series creator Eric Heisserer's attempted world-building," says Daniel Fienberg. "I even started reading the books to improve my chances of swift acclimation, only to discover that in addition to the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the series has worked in Bardugo's parallel/subsequent Six of Crows books as well. It was like an anxiety dream where you have to take an exam having done only half of the reading. The eight-episode first season definitely feels like it's a smushing of two not-particularly-synchronous books, resulting in some desired Game of Thrones epic scope at the expense of one story's full emotional momentum and the other's sense of fun."
    • Shadow and Bone proves fantasy adaptations can improve on their books: "Fantasy adaptations are alluring for those who've read the books and those who haven't for different reasons," says Alexis Nedd. "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...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."
    • Shadow and Bone is a contender for the best Game of Thrones successor: "The search for the next Game Of Thrones is ongoing, as networks and streamers try to make their next big fantasy (sometimes sci-fi, occasionally horror) adaptation reach the same levels of cultural saturation," says Danette Chavez. "Netflix has a few contenders in The Witcher and, though it’s not the same kind of fantasy, Bridgerton—two series that not only dominated the conversation upon their respective debuts, but have garnered even more anticipation for their second seasons. And with the premiere of Shadow And Bone, a lush new fantasy drama based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, Netflix races ahead of the competition. Arrival and Birdbox scribe Eric Heisserer draws from the first book in the Grishaverse series (which is also titled Shadow And Bone) as well as the Six Of Crows duology. If you aren’t one of Bardugo’s many readers, those titles won’t mean much to you. But Heisserer’s combination of these works pairs a more straightforward 'Chosen One' narrative from YA novels with heist crew hijinks, creating a solid foundation for not just this eight-part season, but also a potential new franchise. It may take non-Grishaverse readers an episode or two to grasp the terminology and geography, though that’s often the case with adaptations based on multi-book series. Terms like 'Inferni,' 'Drüskelle,' and 'volcra' (giant flying bat-like creatures) are bound to sail over heads initially. Illegible world-building has been the undoing of other Thrones wannabes like Carnival Row. But it’s Heisserer’s attention to detail, along with performances perfectly attuned to the conflicts in this fantasy world, that makes Shadow And Bone such an immersive experience."
    • What really distinguishes Shadow and Bone is its smart storytelling choices: The Netflix fantasy drama "prioritize a crisp, propulsive narrative over the kind of stately, ruminative world-building for world-building's sake that bogs down so many would-be epic fantasy series," says Glen Wheldon. "The series opens not with an endless scroll of grandiloquent expository text that dumps millennia of this world's history in our laps. Instead, we open on Alina, drawing a map. Making Alina a military cartographer gives Shadow and Bone a chance to orient ourselves in this world simply by looking over her shoulder as she works — we see the Fold, the great roiling sea of shadow that bisects the kingdom of Ravka, and many of the cities we will visit over the course of the series. (You may still want to look up the books' map of this realm online as you watch, as the series neglects to inform us whether a location we're visiting is situated east of the Fold or west of it; knowing this would be useful.) Yes, there are a few occasions when two or more characters exchange information about this world's history in exactly the way no one ever does in real life, but they pass quickly and efficiently, without bogging things down. This sense of alacrity is aided, weirdly enough, by the need to service the show's many main characters."
    • Perhaps the best analogue for Shadow and Bone is The Expanse: "Not only do both manage to being a steady stream of levity and warmth into an ongoing battle with plenty of life-or-death consequences, they both draw a lot of strength in how they handle a potential world-destroying foe that exists outside any one person," says Steve Greene. "Both the protomolecule and The Fold are fascinating antagonists in that they bring out both the best and worst in those trying to use its existence to their advantage. Perhaps the savviest move in this season (hopefully the first of more to come) is to resist the temptation to let the existence of a potential super weapon overwhelm the rest of the series. There are points where the usual city-destructing climax feels inevitable — the places where Shadow and Bone are able to pull back from a preoccupation with destruction and focus on the power of specific relationships within a changing world make for a much more compelling story engine."
    • Composer Joseph Trapanese wanted to "build a world, musically" in creating fantastical music for the Grishaverse: “You’re going to hear influences from that Russian czarist period,” the composer says, and those dark hues — lots of cellos, basses and low brass — dominate the seven-plus hours of score that Trapanese wrote over 11 months last year. 
    • Why Ben Barnes plunged back into fantasy after starring in two The Chronicles of Narnia films
    • Barnes recalls calling Leigh Bardugo and saying: "I feel like I’ve walked off the pages into the story"
    • Explaining the Grisha in Shadow and Bone
    • Turning the beloved book series into a TV show necessitated a number of changes: “You can get away with things on the page, particularly in first-person POV, that simply do not work on the screen,” explained author Leigh Bardugo. “And I think that the kind of conversational gymnastics the characters would have had to engage in without having a proper name to call him, with Alina not having a proper name to call him, would have been quite challenging. And the fundamental betrayal, the fundamental knowledge of the lies he’s telling her, I think become actually more poignant when he’s offered her this intimacy of his first name so early.”
    • Showrunner Eric Heisserer wanted to throw viewers into the "daunting world of the Grishaverse" rather than explain it: “That was a constant push and pull and I don’t know how you ever stop having that debate, or at least a fervent discussion, about how much to reveal and when,” he says. “Leigh (Bardugo) and I were both very passionate about letting a lot of that play out over the course of the season and allowing audiences to follow along and perhaps understand at a later episode who had the power, what they were doing in an earlier one, or vice versa. I think the torch to carry there is to make sure that the feelings and motivations of the characters are always crystal clear, that you understand who these people are and you know what drives them. And that allows new audiences to follow those characters, even if they don’t know the terminology of the world.” 
    • Why Alina was transformed into a mixed-race character for the TV series: For showrunner Eric Heisserer, it was more about the story. “I would say from my end, the choice has stemmed from the fact that the thematic question for so many of our heroes, including Alina, is, where do I belong? So it made sense to play into the theme of our story by having her mixed race," he says. "Then that really deepened when my first hire for the show was Christina Strain, a mixed-Asian writer herself. She carried a lot of personal experiences that she had, to talk about that, speak to it, and embrace the idea that she could finally see somebody that represented her in some way or form in the show. And then it became my job to get out of her way.” Meanwhile, Jessie Mei Li was able to tap into her own experiences as a mixed-race person of British and Chinese descent. “Growing up, as a mixed-race person, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me, let alone Asian people, generally," says Li. "And if they were on screen they were always a fairly two-dimensional role, a lot of times, especially in western TV shows and films. So I was so thrilled that they made this decision, and yeah, I was able to bring my own experiences. I think, for lots of people (who are) mixed-race or first-generation immigrants, you spend so much of your life not feeling like you belong anywhere. I certainly grew up in a predominantly white area, and I was always ‘the Chinese one’ to my white friends, but to my Asian friends and family, I was very English and you never really feel like you belong anywhere. And that is essentially Alina’s problem where we meet her. She doesn’t know where she belongs. She doesn’t know how important she is. It really shapes who she is, (in) the same way it does for me. My race is a big part of my life, but it’s not everything that I am, and they’ve done such a good job of making Alina’s background important to her as a character and important to shaping who she is, but it’s not everything that she is.”

    TOPICS: Shadow and Bone, Netflix, Ben Barnes, Christina Strain, Eric Heisserer, Jessie Mei Li, Leigh Bardugo