Shadow and Bone: Netflix’s Exquisite Fantasy Adaptation


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By Caroline Morris

Get ready to enter the Shadow Fold.

Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s newest original series, premiered on April 23, 2021. The series is based on the fantasy novels of Leigh Bardugo, and brings together the plots of her Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology, both of which are set in the fictional “Grishaverse.”

The show centers around Alina Starkov, a long-orphaned mapmaker in the First Army of wartorn Ravka. She discovers her never-before-seen Sun Summoning power as she crosses the magical Shadow Fold with fellow soldier and childhood best friend Mal. This power marks her as a Grisha, the magical beings of this world, and puts a target on her back. Alina is thus whisked away to train with General Kirigan, leader of the Grisha-only Second Army, and becomes the target of capture for the Six of Crows characters.

Creating such a show is a daunting task. The fantasy market is wide open in the wake of Game of Thrones, yet adaptations of fantasy books to television often fail, ie. Shadowhunters on Freeform. There is also the necessity of catering to fans of the books while also providing a show that can stand on its own for new viewers.

Despite such obstacles, Shadow and Bone is a triumph. The show depicts a fantasy world where you can luxuriate in every single detail.

Looking at the show on its own terms, it is extremely well created and executed. The “Grishaverse” is a complex universe to step into, but the show does an excellent job of worldbuilding for the audience. Whether this information is revealed by camera work, dialogue, or the actors’ portrayals, it is done with expert precision so that the audience can learn the rules of the world without feeling like their hand is being held.

The aesthetics of the show are breathtaking. The costuming is immaculate. The kefta that the Grisha wear are incredibly intricate and implicitly denote the different orders of the Grisha. The Fold, which seems impossible to depict as a wasteland of pure darkness, comes to life on the screen. And the special effects used for the magic are flawless, particularly with Alina’s Sun Summoning power that looks ethereal and impossible while also making the viewer believe that magic must be real.

Another huge success for the show was the acting. Shadow and Bone did not rely on famous names, excluding Ben Barnes as Kirigan, but rather cultivated new, young talent for five out of the six main cast (Jessie Mei Li as Alina, Archie Renaux as Mal, Freddy Carter as Kaz, Amita Suman as Inej, and Kit Young as Jesper). These new faces delivered, bringing more fullness to the characters than even the script offered and without a weak performance in the bunch, though Mei Li seems to be the runaway star.

But the show must also be discussed as an adaptation of the novels. Overall, Shadow and Bone did a very impressive job of transferring fantasy novels to the screen and combining two series that happen on different timelines in the literary canon; a monumental task to say the least.

One of the biggest triumphs of the series as an adaptation was the characterization of the Grisha Trilogy characters. Shadow and Bone, the first novel of the Grisha Trilogy, was Bardugo’s debut novel, and as such had issues with the characters feeling underdeveloped.

The show, however, fleshes these characters out. Mal, a character that many readers disliked and found to be an unworthy love interest for Alina, is extremely likable and feels like a real, dynamic person. This could also be attributed to the palpable chemistry between Renaux and Mei Li, which definitely makes Mal a love interest viewers can root for.

General Kirigan’s character also undergoes some changes in the adaptation, painting him in a more sympathetic light and giving him a gray morality that allows him to function as a real competitor in the Alina love triangle. Barnes’ performance as Kirigan must also be praised, as his inky black eyes are able to convey a thousand unspoken emotions.

Sadly, Shadow and Bone falls a bit short when it comes to the Crows: Kaz, Inej, and Jesper. Viewers who have read the books have to come in with set expectations: in order for the Crows to be included in this show, their entire plot would have to change to connect to the Grisha Trilogy. Despite this necessary change, the series does not do Six of Crows full justice.

One of the primary appeals of Six of Crows, beyond the fun of a heist novel, is its characters. They are morally ambiguous teenagers with intensely traumatic pasts who are running a city gang better than most of the old guys who have been in the game for decades. The Crows are ragtag and pull off impossible heists. Yet, they are also young people with no home but each other, slowly dealing with brutal psychological wounds.

The show does not take the time to depict this. Their city, Ketterdam, is barely explored and it is unclear who these three are. The intriguing gang politics are left out, the character Wylan is forgone, and their complex backstories go unspoken. Though their plot had to change to fit the show, their characters underwent unnecessary reductions.

This is most prevalent in Kaz. In the novel, he is a 17-year-old gang leader with countless epithets, such as “Bastard of the Barrel,” “Dirtyhands,” and “demon,” that pay homage to his legendary intellect and brutality. Kaz always has a plan and is ten steps ahead of everyone else, even as it appears that everything is falling apart.

In the show, Kaz is a petty thief with a piss poor attitude who is flying by the seat of his pants and relying on lucky breaks. His titles, which are meant to inspire fear and depict “the deadliest boy in Ketterdam,” are derisive and condescending. Although Carter’s performance is spectacular and elevates the character, the writing of the show creates the sense that Kaz is always responding to the game, not running it, which is a huge disservice. The show also ignores the characters’ traumas.

Kaz is defined by the gloves he wears. To the world, they are more fodder for weaving legends of his brutality. The truth: he cannot stomach human touch as a symptom of PTSD. Yet these gloves that drip with symbolism have one shot focused on them with no explanation of their significance. The show also undercuts Inej’s trauma by not taking the time to clearly explain that she was kidnapped and forced into childhood prostitution. The kicker that gets no emphasis in the show: the “monstrous” Kaz saved Inej from that life.

These changes are truly disappointing. Those who have read the books know what is missing, and new viewers don’t have the opportunity to get to know the Crows in all their glory. 

However, the Crows still offer so much to Shadow and Bone. The three bring a lightness through their hijinx and their hilarious dynamic carries to the screen flawlessly. Their friendship, in both the banter and the vulnerable moments, gives the show its heart. And honestly, everyone loves a fun heist plotline.

Shadow and Bone is truly an excellent adaptation. The show ingeniously interweaves the two plots, it is laudably true to the novels as much as possible, and it captures the humor of the characters that fans adore. Any reader-turned-viewer will be exceedingly satisfied with the series, though nit-picking is clearly never off the table.

Other small victories for the show as an adaptation are in the Nina/Matthias plotline and the easter eggs. 

Nina is a Grisha and Matthias is a Grisha hunter, and they find themselves in a life threatening situation in which they must rely on each other to survive. Their blossoming relationship as Matthias learns to fight his prejudices is heartwarming and just incredibly cute. 

The show also has quite a few easter eggs for book fans. The title of each episode is a reference to lines, phrases, or concepts from the novels! There are also multiple times when characters hold books that match the real world Bardugo counterparts. These little details make the long time fans feel in the know and help to ground the show in the literary inspiration.

Shadow and Bone is definitely a must watch for all, having read the books or not. The world is undeniably captivating, the plot keeps the audience on its toes and is excellently paced, and the series has a balance of fantasy, intrigue, politics, romance, and humor that offers a draw for any viewer.

Yes, the show has some faults, but in the grand scheme it is a huge success as an adaptation and a series on its own. And the problems are nothing that can’t be fixed during a second season. So… go stream for season two!

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