I wish I could have enjoyed “The Witcher” more than I did. For better or worse, all fantasy series and movies will now be compared with “Game of Thrones” (sans its last season, perhaps) and to a lesser extent “The Lord of the Rings”, and I suspect all will be found wanting. This new Netflix series is no exception.
The reasons I wanted to like “The Witcher” more are largely sentimental. I remember in my early teens reading the first of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher short stories in the Polish monthly “Fantastyka” (which, contra its name, was publishing both fantasy and science fiction). Little did anyone in the mid-1980s expect that “Wiedzmin” will become perhaps the greatest Polish cultural export of the decades to come, first in the form of a series of extremely popular games, which have sold 33 million units (Poland has one of the world’s largest computer game industries) and now as the long-anticipated TV series (though it’s not the first big or small screen adaptation).
“The Witcher” is not bad, but it’s not great either. The writers would have done better had they explained outright that different plot lines are taking place at different times, only one of them in the “present”. If you like your magic, dragons, kingdoms and warriors you’ll probably enjoy the story of the title character, Geralt of Rivia, a mutant created to hunt monsters (one of the things that jars is the use of contemporary language in the script, with words like “mutant” and “sexy” rather out of place in the quasi-medieval setting). I quite liked Henry Cavill in “The Tudors”, where he played Henry VIII’s life-long friend, the duke of Suffolk; here he is a true pop culture mutant who talks like the Hound and looks like Christopher Lambert in “Highlander”. His quintessential sign of displeasure – grunt, pause, “f**k” – is now part of the fantasy memeverse.
One academic has described Geralt as embodying the “neo-liberal anti-politics” spirit of the Polish popular culture of the 1990s, whatever that means. There are still some distant Polish echoes preserved in the Witcher world if you know where to look; the bard and the comedic foil Jaskier is the masculine form of the word “jaskra”, which apropos of nothing, means glaucoma. In one of the episodes, Geralt fights a monster called strzyga, which is the Polish (and more broadly central European) variant of the Balkan vampire, even if the monster is not actually an undead bloodsucker but a cursed princess.
The reason that fantasy, both in its written and the on-screen form, has always left me cold is that magic is the ultimate deux ex machina; logic is not necessary because everything can be explained by some spell. Unlike the laws of nature, the laws of literary magic are unknown and thus closed to questioning. Fortunately there are also always plenty of cut heads to keep one entertained when the plot doesn’t.