One of the most common criticisms of The Witcher on Netflix is that it strays too far from Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels. It may have been a source of some tension behind the scenes, too: Former series star Henry Cavill made a point of saying he “pushed really, really hard” to stay true to the books, while also claiming that some of the writers on the show “actively disliked” them. There’s no question that some aspects of the novel have been simplified for the TV show, and in an interview with Polish site Wyborcza (translated by Witcher fan site Redanian Intelligence), executive producer Tomek Baginski explained why some of those changes were made: “[A] higher level of nuance and complexity will have a smaller range.”
Sometimes changes are made out of economic necessity: Production can’t stop because an actor gets sick, for instance. But the needs of an international audience, particularly a Western audience—and even more specifically the lucrative US market—also have to be kept in mind, according to Baginski. He said he encountered a “perceptual block” with American audiences some years ago, when he was promoting an unfinished film project called Hardkor 44, a sci-fi retelling of the Warsaw Uprising.
“[I tried to explain: There was an uprising against Germany, but the Russians were across the river, and on the German side there were also soldiers from Hungary or Ukraine,” he said. “For Americans, it was completely incomprehensible, too complicated, because they grew up in a different historical context, where everything was arranged: America is always good, the rest are the bad guys. And there are no complications.”
That lesson, whether you agree with it or not, apparently stuck. “When a series is made for a huge mass of viewers, with different experiences, from different parts of the world, and a large part of them are Americans, these simplifications not only make sense, they are necessary,” Baginski said. “It’s painful for us, and for me too, but the higher level of nuance and complexity will have a smaller range, it won’t reach people. Sometimes it may go too far, but we have to make these decisions and accept them.”
Zinging the US has been a pan-European pastime of high falutin creatives for decades, yes, but even so the specificity of Baginski’s criticism—Americans!—comes off as kind of weird and unnecessarily insulting. History is complicated, yes, and it’s natural to contextualize it within the boundaries of our own experiences, but citing an inability to grasp complexity and nuance as a specific national trait is a hell of a generalization.
He’s not done, either. In addition to laying the blame at the door of all Americans, Baginski had more shots to fire in defence of Netflix’s less-literate take on The Witcher. In a separate interview with YouTube channel Imponderabilia, he also pointed the finger at the kids, saying that growing up with YouTube and TikTok has left them without the patience for “longer content [and] long and complicated chains of cause and effect.”
(The interviewer in that case, who described himself as someone from that younger generation, had a very pointed response to Baginski’s statement: “What you mean is that you don’t know how to make a show that kids would like to watch.” Ouch.)
Setting aside the beef, I think Baginski’s points have some validity in a more general sense: If your show isn’t accessible to a broad audience, you’re not going to get very far on a major streaming service these days. Those execs are trigger happy. And look, The Witcher books are complicated as hell, with individuals and factions wrapped up in layers of intertwining plots and power games. You can’t just dump that on people (especially the vast majority of viewers who aren’t die-hard Witcher fans) and expect them to stay engaged. Redanian Intelligence has a good breakdown of how the show changed one of the book’s major plot points, for instance, and it takes multiple paragraphs to explain. Could Netflix have pulled off that kind of complexity in its Witcher adaptation? Maybe—but it almost certainly would have made the show longer, slower, more expensive, and not necessarily successful. At a time when entertainment media is either an immediate hit or a complete failure, that’s a problem.
The third season of The Witcher—Henry Cavill’s last hurrah—is now out in full on Netflix. We enjoyed the first half of the season quite a bit, but it’s faring somewhat unevenly on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes: It holds a 77% rating with critics, but just 22% with audiences.