Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is perhaps the best book to screen adaptation since The Hunger Games. The first of two planned adaptations of Leigh Bardugo’s works, Shadow and Bone adapts the first book of The Grisha Trilogy as well as integrates elements of Six of Crows, the second series in Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Set in the fictional country of Ravka, Shadow and Bone plays the delicate balancing act of accurately adapting the source material while making enough changes to keep things fresh and make necessary updates. Aside from a few scrapes and bumps, it comes out the other end more or less unscathed.
Shadow and Bone
Eric Heisserer (creator), Lee Toland Krieger, Dan Liu, Mairzee Almas, and Jeremy Webb (directors), Vanya Asher, Daegan Fryklind, M. Scott Veach, Shelley Meals, Christina Strain, and Nick Culbertson (writers), Tyler Nelson, David Trachtenberg, Niven Howie, and Lisa Bromwell (editors)
Jessie Mei Li, Archie Renaux, Freddy Carter, Amita Suman, Kit Young, Ben Barnes, and Zoë Wanamaker (cast)
Based on Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Released April 23, 2021 on Netflix
Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is a cartographer in the Ravkan army. During a crossing of the Shadow Fold (a monster-infested strip of Ravka that was plunged into darkness by The Black Heretic centuries before the series begins), Alina emits a bright light and saves everyone on a skiff. It’s revealed she is the Sun Summoner, a Grisha (a person in possession of what essentially boils down to magic powers) capable of controlling light. Alina is quickly whisked away to the Little Palace, a school for Grisha, where she learns how to control her powers in the hopes that she’ll be able to destroy the Shadow Fold and unite Ravka once more.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Ketterdam, the capital city of Kerch (a country based on the 19th century Dutch Republic that literally worships money), Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) prepare for a heist. The target? Alina. News of the Sun Summoner has already begun to spread in the short weeks since she first appeared and Dressen, a Kerch merchant, understands just how valuable she is. Kaz, Inej, and Jesper set off across the ocean to capture Alina and bring her back to Dressen in exchange for one million kruge.
The cast of Shadow and Bone absolutely shines. Jessie Mei Li is brilliant as Alina, and brings a level of agency and power to her that wasn’t evident in the books. As Jesper, Kit Young is absolutely delightful, bringing all of the fun a fan of the books would expect. As antagonist General Kirigan, Ben Barnes is able to balance menace and charm, sometimes switching between the two within the space of a single scene.
One of the most important changes that the team behind Shadow and Bone made was making Alina half Shu. Shu Han is a country that borders Ravka to the south, and along with Fjerda to the north, is one of two countries that Ravka is at war with and is based on Mongolia and China. Throughout the series, Alina faces discrimination for the fact that she’s Shu; a fellow cartographer calls her “rice eater,” a maid mentions that she should have the shape of her eyes changed, and people assume she doesn’t speak Ravkan (or only speaks Shu). This adds a depth to Alina that didn’t exist in the source material. While book Alina is far from the flattest YA character to exist, she still doesn’t have much depth beyond the fact that she’s an average-looking orphan (a common trait amongst YA protagonists) who’s secretly a chosen-one (a trait even more common than being an average-looking orphan). By making Alina half-Shu, the writers have made her a little bit more three-dimensional than she was in the books.
Another key difference is the changes made to Mal’s characterization. In the books, Mal is a fellow orphan and Alina’s childhood best friend who doesn’t consider Alina anything more than a friend until he discovers her powers. Then he resents her power — an integral part of her — for separating the two of them, to the point that he refuses to talk to her when they are eventually reunited. This becomes even more problematic when one considers the fact that Alina has been suppressing her power her entire life just to stay with Mal, essentially burying a part of herself for his satisfaction. The book version of Mal is a character that follows in the unfortunately long-standing tradition of (typically male) unhealthy YA love-interests, something seen in everything from Twilight to The Hunger Games. Thankfully, the writers of the show set out to make the necessary changes to Mal in order to remove the trappings of toxic masculinity that plague him in the books. It should be remarked that much of this work falls to Archie Renaux as well. Renaux brings a level of empathy that Mal didn’t seem to possess in the books, something that is desperately needed to even begin to rehabilitate the character.
Despite all the necessary updates, not all of the changes are entirely positive. Oftentimes it isn’t what they add that matters, but what they removed. Botkin Yul-Erdene, a Shu combat instructor at the Little Palace who acted as a mentor to Alina and is described as favoring Shu students is, aside from one scene, absent from the show. Had Botkin had more of a presence in the show, his relationship with Alina could have been an opportunity to explore Alina’s heritage in a way that isn’t directly tied to the discrimination she faces because of it.
Another key relationship that faces reduced screentime is Alina’s friendship with Genya. In the book, Genya acts as Alina’s first friend at the Little Palace and becomes a trusted confidante, something that makes her betrayal towards the end of the book all the more hurtful both for Alina and the reader. In the show however, Genya and Alina’s relationship is explored far less, with the end result of Genya’s betrayal carrying far less weight than it should. It’s still a painful moment for Alina, but it doesn’t have the same sting for the viewer as it did for the reader.
Perhaps if showrunner Eric Heisserer had been given the ten episodes he had wanted for the first season, these relationships wouldn’t have been adapted out. On the other hand however, while Suman, Young, and Carter, are each brilliant in their roles, they’re not strictly necessary to the plot of the first book. Neither are Nina (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias (Calahan Skogman) whose storyline is easily both the weakest part of the show and the least necessary. While I love Nina in the books, I would have given up her Season 1 appearance in a heartbeat if it meant that either Botkin or Genya were given the screentime they deserve. The same goes for Kaz, Jesper, and Inej. While I enjoyed the fact that they were there, I would have also been OK if they didn’t appear this season if it meant more screen time for the characters and events that were actually in the original novel.
All in all, Shadow and Bone is a very good show that makes some stumbles, but that can be expected when introducing such a full world in so few episodes. Regardless of its flaws, its still one of the best YA adaptations that Netflix has ever done, and easily the best fantasy show they’ve released this year.