By Murtaza Ali Khan
no secret that every major streaming platform and television network dreams to
have the next Game of Thrones as part
of its portfolio. The fantasy series Shadow
and Bone is Netflix’s latest attempt to capture the space that’s been left
vacant ever since the popular HBO series completed its epic run. Shadow and Bone is based on the Grisha
novel trilogy (the first of which is the 2012 novel ‘Shadow and Bone’) and the ‘Six
of Crows’ novel duology (comprising the 2015 and 2016 novels ‘Six of Crows’ and
‘Crooked Kingdom’, respectively) by the Israeli-American author Leigh Bardugo.
It all began when Netflix acquired
the rights to the rights to Bardugo’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ trilogy. Bardugo was
quick to suggest to Netflix that the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Eric
Heisserer (known for his work on films such as ‘Arrival’, ‘Bird Box’, and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’, among others) had earlier tweeted to her
about his love for Six of Crows and that he is someone who could be approached
for Shadow and Bone. When Netflix contacted
Heisserer regarding the series, he was quick to tell them that he doesn’t see a
substantial plot without the characters of the ‘Six of Crows’ duology. Heisserer’s
strong stand compelled Netflix to buy the rights to just ‘Six of Crows’ and its
sequel ‘Crooked Kingdom’but also to Bardugo’s 2017 novel ‘The Language of
Thorns ‘and her collection of short stories also set within the Grishaverse. It
was enough to convince Heisserer to make the show for Netflix.
Now, the Grisha novel
trilogy tells the story of an orphaned mapmaker Alina Starkov (essayed by
Jessie Mei Li) who discovers she holds the unique power to summon light as
powerful as the sun that can provide Ravka (a fantasy kingdom based on the
Tsarist Russian Empire) with its first real chance of destroying the Shadow
Fold, a massive and malevolent miasma of permanent darkness inhabited by
carnivorous winged creatures known as Volcra separating East from West Ravka for
centuries. Interestingly, ‘Six of Crows’, which is nothing like it, revolves
around a feisty and disreputable gang of criminals called the Crows led by their
scheming leader Kaz (Freddy Carter) along with the stealthy spy Inej (Amita
Suman), and the uber-cool gunslinger Jesper (Kit Young). In his unique
adaptation, which he describes as “Oceans 11 in a Game of Thrones world,” Heisserer
doesn’t employ the two storylines in parallel but chooses to blend them
together. Netflix as well as Bardugo were both a bit skeptical about Heisserer’s
approach until he revealed his ingenious plan to integrate Kaz, Inej, and
Jesper into Alina’s storyline without fundamentally altering it and without
compromising the characters of Kaz, Inej, and Jesper.
The end result is what can
best be described as a gift of long-form storytelling. To his credit, blending
the two storylines isn’t the only change that Heisserer introduces in his
adaptation. He also plays with Alina’s origins. In the books, she is purely
Ravkan, presumably white and conforming to the Ravkan demographics. In Heisserer’s
adaptation, Alina is half-Shu with her mother having hailed from Shu Han, a
country based on Mongolia and China. Heisserer’s awareness to the pressing need
of breaking stereotypes in a bid to push for diversity ensures that the story’s
main hero is half-Asian. The western fixation for a hero with white skin,
blonde hair and blue eyes is deeply misplaced.
Alina’s mixed heritage in series is also pivotal to connecting her story
with the broader diversity of the ‘Six of Crows’ characters — Inej is Suli, a
hybrid of Romani and South Asian heritage, while Jesper is from Novyi Zem, a
stand-in for sub-Saharan Africa.
The world of Shadow of Bone is divided into ordinary
people and the Grisha who are gifted with special abilities. Every child is
tested by the Grisha Examiners who send those endowed with special powers to
train in the Little Palace. At a young age, Alina is able to fool the Grisha
Examiners in order to be with her childhood friend Mal (Archie Renaux). It is
for this reason that she lives an ordinary live until her true powers are
finally revealed. Her mixed heritage further makes her inferior in the eyes of
the Ravkans. When she is sent to the Little Palace to live with the other
Grisha she continues to crave for a sense of belonging that has always eluded
her. The presence of a writer named Christina Strain, who’s mixed Asian
herself, helped Heisserer in finding the right voice for Alina. Other than the
splendid world that’s on offer, it’s really the character dynamics that make Shadow and Bone tick. As I have already
spoken about what the trio of Kaz, Jesper and Inej being to the table, I must
at last draw your attention to the enigmatic General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and
his complex relationship with Alina as well as the deep bond Alina shares with Mal.
Despite a slow buildup, the first season has opened up exiting possibilities
for future seasons. Now, it remains to be seen for how long Heisserer can keep
us hooked to Bardugo’s Grishaverse.
A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.
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