SMALL SCREEN | INTERVIEW
This weekend we’re watching: Shadow and Bone
Maverick Life interviewed the cast and crew of the new Netflix fantasy series ‘Shadow and Bone’, based on the bestselling young adult novels by Leigh Bardugo, to explore why it stands a head taller than its peers.
Shadow and Bone
It’s a coming-of-age empowerment story about a young heroine, a cartographer named Alina Starkov, who’s discovered to possess unique powers that could destroy The Fold – a mysterious wall of darkness that has devastated and divided a warring, industrialising world.
The political turmoil of this culturally complex world has been fundamentally influenced by Grisha – elite military mages, but with the advent of projectile weapons technology, magic is perceived as slowly becoming obsolete. Shadow and Bone asks the question, “What happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight?”
The rabid global search for the next Game of Thrones since its monumental success means that just about every fantasy series that comes out gets hyped as the heir to the Seven Kingdoms. Shadow and Bone was much the same, but in several ways it is actually antithetical to Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones brought old-school fantasy to an adult audience, and was immediately taken seriously because its unbridled lust and gratuitous violence made it abundantly clear that it was not suitable for kids. Shadow and Bone wants to take the genre back. It’s bringing a very new-school fantasy to a wider audience, and making the case that you don’t need smut and guts to make a world feel real.
There are definitely stigmas attached to the young adult literary space, but director Eric Heisserer doesn’t give them the time of day.
“The best stories have audiences far beyond a specific target. This is what I found in these books. I wanted to make sure to carry that into the adaptation. I would say that there are inaccurate criticisms that make [young adult literature] feel it has to adhere to that very specific audience and cannot have a wider range of engagement. But these stories, I think we can identify with, the same way that you can bring an adult and a child into a Pixar movie and they get a very enriched experience out of it, but possibly a very different one.”
It was Netflix and Heisserer’s respect for the genre that finally convinced writer Leigh Bardugo to bring her fantasy world to the screen.
“It wasn’t until we were in that first meeting with Netflix and one of the executives said ‘We respect the stories of young people and we take them seriously’ that I thought, maybe I’m finally in the right room.”
Heisserer and Bardugo strike an impeccable balance with the show, tackling dark and mature topics like slavery, torture, and human trafficking in a gentle but intentional way.
The story itself isn’t juvenile either. Sure it’s a little simplified compared to Game Of Thrones, but it’s compelling, filled with a similar menagerie of perspectives and motivations.
But Shadow and Bone fits the young adult stereotype in its setting and style. It’s not all that bothersome that practically every character is a sexy twentysomething, but a meaty chunk of the first season is set in what is essentially an academy for wizards and witches, indulging a sort of teenage Hogwarts fantasy that feels a little frivolous compared to the rest of the series.
It’s also only half-grown stylistically. Plot points are usually spoon-fed to the audience, and the intensity is kept surprisingly mild, even when it seems like it should be stressful.
This is not to say that adults won’t enjoy watching the show, as long as they know what they’re in for. That Shadow and Bone is not particularly intellectually stimulating is exactly why it’s bound to be popular. It’s a spectacular escape. No need to think too hard, just sit back and marvel at a vibrant and exciting new world.
Since Covid hit, there’s been a huge resurgence in the popularity of fantasy TV. Netflix has been ploughing out formulaic female-led fantasies like Cursed and Warrior Nun, and even uninspired titles like Fate: The Winx Saga (which is essentially Mean Girls with magic) have been all but guaranteed a big audience.
Kit Young plays Jesper Fahley, one of the most beloved characters – a cheeky gun-slinging gambler remindful of Dickens’ Artful Dodger. Young explains that the timing was a stroke of luck for the show.
“This show is coming out at a really perfect time, given Covid, and everyone is looking for some form of escapism when they’re kind of stuck in their own homes, and probably not in ideal situations – they might be separated from loved ones and friends and not able to do their work in the same way. And so the idea of going somewhere else is really, really appealing.”
For several reasons, Shadow and Bone stands a head taller than most of its peers who’re riding the Covid waves. First off there’s its considered approach towards representation. Jesper, our lovable flirty gunslinger, prefers the company of men in his bed; and the very first episode features a drag queen spy. These are not typical fantasy characters.
Heisserer and Bardugo deal with prejudice profoundly, but ignore those biases which exist in the real world. There’s no mention of homophobia or racism, but there are a plethora of prejudices specific to this world, all of which seem arbitrary to us from the outside. Without getting explicitly political this makes an ideological statement about the lunacy of prejudice.
One of the biggest differences between the series and the book is that in the series, the lead Alina, played by young emerging actress Jessie Mei Li, is mixed race. She is half Shu Han (a Chinese dynasty) and half Ravkan (based on Tsarist Russia of the 1800s), two countries that are at war.
Alina is ridiculed as a “Shu girl”, a ‘half-breed’, at one point she is denied food; and each time it seems to hurt her but there’s a stoic strength in the way she bares it that feels authentic. Li says her own experience as a person with mixed heritage informed her portrayal of Alina’s response to persecution. “I’m so happy that they made this decision to make Alina half Shu because it meant that I could really bring my own experience to her. I grew up in a predominantly white area, in a white school, where I was very much the Chinese one, and I would speak poorly pronounced Cantonese to my friends, but then be with my Chinese family and not really be able to speak to my grandma. And so, you know, you never really feel that you belong anywhere.
“And it’s really weird because it’s never really seen as a big deal. It’s not something that people talk about – being constantly ‘otherred’. So it adds so much to Alena’s character… She is really strong because she’s had to stand up for herself and she had to grow this thick skin, but she also is very gentle, and I think that comes from the fact that she’s being told every day, you look like the enemy!
“I think the way that they’ve done this [talking about race] with Alina, her race and her mixed heritage really shaped her personality and shaped who she is, her vulnerability and her wariness of new people, and her need to be loved. But it’s not everything, you know, it’s not her story. She’s a mixed- race character, but that’s not all she is. So I really liked that and it felt very authentic to my life. I’m a mixed-race person, but that’s not all I am.”
Freddy Carter plays Kaz, a self-possessed brooding crime boss with a disability inspired by Bardugo’s actual disability, who finds power and dignity in his “handicap”.
“Lee walks with a cane and Kaz’s use of the cane was inspired by her condition. She was determined to write a character that also had a physical disability, but wasn’t hampered by it in any way. He saw it as something that made him stronger and something that added to the legend and myth around him, and kind of feels like it’s this fifth limb, which is an incredible weapon, you know? He was proud of it.”
And then there’s Inej, played by Amita Suman – a stealthy knife-throwing badass who does that familiar Batman disappearing act as soon as people turn their back, but whose also carrying a bubbling rage, having been the victim of human trafficking and rape as a girl.
“The reasons why I admire Inej is that despite being handed such a horrific life and traumatic experiences, somehow she still finds this beauty and positivity and goodness in the world and you know, we’re going through Covid right now. Everyone has their hardships, and it can be a really, really tough time to remind yourself that things will eventually be okay, and that there is goodness in the world,” says Suman.
“These are really the trials of young people trying to find their way in a world where they’ve been told they don’t matter,” says Eric Heisserer.
The world-building is just as comprehensive as the characters that inhabit it. Because Ravka is separated by The Fold, it is simultaneously medieval and industrialised. There are grand and whimsical scenes in palaces which show off gorgeous costume design, shown immediately after scenes in a weather-beaten military encampment filmed with dreary sepia tones. This duality is essential to the genre birthed from Leigh Bardugo’s books: “Tsarpunk”.
When Bardugo created the Grishaverse, she took inspiration from real-world periods and places to give it a rich cultural texture.
“Half of my family is Jewish-Russian and Lithuanian, so I grew up hearing stories about Russia and it already embodied for me a place of tremendous beauty and extraordinary culture and history, but also a place of tremendous danger. So in some ways it was already setting the stage for all the elements you want from a fantasy world.
“And I think when it came to building the world of Kerch and Ketterdam, I wanted to draw from the Dutch Republic of the 1700s because I wanted to create a country where the Protestant work ethic had been taken to its most extreme, and where profit was seen as the greatest goal for a country. And that even meant changing some things. I use history as a jumping-off point for my research, but for example, at the height of the Dutch republic’s power, one out of every three ships that they sent out, never returned – they sank – and that was considered the cost of doing business. And I actually altered that statistic in talking about Ketterdam and Kerch to one in five because I felt that readers would find one in three implausible. So for me, these places are touchstones, but I wanted my worlds to feel like they had a different texture and to resonate as particular cultures.”
Jessie Mei Li compares the separation caused by The Fold to that of the novel coronavirus; “[The Fold] does represent this, you know, massive dissonance. Lots of the story takes place in a country that’s at war from all sides. And this problem feels insurmountable, like it will never go away. At the start especially, there’s this feeling of hopelessness and [most of] our characters are all kind of lonely. I think you can read into a lot of this show and the messages that the characters are telling us.”
In a young adult fantasy with sexy lonely characters separated by war and culture and a giant magical wall of darkness, you can bet your hat there’ll be a hearty helping of forbidden teenage romance, including one between the leading lady and the seductive villain, played by Ben Barnes.
“I’ve found this sort of strange niche for myself, which is: vaguely morally ambiguous manipulative characters who are revered by some and feared by some, but still somehow find themselves entangled with the young heroines.”
All the forbidden romance does entail a lot of prolonged emotional silences which will have some viewers glued to their seat, while the less sentimental among us roll their eyes progressively further into the back of their heads.
Indeed the show is likely to be polarising in general. If you’re looking for a fantastic escape, easy watching, or a show you can watch without your preteen kids trying to flay the remote from your hands, then Christmas came early for you this year. But if you like your fantasies dark, and cynical, with confounding twists and scandals, stick to Game of Thrones, I’m sure that successor will show up sooner or later. DM/ ML
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