Adapting your favorite book is one of the most difficult appearances on television. Change too much and risk the wrath of passionate fans; change too little and risk losing magic in replicated story rhythms that make more sense on the page than on the screen. Despite their constant overlap, television and story are two completely different media that usually require a completely different approach. Playing what makes a book sing for its readers is not as easy as casting a group of telegenic actors for roles. Good and real material adaptation beyond basic transposition requires not only skill but also flexibility.
The sharp Netflix adaptation “Shadow and Bone” by “Arrival” writer Eric Heisserer is about the popular fantasy series Leigh Bardugo. Composed of the central trilogy and the various spin-offs in “The Grishaverse”, this is the kind of series with so many terms, languages, and traditions of its own that it might be advisable to include credits; otherwise, the constant allusions in imaginary languages may merge into one unreadable syllable soup. However, it didn’t take long for me to fully immerse myself in it, lured by clever choices, engaging actors, costumes, and a set that dances on the edge of lush and camp. And even if it never becomes as overtly bloody as the events in the book might suggest, this Shadow and Bone still has its genuinely surprising moments, especially as it prepares for what lurks in the seemingly endless darkness of the Fold.
The heroine of Bardugo will seem familiar to anyone who delves into the YA genres, fantasy or both. Alina Starkov is an orphan who, in the most traumatic moment of her life, discovers that she has special abilities that can save her world once and for all from an oppressive “fold” – a vast space of shadows separating struggling nations. While many others (“Grisha”) have powers, Alina is unique to her, making her the classic Chosen One figure whose mere existence threatens the order of the old world while promising a shiny new one.
However, the Netflix version takes Alina’s unique place a step further, making her two-fold. Alina, played by Jessie Mei Li, has long felt out of place in Ravka, the Soviet-style nation she grew up in. (Her mother, lost many years ago by The Fold, was “Shu”, the deputy of the East Asian TV series.) With only her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) to rely on, Alina spent her entire life saying there was not enough, and therefore all the more determined to prove its worth. Her character does not change between the book and the screen so much that it becomes a more focused version with more space to distinguish itself from the source material. (And yes: the fact that Alina proves to be the key to saving both worlds from her after being stuck between them for years is a fitting twist to the book’s main conceit.)
Throughout the first season, “Shadow and Bone” continues to fit the book’s original plan, sharply departing from it and borrowing elements of the expanded Grishaverse Bardugo to create its own thorny, engaging world. It’s an ambitious approach, not least because the show only has eight episodes where you can tell a story, which causes some spine transitions as it rushes to move on to the next big story point. For the most part, however, Shadow and Bone does not bite more than it can chew, focusing its energy on refining its characters and the universe in a way that could hold it outside of any single book.
Alina’s story unfolds much as it does in the entire first volume of Bardugo, but the season’s side plots borrow entirely from other books. The trio of rogues “Crow” – the acrobatic spy Inej (Amita Suman), the sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young) and the leader of Kaz (Freddy Carter) – are not included in the actual book “Shadow and Bone”, but are nevertheless an integral part of the series with their own mission. The same goes for the defiant Grisha Nina (Danielle Galligan) and her distrustful kidnapper Matthias (Calahan Skogman), though in the least urgent plot they are stuck on the fringe of the show. By extending Shadow and Bone beyond Alina’s experience, the series makes her world feel so much larger, denser and complex. This works especially well with Crows, with Inej Sumana and Jesper Young providing a correspondingly welcome depth and humor.
Even so, the series’ powerhouse is Alina, a challenge that Li takes up. Whether it depicts Alina struggling with her sudden new powers, longing for Mal, or is drawn to the mysterious General Kirigan (totally devoted to Ben Barnes), Li creates an irresistible center of gravity. Her Alina is smart and loyal, irritated and hasty, broken and stubborn. The show’s most obvious climaxes usually involve Grisha’s throwing the elements at himself, but the most effective unfolds entirely on Alina’s face, lined with pain, joy and worry.
Often the character of Chosen One is the least interesting story because she is the Sun around which everyone else has to revolve. This is not the case with Alina Li, a heroine as reliably sensitive as she is courageous. If Netflix had given their Shadow and Bone enough time outside of this installment to untangle a lot of tangled threads, there’s no question this version of Alina could hold onto that.
The premiere of “Shadow and Bone” will take place on Friday, April 23 on Netflix.