Showrunner Eric Heisserer and author Leigh Bardugo discuss adapting the latter’s Grishaverse novels for Netflix fantasy drama Shadow & Bone, in which a lowly soldier unleashes an extraordinary power that might just set her country free.
Shadow & Bone, a Netflix fantasy series based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, has its origins in a New Year’s Resolution. It was at the start of 2017 that writer Eric Heisserer, best known for penning feature films Arrival and the streamer’s own Bird Box, decided to read more for fun, rather than viewing every book he picked up as a potential development project.
When a friend recommended he look at Bardugo’s Six of Crows, which was pitched to him as ‘Ocean’s Eleven in a Game of Thrones world,’ he was immediately intrigued. Then, acting on another resolution to reach out to the creators of art he really loved, Heisserer tracked down Bardugo on Twitter and told her how much he enjoyed her work.
“That was that,” he tells DQ. “I didn’t think about it as an adaptation. But a year later, Netflix called me out of the blue and said, ‘We know you like your books.’ Leigh had shared with them that I tweeted her, and we met and it went from there.”
Launching worldwide on April 23, the eight-part series brings together stories and characters from Shadow & Bone, the first book in the Grisha trilogy, and Six of Crows, the first book in the follow-up duology. Set in a war-torn world, the show introduces lowly soldier and orphan Alina Starkoy, who discovers she has an extraordinary power that might be the key to setting her country free.
Against the monstrous threat of the Shadow Fold, a barrier of pure darkness that splits her world in two, Alina is taken to begin her training as part of an elite army of magical soldiers known as Grisha. But as she struggles to hone her power, she has difficulty separating allies and enemies in a lavish world where nothing is as it seems.
Shadow & Bone, which was published in 2012, was the first novel Bardugo had ever completed, marking the realisation of a dream to be an author that she had held since she was a child.
“I had a very bad habit of starting manuscripts and never finishing them. When I set out to write Shadow & Bone, my only goal was to finish a damn book because I had wanted this for so long and I was not a spring chicken anymore,” she says. “I was 35 when I finished that book. I was not a fresh-faced youth from college. I was in a terrible situation in my life. I had a terrible job that I hated and I wasn’t very good at. In a lot of ways, Shadow & Bone was a reckoning with everything I wanted and that I hoped to be able to do.”
Her inspiration for the novel came simply from the idea that darkness was a real place, rather than a metaphor familiar to many fantasy stories in which ‘a dark age is coming’ or ‘darkness falls across the land.’
“I thought, well, what if darkness was a place and the monsters you imagined there were real and you had to fight them on their own territory? What do the monsters look like? What created this dark territory? How would you fight them? Why the hell would you go into this dark territory in the first place? That was what led to the Shadow Fold,” she says. “And every idea of the Grishaverse really grew out of that.”
Bardugo admits she was sceptical whether a series would ever reach the small screen, having experienced “a lot of false starts.” Even after signing a deal with Netflix and working with Heisserer and the cast, “I couldn’t quite shut that scepticism off,” she says. “Up until very recently, it still did not feel like this was actually happening. It took seeing the trailer and seeing the response online for me to really feel the weight of this adaptation and the excitement of it. I’m very nervous but also very hopeful.”
Fans of the novels will find plenty of differences between the series and the source material, however. “There are certain compromises we had to make,” Bardugo says. “When I envisioned the Shadow Fold, I envisioned it being completely pitch black and this kind of weighted darkness that couldn’t be perforated, and it quickly became apparent that that would make for a very boring viewing experience. But what’s important with something like the Shadow Fold, and where Eric’s experience in horror really came into play, is making it as terrifying as possible and tapping into that visceral fear of the dark that we all have, even when we think we’ve outgrown it.
“It’s not going to be exactly as I envisioned it and I’m glad of that. We knew the show was going to be different from the books but retain their heart and character.”
The author also experienced a certain amount of “grief” when she realised that readers who come to the books after watching the show would picture the faces of the cast and hear their voices rather than imagining them for themselves. As she continues to write – Rule of Wolves was published last month – she also now hears the actors’ voices in her head.
“But at the same time, there’s something extraordinary about that, because it’s not just that it’s different, it’s that these characters have now been imbued with the experience of these actors,” she notes. “They’re so great that there’s something unexpected for me in watching them interact, which brought them to life in a completely different way than I had been prepared for.”
As an executive producer on the show, Bardugo was on hand to advise and support the writers as they developed the series outline and the scripts, facing a list of questions every time she visited the writers room.
“She would be there essentially for a TED talk every week,” jokes Heisserer, whose film credits also include 2010’s remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and 2011 franchise sequel Final Destination 5. “That helped things a lot. With adaptation, I’m more of a custodian or a steward of the source story, but we had the added challenge of writing essentially a prequel story and other events for the Crows characters from the duology, because in the books those narratives don’t really start until after Shadow & Bone.
“But it gave us room to delve into some of the origins of their behaviours or their situations that we find them in later on. These are diverse characters from different walks of life, with different talents and traumas, so it was just really important for me to build out a very diverse writers room and let them imprint their personal experiences and their authentic stories in their own lives onto these characters. When it came to narrative, this job is really more about me getting out of everybody else’s way.”
For Bardugo, the adaptation was always about keeping the heart of the characters intact, even as elements of the two books were blended together. She was also happy to be part of the development process and enjoyed conversations with the writers where they would pitch her ideas they had for the series.
“Sometimes it was something as simple as saying to them, ‘That’s great but if we do this thing, if we add this little bit of magic, we’re going to blow up a lot of road we have in front of us,’” she says. “Fortunately, that writers room was so convivial and so welcoming that it felt like the kind of place where you really could throw out ideas and be daring. And I wanted them to be daring. I didn’t want them to make a fearful adaptation.
“Like many fantasy writers, I’m a control freak. We spend a lot of time building our worlds, refining them, thinking about things that will never end up on the page, so it was very important to me to be involved. But there were limits to how much I could be involved, and there was a point where I stepped back. This doesn’t belong entirely to me anymore and I made peace with that very early. You pick your partners and you hope for the best. That’s all you can do with adaptation. The idea that you’re somehow going to be able to have your hand on the wheel and be steering this vast vehicle with so many moving parts and so many participants is absurd.”
Produced by 21 Laps Entertainment, filming on the series took place in Budapest, Hungary, and wrapped on March 1, 2020, just as the world was shutting down amid the first wave of Covid-19. Heisserer says the show’s “modest” budget meant the production team strived to make Shadow & Bone look more expensive than it was, making full use of the skills of the set designers, costumers and art department.
“It got more and more complicated the further we went because it’s a second-world fantasy world like Westeros [in Game of Thrones],” he explains. “It’s a fictional land. We’re not saying we are in medieval England, for instance, where we can get away with a lot of things and buy stuff that is historically accurate. This is all fantastical.
“When we made the Crow Club, for instance, the gambling den, we put a deck of cards on the felt table and it stood out like a sore thumb. It meant we had to come up with a set of cards with our own suits and with our own numeral system. We had our own currency.”
David Peterson, who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s Thrones, even invented four languages for the show, which further helped to build Ravka on screen.
“The Shadow Fold was also a huge challenge because everybody turned up with assumptions of how we could make that work and all our first ideas were complete failures,” the showrunner adds. “We had to reinvent it a lot of the time and found something I think worked best for us. We ended up in the largest soundstage in Hungary to make that as effective as possible.”
Bardugo even got to make her first visits to a television set and was taken aback by the scale of the show. “I was picturing a couple of cameras and some people in costume. I didn’t understand the scope of this,” she says. “They were literally moving mountains of earth at one point to create a set. To look out of the First Army camp or walk the streets of Ketterdam was breathtaking. But honestly, none of it felt real. I thought, ‘I’m having some very elaborate hallucination. I fell into a coma in 2021 and I’m just imagining the whole thing.’”
Post-production was completed remotely as coronavirus lockdowns were imposed, with Heisserer noting that decisions that normally would have been made in several hours with a group of people in an editing suite instead took several days as files were passed around and discussions took place online.
“It was a different pace for everybody, but it kept them safe. It kept us all alive,” he says. “We roll with those punches as best we can. Honestly, everybody was in the same boat. It wasn’t like we were being singled out as a show. We were all across the globe trying to figure out how we were going to make it. Our enthusiasm for the show didn’t wane.”
Part of what made the production so harmonious was the cast, which is headed by Jessie Mei Li (as Alina Starkov), Archie Renaux (Malyen Oretsev), Freddy Carter (Kaz Brekker), Amita Suman (Inej), Kit Young (Jesper Fahey) and Ben Barnes (General Kirigan). It’s Barnes in particular that Heisserer describes as “an amazing actor and a decent human being” and who acted as a role model to the young actors on set. Barnes previously worked with Heisserer’s wife and fellow TV writer Christine Boylan on Netflix comic book adaptation The Punisher.
“We know it’s quite common to have someone who has a toxic personality or an abrasive one, or someone who feels the way to make art is through conflict and challenge off camera as well as on. Neither of us really ascribe to that belief,” the showrunner says. “Especially with our young cast, we’re asking them to be so vulnerable on camera that we wanted to establish an environment of support and safety and love, and Ben is the type of person to do that. He is absolutely the one to keep their nerves at ease and let them know that this will work out, in part because that’s how he started as Prince Caspian [in the 2008 film of the same name]. He knew what it was like to be in their shoes.
“Then Jesse was just as much of an inspiration. She was just a beacon of light. I’m so grateful for her kindness.”
Wanting to recreate the sense of fun he experienced when he first read Bardugo’s novel, Heisserer uses the author’s own description of her work to lay out what viewers can expect from the series. “It’s Tsar punk,” he says. “It’s fantasy inspired in part by Tsarist Russia. You’re not getting medieval knights in England with swords, you’re getting something that has a very Slavic bent, but then you bring in some Dickensian-like criminals and you get to pose the question, ‘What if you bring a gun to a magic fight?’”