Adapting a beloved book is one of the trickiest high wire acts there is in television. Change too much and risk the wrath of a passionate fanbase; change too little and risk losing the magic in replicated story beats that make more sense on the page than the screen. Despite their constant overlap, television and narrative fiction are two entirely different mediums that usually require entirely different approaches. Embodying what makes a book sing for its readers isn’t as easy as casting a bunch of telegenic actors for the parts. It doesn’t just require skill, but flexibility to well and truly adapt the material beyond a basic transposal.
Netflix’s sharp “Shadow and Bone” adaptation, from “Arrival” writer Eric Heisserer, tackles Leigh Bardugo’s popular fantasy series. Comprised of a central trilogy and various spinoffs in its “Grishaverse,” this is the kind of series with so many of its own terms, languages and traditions that turning on the subtitles might be advisable; otherwise, the constant allusions in invented languages might blend together into one indecipherable syllable soup. Yet it didn’t take long for me to become fully enveloped in it, lured in by clever choices, engrossing acting and costuming and production design that dances on the knife’s edge of lush and camp. And even if it never gets quite as explicitly gory as the book’s events might suggest, this “Shadow and Bone” still has its genuinely startling moments, especially when bracing for what lurks inside the seemingly endless darkness of the Fold.
Bardugo’s heroine will feel familiar for anyone who’s dipped a toe into the genres of YA, fantasy or both. Alina Starkov is a scrappy orphan who discovers at the most traumatic moment of her life that she has special abilities that could save her world from the oppressive “Fold” — a vast expanse of shadows separating warring nations — once and for all. While many others (the “Grisha”) have powers, Alina’s are unique unto herself, making her a classic Chosen One figure whose very existence threatens the old world order while promising a shinier new one.
The Netflix version, however, takes Alina’s unique place a step further by making her biracial. Played by Jessie Mei Li, Alina has long felt out of place in Ravka, the Soviet-esque nation in which she grew up. (Her mother, lost years ago to the Fold, was “Shu,” the series’ stand-in for East Asian.) With only her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) to rely on, Alina has spent her entire life being told she’s not enough, and therefore all the more determined to prove her worth. Her character doesn’t change between the book and screen so much as become a more concentrated version with more room to set herself apart from the source material. (And yes: the fact that Alina ends up being the key to save both worlds from themselves after being stuck between them for years makes for a fitting twist on the book’s central conceit.)
Over the course of this first season, “Shadow and Bone” continues to adhere to the book’s original plan, deviate sharply from it and borrow elements of Bardugo’s extended Grishaverse to create a thorny, immersive world all its own. It’s an ambitious approach, not least because the show only has eight episodes in which to tell the story, making for some whiplash transitions as it hurries to get to the next big plot point. For the most part, though, “Shadow and Bone” doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, focusing its energy on fleshing out its characters and universe in a way that could sustain it beyond any single book.
Alina’s story unfolds largely as it does throughout Bardugo’s first volume, but the season’s subplots borrow from other books entirely. A trio of “Crow” rogues — acrobatic spy Inej (Amita Suman), sharpshooter Jesper (Kit Young) and ringleader Kaz (Freddy Carter) — aren’t in the “Shadow and Bone” book proper, but nevertheless are an integral part of the series with a mission all their own. The same goes for defiant Grisha Nina (Danielle Galligan) and her wary captor Matthias (Calahan Skogman), though they’re mostly stranded off at the fringes of the show in its least urgent storyline. By expanding “Shadow and Bone” beyond the parameter’s of Alina’s experience, the show makes her world feel that much bigger, denser and complicated. This works especially well for the Crows, with Suman’s Inej and Young’s Jesper provide welcome depth and humor, respectively.
Still, the driving engine of the show is Alina, a challenge Li embraces. Whether portraying Alina struggling with her sudden new powers, longing for Mal, or finding herself drawn to the mysterious General Kirigan (an entirely committed Ben Barnes), Li makes for a compelling center of gravity. Her Alina is smart and loyal, annoyed and rash, heartbroken and headstrong. The show’s most obvious climaxes tend to involve Grisha throwing the elements at each other, but its most effective unfold entirely on Alina’s face, lined with pain, joy and worry.
Often times, the Chosen One character is a story’s least interesting, beholden as they are to being the Sun everyone else has to revolve around. That’s not the case with Li’s Alina, a heroine as believably vulnerable as she is bold. Should Netflix give its “Shadow and Bone” enough time beyond this installment to unravel its many tangled threads, there’s little doubt that this version of Alina can sustain it.
“Shadow and Bone” premieres Friday, April 23 on Netflix.