Last week, in an interview with YouTube channel “Cerealkillerztv” at the Vienna Comic Con, author of The Witcher book series, Andrzej Sapkowski, answered a number of questions pertaining to his now iconic high-fantasy series. Sapkowski spoke with his usual bluntness that he’s become renowned for, and didn’t hold back when elaborating on a number of topics about his craft. From his initial story essentially being an adaptation of a Polish folktale, to his fairly straightforward work ethic and lifelong passion for reading. When asked about his time visiting the set of the Netflix series and whether he had given the production team any suggestions or feedback, his reaction was telling.
After saying how the set was “tremendous,” he would answer the latter part of the question by saying, “I gave them some ideas, but they never listened to me,” which he followed with a cackle as he eventually joked that, “It’s normal. ‘Who’s this? It’s a writer. It’s nobody.’” A statement that was said with an audible twinge of sarcasm, which clearly illustrates Sapkowski’s feelings towards the adaptation, or at the very least his frustrations in its production. It continues the trend of Hollywood continually disrespecting writers, whether they be ones like Sapkowski that penned the original works from which adaptations are based off, or—as the recent WGA strike has shown—the screenwriters that sit in their very own writing rooms.
Sapkowski’s feelings towards his story’s adaptations are well-documented in interviews past. Though I personally feel his thoughts on the video games are unjust, with the third game in particular being a critical masterpiece that arguably propelled the IP to new heights, it’s easy to see when reading the reception online to the Netflix series as to why he would be less pleased with how his story has unfolded. He does explain prior to this question, however, that he’s always had a hard time seeing his story represented in a visual medium. “My raw material when I work is only letters. I don’t describe pictures. I don’t see any pictures. I use the letters only because I know my reader will see the letters only” Sapkowski says. “I look at these [visuals] and say, ‘Whoa! This is the way they picture it? Interesting!’ Sometimes it’s very nice for me, sympathetic. Sometimes it isn’t.” Nevertheless, with many of the writers on staff for the series having allegedly “actively disliked” the books and games, coupled with Netflix all but shooing Sapkowski’s involvement away, simply goes to show the level of disrespect for the source material; a practice that is unfortunately not new with live-action adaptions of popular books and video games.
Whether it’s Warner Bros. unnecessarily milking a trilogy out of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or Paul W. S. Anderson refusing to abide by Resident Evil’s source material, creating an altogether separate entity that has continually bastardized Capcom’s beloved franchise, film and television adaptations have rarely made the transition from their original mediums smoothly. Exceptions do exist, of course. Patrick Somerville’s HBO mini-series Station Eleven, which adapts the novel by Emily Mandel, is a beautiful recent example of a show that weaves an intricate narrative that retains the heartfelt, humanist dystopian drama of the book, while using the medium of television to appropriately add context, character introspection, and audiovisual spectacle to enhance the story. It makes for a final piece of art that not only respects its original story, but can also stand confidently on its own. The reason for this is because of Somerville’s thorough understanding of the overarching themes, as well as the tone of the story Mandel had penned. This understanding allows him to take bold creative liberties. Liberties that, if taken by someone without said understanding, could be detrimental to the adaptation.
Adapting a story to an entirely different medium, particularly film and television, is never an easy task. A video game has the luxury of being dozens of hours long, with much of its story coming by the way of player interaction. As such, finding ways to write in between those “empty” hours and add in additional context, all the while being privy to the runtime and/or episode number, is no easy feat. Similarly, novels require screenwriters to condense hundreds of pages of text into a cohesive, visual experience. Yet, challenges aside, studios seem to continually refuse to bring on the creators of the source material to help be a part of the process. Much of this could be due to the fact that an adaptation exists not necessarily to “adapt” whatever story, but rather to use the IP as a vessel to reach a wider audience; in which case the pesterings of the original creator is a nuisance that isn’t needed on a set whose budget is in the dozens (if not hundreds) of millions. The end result, however, is usually either a butchered rendition of the source material, or a milquetoast product whose only purpose is to turn a profit.
Being a novelist, game director, or mangaka doesn’t mean you’ll have the ability to understand all that goes into making a film or T.V show. However, the continued hubris that so many Hollywood studios have when adapting a story, obfuscating the integrity of the source material with no care for the original creator, is frustrating to see. Hopefully Sapkowski can turn a blind eye to Netflix’ Witcher series, and find some solace in those much-deserved royalty cheques. And hopefully Netflix learn from their recent success with One Piece, which saw mangaka Eiichiro Oda be heavily involved in its production, and allow original creators to be a creative voice in their upcoming adaptations. And if not, at the very least get people that have a genuine passion for the original story to do the adaptation, otherwise they’ll simply end up with more uninteresting products made by disinterested artists.