It is a universally accepted truth that the book is better than the movie or the show.
Except when it isn’t.
Netflix’s new fantasy series Shadows and bones is based on the first of Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling Grishaverse books on a Kingdom in Turmoil and the magical users who defend it. In the hands of showrunner Eric Heisserer (screenwriter for the adapted version of Arrivals and Bird feeder) and his team, the first novel finds new life over eight hour long episodes and fulfills the potential it always had. Bardugo is the first to admit that her 2012 debut novel drew on the traps of Chosen One’s narratives. While her other novels stray from these conventions, the main series has always been about a girl with a unique power who will save the world. But now, almost 10 years after the first book was published, her story has developed to match the strength of the rest of the series.
This may seem like the deepest blasphemy to book lovers, but it is a uniquely satisfying feeling to bring a favorite book to life on screen that not only faithfully retells the story on the page but also enhances the existing text into something better. Though it is full of world-forming lore that might hinder newcomers, Shadows and bones is the best type of customization for longtime fans: one that may be better than the source material.
[Ed. note: This review contains setup spoilers for Shadow and Bone.]
Shadows and bones follows the events of the first novel in Bardugo’s main Grishaverse trilogy. Young mapmaker Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) discovers that she has the power to conjure up sunlight in Ravka, a land divided in half by a streak of tangible darkness known as the fold of shadow. It is an almost mythical force that could finally unravel the wrinkle, and Alina is removed from her previous life and best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) to be with the kingdom’s other magical users, the Grisha, under the formidable General Kirigan ( Ben) to train Barnes). Elsewhere, a gang of thieves, led by the cunning Kaz Brekker (Freddie Carter), plan how he can get his crew to cross the fold for the robbery of their lives.
The show brings a lot of lore on the audience very quickly, which can appeal to long-time fans right away, as much as it might dissuade newbies from the show. There is a quantity Vocabulary to catch up – what is a Grisha? What is the difference between a squaller and a tailor? And then there are the bigger questions, like who is Ravka fighting against. One of Bardugo’s strengths in her novels was the seamless worldbuilding that she integrates seamlessly into the plot so it rarely feels like a big info dump. It feels like Heisserer and the rest of the creative team tried to do the same while making sure long-time fans didn’t feel patronized. The result varies. The show is not holding anyone by the hand, which means some viewers may get lost. But viewers who can keep up and fans of the books who are already one step ahead will have an exhilarating ride.
Shadows and bones works well as an adaptation as it not only tells the events of the first book in the first Grishaverse trilogy, but expands them and incorporates new stories into the fold. (Pun intended.) When it comes to these new stories, rappelling characters from subsequent novels bolsters Chosen One’s otherwise standard plot. The first season admittedly brings a lot of moving parts together, and it takes a while for them to go well together. But once everyone starts clicking, the storylines reach a satisfying climax. The strength lies in the characters. Convincing on paper, they come alive on the show. Their relationships and motifs add color and shades of gray to an otherwise black and white plot.
But it’s not the extra material that makes it Shadows and bones work as good as an adjustment. It’s the fact that the main story – Alina’s story – actually works better when it’s part of a larger and broader narrative. As you move away from Alina’s limited first-person perspective, everyone else’s stories are instantly empowered. The biggest and most powerful change concerns the relationship between Alina and Mal. In the books, readers only get Alina’s side of her story. The double mess of her own insecurity and her unanswered letters to Mal paint him not as a good friend, let alone a good love interest. But the series also establishes Mal’s side, and Renaux does a great job of playing him not as the unreachable all-star boy next door, but as someone cut out of the same shabby stuff as Alina and ready to do anything for it do her. He’s rougher around the edges now, but that only makes him a more convincing character. Their relationship develops from seemingly one-sided to a beautiful and driving mutual longing, which in turn makes their main character motivations all the more fulfilling.
Alina herself becomes more convincing on screen too, going beyond the traps of the archetypal ordinary girl at the center of a fantastic conflict. The biggest change is that it is now explicitly biracial. This update has both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, because so much of her marginalization comes from the fact that she resembles Ravka’s enemies, her story takes place in Netflix’s weird line of biracial characters at war with their identities. On the other hand, the casting within the show makes Alina’s loneliness even more powerful. She’s not just a shabby orphan who isn’t like the cool, glamorous Grisha girls. She actually has a legitimate reason to feel like an outsider. (And what’s even more personal, it’s just incredibly fulfilling to see a half-Chinese heroine at the center of an epic fantasy.)
Overall is the first season of Shadows and bones creates a masterful performance: it is an adaptation of a book that uses the strengths of television to improve the story on the page. By incorporating new stories, expanding old stories, and developing characters, Heisserer, Bardugo, and the rest of the creative team have built a show that both faithfully adapts its source and makes intentional, interesting changes. However, it is a gamble – Shadows and bones is a show unsuitable for those who love the books and risks alienating new viewers who may not want to keep up with the pace. But if the quality of this first season is any indication, then subsequent Grishaverse books – not just the main trilogy, but the spin-off and sequel novels as well – will be a huge delight on screen. While the first season retells the first book in full, questions and big plot points remain unanswered. We hope to see what’s next.
All eight episodes of Shadows and bones Premiere on Netflix April 23.