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And why they matter
[Warning: The following contains major spoilers for The Witcher. Read at your own risk!]
The Witcher, Netflix's adaptation of the Andrzej Sapkowski books that inspired the popular video game franchise, is finally here. Starring Henry Cavill as the titular witcher Geralt of Rivia, the fantasy series shows how the monster hunter-for-hire's destiny becomes intertwined with the lives of a lost princess, Freya Allan's Ciri, and a powerful sorceress, Anya Chalotra's Yennefer.
The majority of the first season is inspired by events detailed in the two short story collections, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. And while showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich sticks fairly closely to the main narratives laid out in Sapkowski's books, there are a ton of differences sprinkled throughout this first season. We're not going to go through every. single. one. here, because who ultimately cares that Jaskier (Joey Batey) wasn't at Pavetta's betrothal feast in the books but was in the show? (Although he was a fun addition to those events.) What we're really interested in are the differences between the show and the books that created notable ripple effects, either adding to or tweaking the already-established mythology -- and there are more than enough of those to keep us plenty busy.
Read on for the 9 biggest differences between The Witcher TV show and the books.
1. The fall of Cintra happens right away -- and Geralt is there. It's crazy to think that we didn't see Cintra fall to Nilfgaard until the very last story in Sword of Destiny. And even then, we only heard about the events -- including Calanthe's (Jodhi May) death -- through Jaskier's tales to Geralt. But thanks to the decision to tell the story across multiple timelines, the series was able to show the pivotal battle in the very first episode. Plus, in this adaptation we got to experience the tragic events first-hand, making the losses experienced that day and everything Ciri endured that much more devastating. (We did get to learn a bit about Cahir [Eamon Farren] capturing Ciri through her perspective in the first novel, but these memories were largely scattered due to her trauma.)
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The series then put a new twist on the established storyline when it revealed Geralt was actually present when Cintra fell in Episode 7. In the books, he had wanted to rush to attempt to save Ciri until he heard that she was dead. But the series showed that Geralt had gone to Cintra as soon as he learned of Nilfgaard's plans to attack with the hopes of taking Ciri away with him to safety. However, Calanthe refused to allow this and tried to trick Geralt into taking another child (a similar ploy was enacted in the short story "Something More"). In the show, Calanthe took her protectiveness over Ciri to the next level though, locking Geralt in a cell, which is where he was when Nilfgaard invaded. She later relented and attempted to free Geralt to have him protect Ciri, but by then it was too late; Geralt had already escaped his cell.
2. Ciri's powers are more evident and stronger from the start. There are some hints that Ciri has special abilities in the short stories, but they pretty much just amount to her having slight magical instincts (ex: telling Geralt they're going the wrong way down a road) and being immune to the Brokilon waters' powers. It isn't really until the novels, particularly beginning in the second book Time of Contempt, that we get to truly see the potential of Ciri's powers. The series switched things up by showing Ciri to have the same type of untamed, chaotic abilities that her mother Pavetta displayed at her betrothal feast in some of our earliest encounters with her. But by the end of the series, we saw how deadly Ciri's powers can be, that she was able to share Geralt's dreams, and we saw her go into a trance and speak a prophecy about the impending end of the world.
It's clear in the series that Ciri isn't sure what these powers are or how to control them, and by exploring her abilities this early on -- and establishing how dangerous they can be -- it adds an emotional weight to Ciri's journey as she has to not only learn how to navigate the world on her own but also her own magic.
3. We actually see Yennefer's backstory. If you came into the show blind, you'd probably be shocked to learn that most all we see of Yennefer before she meets Geralt -- including her time at Aretuza, the assassination of the infant princess, and that whole thing where Tissaia (MyAnna Buring) turned girls into eels (!!!) -- is completely invented for the series. The short story "The Last Wish" reveals that Yen used to be a hunchback and her suicide attempt was mentioned in the final novel The Lady of the Lake, but otherwise everything else you see of Yennefer's life before she meets Geralt in the fifth episode is new. (Yennefer does have a romantic relationship with Istredd [Royce Pierreson] in the books, as detailed in the short story "A Shard of Ice," but it focuses on their relationship at a later stage of their lives.) The Yennefer we meet in the books is very much like the woman we meet in the show, but by exploring her past we're able to appreciate and understand how the events and trauma she experienced at a young age shaped her.
4. We get to see Ciri's journey after fleeing Cintra. Everything after Ciri escapes Cahir to when she finally meets Geralt wasn't in the books -- although she did go to Brokilon, but under different circumstances. In the short story "Sword of Destiny," Geralt meets Ciri for the first time in Brokilon where she had gotten lost after running away from a proposed marriage in a nearby kingdom. The dryads originally wanted Ciri to stay and become one of them, but when she proves to be immune to their magical waters the dryads agree to let destiny take its course, allowing her to leave with Geralt. It's then Geralt who denies destiny and insists on returning Ciri to Cintra rather than claim his Child Surprise.
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Because we don't see Ciri's journey after leaving Cintra in the books, it means we never met Dara (Wilson Radjou-Pujalte) and the doppler never killed Mousesack (Adam Levy) to manipulate Ciri into leaving Brokilon with him. While it makes sense why the show would need to fill the gaps between the fall of Cintra and Ciri finding Geralt, this storyline was probably the least exciting of the new ones the show invented.
5. Yennefer chooses to sacrifice her uterus to become beautiful. Infertility and the struggles of reproduction are recurring themes throughout the books. Dryads, elves past a young age, witchers, and mages are unable to reproduce naturally. But while the book touches upon the difficulties this creates, it never tackles the issue as directly (or dramatically) as the show did in the third episode. While witchers' sterility is due to the mutations they endure, the books leave it unclear as to precisely how and why sorceresses tend to be infertile. But the series filled in that blank by revealing that the cost of Yennefer's physical transformation is to sacrifice her uterus.
As in the books, Yennefer ultimately comes to regret her inability to bear a child and does whatever she can to search for a cure. But by making her infertility the result of an active choice she made, the show emphasizes the theme of choice while making Yennefer's regret that much more nuanced.
6. Triss is the one who hires Geralt to kill the striga. Triss (Anna Shaffer) is a big part of the books and an even bigger part of the games, but she isn't actually introduced until the novels. That's why it was such a surprise to see her play such an instrumental part in the third episode when she approaches Geralt about curing the striga. In the short story, "The Witcher," the person who wants Geralt to cure the striga is a one-off character of no larger importance, so it was smart to put such a fan-favorite character like Triss in that role instead. We then spent some more time with Triss during the Battle of Sodden, where we saw glimpses of her friendship with Yennefer and her powers in action. Doing this gave viewers an opportunity to get to know Triss outside of the love triangle she becomes involved with between herself, Geralt, and Yennefer -- which is quite a welcome change, if we're being perfectly honest.
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7. Yennefer and Geralt have a falling out over his last wish. The question of what Geralt used his third and final wish for in the short story "The Last Wish" has haunted readers for years. But unlike in the series, Yennefer does hear what Geralt's last wish is when he says it -- and her reaction provides some insight into just how astounding that wish is. "I don't know whether there's such a Force in Nature that could fulfill such a wish. But if there is, then you've condemned yourself. Condemned yourself to me," Yen tells Geralt in "The Last Wish."
In the show, when Yennefer does get a clue as to what Geralt wished for, she has a much different reaction, as she gets angry with Geralt and begins to doubt whether her feelings for him are real or the result of his wish. But it's highly unlikely that Geralt wished for anything as simple, or manipulative, as to wish that Yennefer would fall in love with him. (Geralt has a moral code, after all). So what could he have wished for? We have our theories.
8. We get to see the Battle of Sodden. The Battle of Sodden makes up the majority of the show's finale but book readers previously only got to hear about these events after the fact. The battle goes on to become one of the most famous ones of the war due to the way the mages fought Nilfgaard until the very end, with so many even sacrificing their own lives. In the books, Geralt visits Sodden afraid to see if Yennefer's name is one of those listed on the memorial obelisk, and it's during this trip that he's visited by Death. The show includes a nod to this scene by having one of Geralt's delirious dreams be of searching Sodden for Yennefer, a vision which also pervades Ciri's dreams.
9. We get insights into Geralt's childhood. After Geralt is suffering from a bite from a venomous monster, he drifts in and out of consciousness and we become privy to some of the past events he dreams of -- including his childhood with his mother, the sorceress Visenna. When Geralt wakes up in present day, he discovers his wound is being treated by Visenna and he confronts his mother over abandoning him to become a witcher. A similar encounter happens in the books (although we never get an actual glimpse of Geralt as a child) but an interesting wrinkle the show added is that Visenna seems to know details about Geralt's destiny and there are even hints that she may have chosen for him to become a witcher because of her trust in destiny and some knowledge of the role he will play moving forward.
The Witcher is available to stream on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)