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The Witcher Showrunner Explains the Secrets to the Successful Netflix Adaptation

How she approached building (and casting) the fantasy world for TV

Sadie Gennis

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the The Witcher's first three episodes. Read at your own risk!]

It's always nerve-wracking when a beloved story is adapted. On the one hand, it could be the next Game of Thrones. On the other hand... It could be the next Game of Thrones. Passionate fans are never hesitant to call out what they see as injustice to the source material, but the series' creators also must find ways to put their own spin on the material. (One only needs to compare Zack Snyder's Watchmen to Damon Lindelof's Watchmen to see the benefits of originality when tackling a cherished IP.)

Netflix's The Witcher, created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, strikes a perfect balance between honoring Andrzej Sapkowski's books (the series is adapted from the Polish novels and short stories, and not the popular video games) and building out new mythology and relationships, making it a delight for fans both old and new. This is no simple task, particularly given the books' sprawling timelines and multiple narratives. TV Guide spoke to Hissrich about her process in adapting the books, creating wholly new storylines, and casting this fantasy world.

The Witcher
Katalin Vermes/Netflix

One of the exciting things about the short stories is that some are fun, comedic adventures, some are dark and horrific, and others are romantic. How did you go about embracing this range of tones while keeping the first season cohesive?
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich: From the very beginning, obviously, we have to decide what the series is, what it's going to look like, what's my sound like, the feeling that you're going to get when you watch it. But the most important thing to me: Each episode is written by a different writer. We all come up with the stories together, we pitch on them, we kick the tires of them. But I really want the writers to shine within their own episodes. So when assigning them, it was sort of looking at the skill sets of the writers and saying, "great, you have a lot of experience writing horror or thrillers or adventures or romance. You really are a character-driven writer." And then allowing them to shine within that episode. I don't want everything to sound like I wrote it. That is my worst nightmare. No one wants that, especially when you're bingeing episode after episode, which you get to do on Netflix. You want individual episodes to really have a distinct tone and to have a different and exciting story or way of telling a story. So, to me, it was great for this because you're right, you do have episodes that are far more comedic, you do have episodes that are really about two people coming together and falling in love, even if they don't want to admit it. And we got to play with all of that on the show.

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The Witcher Saga -- which tell a cohesive story about Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri across five novels -- is a lot more dramatic than some of the short stories. As you move forward and begin pulling more from the novels, how do you plan to try and keep aspects of this levity and lighter tones?
Hissrich: Yeah, I mean it's so important. To us, we just go back to the books. It's all in the books, so that stays our source material. Obviously, it's an adaptation, so there are things that we have to change, there are characters that we can't meet, or characters that we must meet earlier in order to sort of set up the right dominoes. But we go back to the books again and again because it's all there. So to us, it's really just about keeping that spirit alive.

The Witcher
Katalin Vermes/Netflix

Yennefer's (Anya Chalotra) past wasn't something that was developed in the books, but you explored a lot of what that looked like this season. What were your goals with giving her that particular backstory?
Hissrich: I really wanted to know who she was before she was the most powerful sorceress in the land. She wasn't born that way, right? So when we meet her [in the books], she's seemingly perfect. She's obviously beautiful. She's a little cold. She's certainly got an exterior that's protecting something, but we get only the tiniest glimpses of it. And I wanted to know how she became that way. To me, I love when, as a viewer, I can be on a journey with a character, and not just hearing about something that happened in the past. So it was a really easy decision for us and when we cast Anya, one of the most amazing things was getting to see her actually have this transformation on screen. To start out as someone who is still willful and proud and strong, but is really vulnerable at the same time, and abused and trying to find her place in the world. And what's interesting is then you find her and she is now powerful and beautiful and seems to have everything, but the core is still the same; she's still trying to find her place in the world. Her journey hasn't shifted. And I think what I love about telling that story in particular is I think it's a great lesson for the world. Which is like, it doesn't matter what your circumstances are, you kind of are who you are. And no amount of power, no amount of beauty, is going to take away your internal needs. It's not going to fill that hole.

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What were some of the biggest challenges adapting these books and creating new stories where there wasn't a lot of source material for them?
Hissrich: I don't actually know that it was a challenge at all. To me, it felt like an amazing opportunity because, again, a lot of it's in the source material. Even Yennefer, actually, there are bits and pieces of her past. There are sentences, little bits of dialogue, there are references to it. So we just culled those together and then really built on them. To me, it was exciting to play with the structure of the story. It's like, if you have a story that's already great, then the thing that we can shift is how we're telling that story, how we're presenting it to the world. That to me was the most exciting thing, which is where the multiple timelines came in, because you get to tell the story that a lot of fans actually might be familiar with, just in a new fashion, and you get to surprise even existing fans.

The Witcher

The episode where we figure out that there are multiple timelines happening at once made me want to pause, walk away, and reevaluate everything I had just seen.
Hissrich: That's a great moment, right? Where you're like, "that character was dead and now that character's alive and what's happening?" I fought really hard from the beginning not to lay it out too clearly for audiences. I didn't want to throw it at them and say, you know, "you need to understand what we're doing from the beginning!" What I really wanted was an organic feeling of like, if you know these stories you can pick it up in Episode 1 -- there's little hints now and then -- but hopefully you can watch it thinking everything's happening at the same time and then have your mind explode. As a viewer, what more could you want?

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The show keeps it purposefully mysterious where events are on the timeline, but is there a massive timeline across the walls of the writers' room laying out all the specifics?
Hissrich: Yes! The writers actually -- I was shooting at one point, and so I was in Budapest, and the writers excitedly sent me a picture of a whiteboard, which is the most thorough explanation of the timeline. And what's funny is I really based the timelines on the movieDunkirk. I had gone to see it a while before working on The Witcher, and I'd read a great interview with Christopher Nolan and he was talking about these three phases of getting soldiers off of this beach. And he had said, if I told them, like, let's say one phase took a month, one took a week, and one took a day -- if I told them and let the month-long one take up the most story, and then the week-long one, and then the day-long one, you would think that the day-long one was the least important because it took the least amount of time on screen when in fact, all three phases were equally important, which is why he told the story that way. And I had one of those moments where I was in the shower and I hopped out and I said to my husband, "Is this crazy? Like, is it crazy to do that with this story? Is it crazy to say that Ciri's (Freya Allan) story takes place over two weeks, Yennefer's takes place over, you know, it's like 70 years. Geralt's (Henry Cavill) takes place over 20 years. Is that crazy?" And he was like, "I don't think so if you do it well!" It was just such a challenge and it was a really fun way to explore the story.

The Witcher
Katalin Vermes/Netflix

What was your working relationship like with Andrzej Sapkowski?
Hissrich: I met him really early on in the process. I went to Poland on a research trip and he and I had an amazing lunch and just sort of sat down. We didn't even talk about The Witcher for a while. I just kind of wanted to know what made him tick as a writer, you know. So it was a great lunch between two writers and I just wanted to understand why he wrote this book, what he put of himself in it, what he put of his travels in it. He's very famous. He talks a lot about his international travels and those are really the things that inform these stories. One of the best things he said to me, though, was after I was offering, you know, he got all the scripts, did he want to start to see episodes come together? Did he want to see dailies? Did he want to watch casting? Like, what did he want to see? And he said no, and I was like, "wait, what?" And he said that he didn't want to see the groceries. He didn't want to see the ingredients of the soup. What he wanted to do is taste the soup when it was finished. And to me, I mean even as a writer, I think it's such a great way to sort of say, I trust you and I trust your vision, and now I want to see what you do with it, as opposed to micromanaging everything. And I think it's a great honor for me because I feel like he trusts what we're doing.

Speaking of the casting process, fantasy shows aren't historically known for their diversity. Can you talk about your approach to casting this world?
Hissrich: I think that The Continent itself, The Continent of The Witcher, has to be a diverse place. It doesn't make sense that it's not a diverse place. It's huge. It is the world as we know it and our world is diverse. So I just think in terms of telling a fantasy story and in terms of starting to deal with the really real-world political issues in the books and also in the series -- immigration, racism, xenophobia, sexism, feminism -- all of these things are there and present. We had to be able to have a very diverse world. If everyone's the same, if it's a homogenous world, then you're not going to be able to have those political issues and discussions.

The themes of colonization and genocide were present in the books, but they're very much in the forefront of this first season. Can you talk about that decision?
Hissrich: I think any good fantasy is really about how we relate to it as an audience. Fantasy isn't just about escapism, it's about being able to put ourselves in the world and say what would we do. My big goal doing it and the goal of all the writers is, you know, this is still entertainment, we know what this is. It's television. You're going to turn on the television hopefully at the end of your day, you're going to relax and watch it. You're gonna laugh some, you're gonna hopefully cry some. But if we can also have you step away and think some, then that's great for us. The thing that we didn't want to do is stand on a pulpit and try to spell out morality tales or to lecture an audience, and I think we've been really successful at walking that f­­­ine line.

The Witcher is available to stream on Netflix.

Additional reporting by Lindsay MacDonald

(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)