For what it’s worth, I’m usually a big fan of book to screen adaptations. An advocate, you could say. I’m aware that a screen adaptation is a new way to tell a story and is an opportunity to fix and flourish what might be needed, all while being true to the heart of the source material. I’m here for it.
However, when it was announced that Shadow and Bone, a series written in 2011 by Leigh Bardugo, was being adapted and would not only include the trilogy’s storyline but also the spinoff duology, Six of Crows, I really wasn’t sure how it would all turn out. It’s one thing to simply adapt one book or series as a singular idea but it’s another thing completely to include multiple stories, arcs, and characters. It was either going to be really good, or it was going to be really bad.
And, shockingly, Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone ended up being really, really good.
I really didn’t know how this was going to work, combining two very different series under the same universe together for one show, especially when one series has a substantially weaker plot than the other. If you ask anyone, they will not hesitate to tell you that Six of Crows is infinitely better than Shadow and Bone. It’s not a secret, we all know it. Hell, I’m sure even Leigh Bardugo herself knows it. Does that mean Shadow and Bone is bad? No, but it does mean that it’s a product of its time, where publishing was blitzing with dystopians and love triangles, first person singular narratives, and messy pseudo-abusive ship preferences. But Six of Crows is where things really clicked for Bardugo, both in her writing style and her confidence in crafting an incredibly well rounded, thrilling story. And I think that was really reflected in the show. When comparing the two book series to each other, you can feel how underdeveloped Grisha is to Crows and with the show, that feeling was still there. I enjoyed the Grisha side of the show, sure, but I got excited about the Crows side of things. A smile lit up my face when we switched from Ravka to Ketterdam, how we broke away from Alina’s story to Kaz’s scheming face. You might be coming into this for the Grisha, but you’re staying for the Crows.
What was interesting to me, and a huge highlight of why I thought this adaptation was good, was how the Crows’ storyline intertwined with Shadow and Bone, since the plot of Six of Crows takes place a year or two after the end of Ruin and Rising. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. How can we have an adaptation split between two series that, though in the same universe, don’t interact for years to come? Well, you throw in some prequel information and a heist to kidnap the Sun Summoner Alina Starkov and bring her back to Ketterdam, that’s how. This works for the most part because, though we do have bits and pieces of backstory for Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey throughout the duology, it’s not the type of backstory that occurred during the Grisha timeline. We knew that they had been a crew for at least two years upon meeting them in Six of Crows, with information on odd jobs here and there, it’s not quite enough to merit their involvement in Alina’s storyline, so creative liberties were invoked and the writers created a heist storyline where they travel to Ravka in hopes of kidnapping her.
Obviously as a reader, we know that it’s not a plan that will succeed due to how much it would change the Crows plot line, but it’s enough for a casual viewer to get invested and in suspense. Will they actually kidnap Alina? What happens if Kaz and company run into Grisha characters? It serves the purpose of bringing in new viewers who haven’t read the source material as well as giving readers new content to dive into, introducing characters that maybe might not matter now but will in the future. But also, the involvement of the Crows really acts as a reward for getting through the Grisha content sometimes because, as I said, it is the weaker of the two and a product of its time and while the writers tried to provide more dimension to the plot, it still wasn’t quite enough to compete with that of the Crows.
That being said, while I did love the Crows content and personally preferred it, I do think that the split between stories and narratives really took away from the Grisha side and made it feel less developed. While we spent a good amount of time establishing Kaz’s character and how Inej and Jesper fit into his crew, introducing Nina Zenik and her capture with Matthias Helvar, that was also time we could’ve used to see Alina train with her powers more. It could’ve been time to see how she fits in at the Little Palace more. It could’ve been more time to really see how the manipulation and gaslighting festered in her relationship with the Darkling to make the betrayal more impactful. But instead, we get one combat training scene, a clip-like montage of Alina training with Baghra to control her power, one singular scene explaining the meaning of amplifiers, and then after two conversations with the Darkling, Alina suddenly has feelings for him. We needed to see those things build and develop, not just being thrown into a make-out session that pretty much came out of nowhere. I know, as a reader, why Alina thinks she has feelings for the Darkling, I know how he emotionally manipulated and isolated her, but it’s not translated that clearly in the show because the writers didn’t really block out enough time to establish all those things that are actually integral to the story.
They did, however, spend a lot of time really flushing out and developing Mal’s character and his relationship with Alina, creating such a powerful narrative of how much these two really mean to one another which we never really got to see in the book from Alina’s POV. We never got to see what happened to Mal after Alina was taken away, never knew how he felt or coped with it all, or even how much she meant to him. But with the show providing multiple perspectives in the way the books really should’ve been written, we see how much Mal wants to find her, how much he cares and respects her, and ultimately how he’d do anything for her. I loved the newfound depth to his character and it really emphasizes how beneficial an adaptation can be to a story that lacked a lot of these things like character depth and overall world development. I might have liked Mal’s character in the book, but I absolutely loved his character in the show.
But not all character changes are good. While the Crows were beyond perfect, Mal was wonderfully improved, and other Grisha like Genya and Zoya were pretty well written, it’s the changes to the villain that simply didn’t work. In the books, both Shadow and Bone and the King of Scars duology respectively, the Darkling is presented as this power hungry, intimidating being. He’s pretended to serve hundreds of kings over hundreds of years, biding his time until a Sun Summoner emerges so he can finally follow through with weaponizing The Fold, which was created pretty much by accident that the Darkling hoped to make himself more powerful. This is a villain that not only cares about himself but he cares about power. He cares about the people of Ravka, and the world, loving him through the power he wields. He might be a one dimensional villain but at least people have a right to be afraid of him, given how he manipulates vulnerable people to do his bidding, preying on their insecurities and exploiting them for his own gain. But in the show, for some reason, they broke down this one dimensional villain even further and decided he needed a more sympathetic, humanity angle for his villain origin story which, in my opinion, made him that much more pathetic. And by changing the character like that, the big plot twist reveal of General Kirigin, the moniker the Darkling adapts in this version, being the villain the entire time is wholly lacklustre.
The writers really tried to make the Darkling morally grey when, at his core, he’s not. They tried to make him misunderstood, how he only messed with merzost because he wanted to prove the value of a Grisha-only army, which resulted in The Fold and the volcra creatures that inhabit it, rather than to prove his own power and gain people’s love through fear. And his entire driving point was this woman being killed. It’s 2021; we’re still killing women to further a man’s pain? Really? I’m really not sure why they decided to change the Darkling in this way, whether it was because the writers lacked basic reading comprehension or Ben Barnes himself couldn’t fathom his reputation being likened to a sociopath like the Darkling, but this character change really did not work. I don’t know how I’m meant to be afraid of a villain that went crying to mommy and needed her to tell him what to do. I think Ben Barnes really brought an incredibly underwhelming performance to the character, making him more pathetic than sinister, and he’s better off playing the handsome prince if he can’t stomach the mantle of a villain.
All that aside, as a whole this very may well be the best YA adaptation I’ve seen to date. Not just because, for the most part, the spirit of the books were intact and majority of the basic plot points were hit and explored but more because of how immersive the experience felt. It was interesting to finally see The Fold with my own eyes, to see the Little Palace and understand how Grisha power works, but when you look at Ketterdam for the first time you know that you’re there. You have actors, save for Ben Barnes, that understand their characters so deep in their core and have beautifully brought them straight out of the page to the screen without looking like caricatures, and sometimes literally replicating book scenes to perfection (I’m looking at you, Helnik). Added depth and perspectives flush out weaker points of the source material and new plot lines combine for a more immersive experience in the universe, and though there are still weaker areas that can be improved upon, particularly with Alina’s character and her journey into saviour and Sainthood, this is a very strong first season to the adaptation of some of my favourite books.
My expectations for Shadow and Bone were so low that the bar was on the ground and for me to be this impressed, to more or less be proven wrong, is a victory in itself.