Entertainment20 April 2021
Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse novels are finally making the leap from page to screen in Netflix’s new fantasy series . The show centers on an orphan mapmaker Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and the dark forces that conspire against her when she unleashes an extraordinary power that could change the fate of her war-torn world.
Bringing this expansive universe to life was no easy feat. Ahead of the series’ premiere, showrunner, writer and executive producer Eric Heisserer; author and executive producer Bardugo; and executive producer Shawn Levy (21 Laps Entertainment) discuss the biggest challenges in adapting the books, casting these beloved characters and how Shadow and Bone stands out in the genre space.
Eric and Leigh, how did you two first meet and begin working together to adapt the Grishaverse into a series?
Eric Heisserer: About three years back I made a New Year's resolution to do more pleasure reading. I reached out to some friends for book recommendations, and someone said, “How would you like Ocean’s Eleven via Charles Dickens in a fantasy setting?” So I devoured Six of Crows and had such a good time that I tweeted at Leigh to say thank you for this amazing book. Then I found my way to the original Shadow and Bone trilogy, and really enjoyed the coming-of-age empowerment story of a young heroine. And then a year later, Leigh's literary rep reached out to let me know Netflix had acquired the rights to Shadow and Bone, and they'd all seen my tweet to Leigh. But my pitch was to do the whole series — Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows. So two months went by, then Netflix called me and said they had gotten the rights to everything.
Leigh Bardugo: I've seen a lot of friends go through adaptations and essentially be locked out of the worlds that they created. I knew as soon as I met Eric that he was not that person. He had great ideas and new places he wanted to take these characters, but he also had tremendous respect for the world that had been built, and for the fans who love that world. Eric has always approached this show with a sense of discovery and excitement as a fan of the material, and that means so much to me.
What differentiates Shadow and Bone from other shows in the genre space?
Shawn Levy: The books, and now the series, are very much inspired by tsarist Russia. It's not a replication of history, but it draws from those unique aesthetics. In the fantasy genre, I think we’re used to seeing medieval inspiration and influence, but we wanted to create a genre piece that is aesthetically and stylistically unlike anything that we've seen. From costuming to production design to the languages spoken in the show, Shadow and Bone feels uniquely fresh. The show is also fiercely romantic, and it's filled with humor and wit.
How did you approach combining both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows — which take place in the same universe, but on different timelines?
Heisserer: The books are all set chronologically, so we technically don't get to events in the Six of Crows books until after the Shadow and Bone books have ended. So what Leigh and I had to do was essentially invent prequel stories for the key Six of Crows characters this season — Kaz, Inej, and Jesper — to fit alongside what is happening in the Shadow and Bone storyline. That's been the heavy lifting.
Bardugo: And it wasn't easy! Eric took two fantasy series — with powers and creatures and horrors and heists — and molded them into this wonderfully cohesive thing. I don't think I could've been more lucky in the person that we found to hand the keys over to. It wasn't just the keys to a book or one series, it was a whole world I had been working on for the better part of my career.
How did you approach finding the right cast to embody such beloved characters?
Bardugo: Lightning didn't strike once, it just kept striking, and we caught all of this incredible electricity with our cast. We found actors who have tremendous chemistry on screen and tremendous camaraderie off screen. The level of focus and energy and dedication that they're bringing to these parts is extraordinary.
Levy: On a show like Shadow and Bone you're creating a new world, and a big part of that is introducing the audience to characters they've never met before. And you can't do that with a cast of familiar faces. You need to do that with a cast of new faces. In that regard, this casting process was very much reminiscent of Stranger Things. And unlike a lot of other fantasy series, we have a true eclecticism in the cultural and racial backgrounds of our characters and actors. We're really presenting a world that shows us a mixture of backgrounds and cultural diversities in a way that feels both accurate to this world, but also unique in the fantasy genre. That element was really important to us from the get-go.
What element of Shadow and Bone do you think will draw fans in — both old and new?
Bardugo: When they watch this show, I hope people will be transported to a world that doesn't feel like any place they've been before. This isn't swords and sorcery. The series really asks, "What happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight?" It's about magical powers and grand destinies and court intrigue, but it's also about the people who fall through the cracks, who are seen as expendable.
Levy: When we were first making Stranger Things, people asked, “Who is really going to watch that?” And what we've found is that if you can anchor a show in characters that feel human, and for whom you root deeply and passionately, that's the magic. And with Shadow and Bone, we tried to do exactly that. We've tried to give fans both old and new a world that is unlike any they've seen, but with deeply human characters who are yearning and trying and aspiring and struggling in ways that feel authentic and therefore completely resonant and recognizable to us.
Shadow and Bone premieres April 23 on Netflix.