Netflix's The Witcher Casting Controversy (Not Really)
About a week ago, we were given the first major news update for Netflix's upcoming The Witcher adaptation. The news primarily focused on the casting of two major characters from the franchise, and in a surprise to LITERALLY NO ONE, fans took to the internet to voice their displeasure. I’m here to put in my two cents on the decisions and see if it really is worth all the uproar it has generated (SPOILER: It’s not).
The first big piece of information was that Henry Cavill, best known for his portrayal of Superman in the DC cinematic universe, had been cast as lead character Geralt of Rivia. Now, it would be extremely easy to sharpen our pitchforks and get the torches ready with a decision like this. The cinematic train wreck that is the DCEU has been struggling for years now, with a string of critically panned films (save for that one) and a host of production difficulties. Cavill’s Superman is one of the biggest issues at the heart of the DCEU’s problems - he is dull, dour and seems more interested in brooding than actually saving people. However, I don’t blame the actor himself for the character’s failures. The greatest actor in the world would find a hard time breathing life into a poorly written character, and honestly I can actually see Cavill doing a fine job portraying Superman had there actually been some better talent at the helm. He has a solid combination of looking the part combined with great screen presence and acting chops. I’ve also seen him deliver memorable performances outside the DCEU. 2015’s rather underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E stands out, and more recently he appeared in Mission Impossible: Fallout. Obviously, my perception is also going to rely heavily on what the final character design for Geralt looks like - if we don’t get yellow cat eyes there will be hell to pay, but based just solely on the casting I’m actually quite looking forward to Cavill’s portrayal.
Despite Cavill’s association with the much maligned DCEU, there seemed to be relatively little backlash towards his casting, though the reason for this could be because of the controversy flamed up by the news of another casting decision regarding the character of Ciri. Shortly after Cavill was announced to play Geralt, a casting notice was leaked online stating the series was looking to cast “a 15/16 year old BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) girl.” Almost without delay, hordes of angry trolls took to their keyboards, frothing at the mouth at the thought that Ciri was going to be cast as a *gasp* person of color… The abuse soon became so toxic that showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich announced she was taking a hiatus from her Twitter account so that she would be able to concentrate on the show. It’s sad that we’ve become so accustomed to these massive overreactions that I think we would actually find it more unusual if people didn’t throw embarrassing hissy fits on social media. Here’s the thing: Ciri’s character in both the books and the video games is described as extremely pale, but she has never been defined by her “whiteness”. It isn’t even her most apparent physical trait - her white hair and scarred face are used to describe her far more often than her skin color. The Witcher universe does after all take place in a massive fictional world, so it stands to reason that some level of diversity in this fantasy realm should not be too immersion breaking to most people.
That being said, I do have a theory as to why Ciri’s change in race may actually be more important than we think. Ciri is described as being half-Nilfgaardian from her father's side, with Nilfgaard being a massive expansionist empire from the southern reaches of the continent on which the story takes place. In the books and video games, the citizens of Nilfgaard look much like most of the other inhabitants of the world with few differences. I believe that the showrunners may have chosen to depict the Nilfgaardians as non-white for the sake of differentiating them from the mostly white denizens of the North, which is the primary setting for most of the story. Unfortunately, this could potentially open up a whole new barrel of monkeys when people start to complain that the “evil” empire is depicted principally by minorities. This fear should hopefully be rendered moot if the show manages to convey the sense of “gray” morality that The Witcher is known for. One of the most consistent themes throughout the franchise is that good and evil exist on both sides of every conflict.
As I’ve written before, I’m not the biggest fan of video game adaptations, but portraying the material as a series allows for the characters and lore to be digested over the course of several episodes rather than all at once in a cramped two hour time frame. Plus The Witcher has the benefit of having already been adapted from a novel, and is absolutely ripe with fully fleshed out characters, history, cultures and all the other assets needed for effective world building. This is the first time in as long as I can remember that I can say without hint of cynicism that I am genuinely excited to see what comes of Netlix’s The Witcher. I can only hope they don’t take the reactions of the common rabble to heart and keep pursuing in the direction they’ve chosen.