Netflix’s epic fantasy series Shadow and Bone is the most interesting adaptation on TV right now. It draws not just on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, which kicked off her massively successful Grishaverse series, but also on her Six of Crows duology and even companion novels like The Lives of Saints.
Since these series take place at vastly different points in time, their combination here means that characters who never meet in the novels often cross paths in new and exciting ways. Shadow and Bone spins wholly new plots from Bardugo’s mythology, leading her to lovingly refer to the show as “high-budget fan fiction” before its release.
For Shadow and Bone showrunner Eric Heisserer, who told Netflix he would only work on Shadow and Bone if he could include Six of Crows characters, this television adaptation was never going to be a one-to-one recreation of the events of Bardugo’s novels.
“Good adaptations have you feel the same way in seeing the movie or watching the show as you felt when you read the source material,” Heisserer told Mashable over a phone interview. “To capture that feeling is the top priority.”
Indeed, in watching Shadow and Bone you get a sense of awe similar to when Bardugo introduces Grisha’s powers over the body and the elements, or the stress you experience when the gang of criminals known as the Crows take on a particularly challenging job. These are characters you come to know and love onscreen just as you come to love them on the page — although there are some major changes and even omissions from the book.
“Sometimes we can be stubborn because there are elements of a book or a comic book or any other piece of source material that we think will work. Then when we get into trial and error, we discover that there is something in translation where it gets lost, and you have to face the music,” Heisserer explained. Shadow and Bone is far from his first foray into adaptation. He also wrote the screenplays for Bird Box, based on the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman, and Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life.
He continued: “As I’ve said to everybody I’ve adapted, ‘I am borrowing the keys to your car.'”
What do you get when you combine the Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology?
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
In borrowing the keys to Bardugo’s figurative car, Heisserer faced the daunting task of merging two very different stories: the epic battle between light and dark in Shadow and Bone, and the underdog heists of Six of Crows. Despite the wide variety between the two — and the chronological difference of Six of Crows taking place well after Shadow and Bone — Heisserer found that the two series spoke to each other in compelling ways.
“[Combining the series] covers different groups of people who live in the Grishaverse and gets you exposed to different ways of life that you wouldn’t [see] otherwise,” Heisserer said. “I don’t know if we’d have as great an appreciation for Grisha and specifically for what Alina [the Sun Summoner, played by Jessie Mei Li] is and what she stands for if we didn’t also have a good sense of the scrappy kids from Ketterdam, who by and large don’t have much in the way of powers and get by on their wits, their reflexes, and their cunning mental abilities.”
Since Alina and the Crows’ storylines are so intertwined throughout the series, Heisserer explained he and his writers’ room didn’t approach one piece of source material differently from another. “We’re trying to make one show,” he said. “So it’s about finding the things that unify these different groups of people or it’s finding moments to highlight how they are disparate. Is there a dichotomy between these characters that we can put a spotlight on?”
For example, this season unites powerful Grisha like Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta) and Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) with Jesper (Kit Young), a sharpshooter who is also Grisha but who hides his abilities. Seeing how these different characters embrace or conceal their gifts is one of many fascinating opportunities the show’s new plots provide.
Season 2 of Shadow and Bone brings Alina and the Crows together with a brand-new heist.
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
One of these entirely new plots is a heist that sends Crows Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Suman), Wylan (Jack Wolfe), Jesper, and Nina to the country of Shu Han alongside Alina’s allies Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Zoya. They’re on the hunt for a legendary weapon, the sword Neshyenyer, a blade forged by Sankta Neyar. This storyline is essentially the equivalent of the Crows’ attempts to kidnap Alina in Season 1, which is the first time we saw these characters from differing book series come together.
“What we heard from Netflix [about Season 1] was that their data showed that the mix of the Crows’ heist and the Shadow and Bone characters was fun and exciting,” Heisserer said. “And can we do that magic again this season?”
However, when considering how to bring the whole crew back together, the writers quickly ran into the problem of how the Crows could possibly hope to survive the Darkling’s (Ben Barnes) new deadly army of shadow creatures, the unkillable nichevo’ya.
“That’s not gonna work for anybody, it’s really one-sided!” Heisserer said, laughing.
Daegan Fryklind, Heisserer’s co-showrunner for Season 2, came up with the idea that the Crows should try to find Neshyenyer, as it is rumored to cut through shadow. Neither Sankta Neyar nor her sword appear in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, but they are the subject of one of the stories in The Lives of Saints, making them canon in the Grishaverse. The introduction of Neshyenyer solved two problems: One, it gave the Crows something to steal, and two, it evened the odds against the nichevo’ya. Because of this, Heisserer revealed that the Shu Han heist plot line was his favorite adaptation choice of Season 2. “It just solved a lot of things for us and allowed for some phenomenal heroic moments later on,” he said.
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Why does Season 2 of Shadow and Bone adapt Crooked Kingdom before Six of Crows?
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
One of the changes that made me most anxious during my first viewing of Shadow and Bone Season 2 was how the Crows’ storyline incorporated several key beats from Six of Crows sequel Crooked Kingdom. We see the gang put crime boss Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly) behind bars and get the beginnings of Jesper and Wylan’s relationship, all without seeing the events of Six of Crows play out. My biggest worry was, “Are they going to have enough to pull from when we finally reach the main story of Crooked Kingdom?”
That question was definitely something Heisserer and the rest of the writers room considered when building out the Crows’ first arc of the season, which sees them return to Ravka to find the whole city of Ketterdam against them. “Our early attempts were to build a brand-new story for the Crows that didn’t utilize any of the material that we knew we could rely on in later seasons, because we wanted to protect those as much as possible,” Heisserer explained. “The more we spent our time on that, the more we realized that we were essentially just treading water, because whatever events we created didn’t advance the characters or do anything to the evolution of the Crows.”
To avoid character stasis, the writers settled on adapting selective parts of Crooked Kingdom. “We focused on what we could do to use material that fans already know and love and that wouldn’t break anything else,” said Heisserer. “This is essentially trying to pull the tablecloth and keep all the dinnerware in place.”
The Shadow and Bone team knew they would have to spend major time with Crooked Kingdom‘s main villain, Jan Van Eck. “So that brought us to the discussion of, ‘What if we pull forward just the Pekka Rollins elements from Crooked Kingdom and have them play out here?'” Heisserer said.
For all you Pekka Rollins fans out there, don’t worry: He is in no way completely gone. He’s just biding his time in Hellgate prison. And since a Hellgate prison break is such a large part of Six of Crows, Heisserer teased that he could be coming back for what he described as a “Wrath of Khan moment.”
“Is there a case of Pekka finding his way out in Crooked Kingdom and coming for Kaz and the Crows, guns blazing?” Heisserer asked.
Speaking of Hellgate, that’s where Fjerdan witch hunter Matthias (Calahan Skogman) spends the entire season. The Season 1 finale saw Nina accuse him of slavery in an attempt to get him sent to Ketterdam, away from Grisha who wanted to kill him. Staying in one place while the other five Crows go gallivanting across the globe could have resulted in deadly character stasis for him as well, but Heisserer stressed that his time in Hellgate would be important down the line.
“We wanted to show him being radicalized, so that his devotion to his Fjerdan faith really distorted his views of what really happened and of who Nina is,” he said. “That she is not the person who loves him and whom he loves — she’s an object of hate.” So get ready, Helnik shippers. When Matthias and Nina meet again in Six of Crows territory, we’re in for an intense reunion.
Shadow and Bone Season 2 alters Alina, Mal, and the Darkling’s storylines to play to the actors’ strengths.
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
The Crows aren’t the only Shadow and Bone characters who go through major changes in Season 2. The stories of the core trio of the Shadow and Bone books — Alina, the Darkling, and Mal (Archie Renaux) — also undergo some pretty significant changes.
As in Bardugo’s Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, the second and third books in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Season 2 of Shadow and Bone is all about Alina coming into her own as a leader. We see this right from the very beginning: In the books, the Darkling kidnaps Alina and Mal and forces them to hunt for the Sea Whip, the second of Morozova’s amplifiers. In the show, Alina chooses to do that herself, allying with Ravkan Prince (and undercover privateer) Nikolai (Patrick Gibson).
“We got a good demonstration of Jessie [Mei Li’s] charisma and her leadership capabilities toward the end of Season 1 and realized that we wanted her to grow as a character into Season 2, and not necessarily take a step back into a space where she is under the thumb of somebody else,” Heisserer said. He added: “The books were great, this was just something that we had to consider once we had actors who could demonstrate a new aspect of a character for us.”
Something similar can be said of the General Kirigan, otherwise known as the Darkling. In casting Ben Barnes, not only did Shadow and Bone make Tumblr’s fan-casting dreams come true — it also ushered in a more sensitive take on Ravka’s tyrannical Shadow Summoner. Shadow and Bone uses that take to its advantage in Season 2. The original trilogy is only told from Alina’s first-person perspective, so we don’t see much of the Darkling’s perspective. The show is able to show us more of what he’s up to while at war with Alina, including his struggle to stop the Grisha persecution that has been ongoing for centuries.
“[Kirigan] became a great other contrarian viewpoint who also had a lot of old wounds coming back to haunt him,” said Heisserer. “He is essentially having a very slow Groundhog Day where events in history keep getting repeated, and nobody else is alive to see it. And he just looks around going, ‘Anybody? We’re doing this again?'”
With Alina surfacing as the Sun Summoner, Kirigan sees someone else who may be able to witness the repetition of history alongside him. His obsession with Alina grows “more and more toxic for himself,” Heisserer says. However, according to him, it also ended up as “the driving force throughout the season.”
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix
The Darkling dies at the end of Season 2, just as he dies in Ruin and Rising. However, Mal and Alina’s fates change drastically. Instead of faking their deaths after destroying the Fold and running an orphanage together, as they do at the end of Bardugo’s original trilogy, they remain important players in Ravka. Mal takes over the title of Sturmhond from Nikolai, while Alina remains in Ravka as Nikolai’s betrothed. While Heisserer noted that Bardugo’s ending does work in the books, it “doesn’t work when you have an actor who has a multiple season deal,” he said with a laugh.
No one on Shadow and Bone wanted to let Jessie Mei Li or Archie Renaux go, nor did Netflix want to lose them, either. “We were trying to find ways that made sense for these characters [to remain part of the story], and also kept them in places of power,” he said.
Another major change is that Mal and Alina choose to go their separate ways in the season finale. Since Mal was the last of Morozova’s amplifiers, Alina had to sacrifice him in order to destroy the Fold. However, after she brought him back to life, they had an honest conversation about whether they truly loved each other, or whether it was simply fate that brought them together.
“One of the things that my writers love so much about the Mal and Alina relationship is how they learned to be honest with each other, how they learned to be transparent about their hopes and fears,” said Heisserer. “We felt that what was giving the relationship the most respect, and the most love for each other, was for Mal to have time to figure out who he is and for Alina to see if this path that she’s on is still the direction she wants to go.”
He continued: “The both really are still pining for each other. They want to return to each other at a time when they feel confident in their own identities.”