Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Gives Leigh Bardugo’s Books a Glittering Upgrade

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Lauren Puckett
·8 min read
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Gives Leigh Bardugo’s Books a Glittering Upgrade
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There’s no such thing as a perfect book-to-film adaptation, largely because a page-by-page adaptation does a disservice to both genres. Good adaptations play to their strengths, lifting the essential scenes from the source material and charging them with the energy of film. The best adaptations know when to change the source material outright.

Shadow and Bone, the new Netflix series based on Leigh Bardugo’s popular Grishaverse novels, is perhaps not the best adaptation it could have been, but it certainly polishes and enhances the source material. Shadow and Bone was Bardugo’s first book, one she admits now she would tweak if she could go back in time. So showrunner Eric Heisserer’s significant changes to the storyline were not only smart, they were endorsed by Bardugo herself, who served as an executive producer on the project. But it’s worth examining these shifts one by one to grasp their full effect on the final product. Let’s break them down.

The Six of Crows characters appear in Shadow and Bone, and they get a prequel.

If you’ve only read Shadow and Bone and its ensuing sequels, you won’t recognize a group of misfit thieves who appear in the first few episodes of the Netflix series. Their names are Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey, and they’re three of the beloved ruffians from Bargudo’s Six of Crows duology. They are arguably three of Bardugo’s best characters, which explains why Heisserer, who read Six of Crows before Shadow and Bone, was so desperate to include them early on.

“He didn’t want to adapt these two series in isolation from each other,” Bardugo explained to ELLE.com. “My challenge to Eric was, I think it’s a great idea, but we cannot Frankenstein the plot of Six of Crows with the plot of Shadow and Bone. It will blow up all of the road in front of us, and it will be too crowded with antagonists and changing magic when we haven’t even established the rules of the magic.”

So, together, the two of them developed Shadow and Bone into a sort of prequel for the events of Six of Crows. In the Netflix series, the Crows get to play out bits and pieces of their backstories (as laid out in the books) while inventing an entirely new heist: the kidnapping of Sun Summoner Alina Starkov. The result isn’t, unfortunately, as fun or clever as the heist that takes place in the books, but it does a sufficient job of bringing the two worlds together while peppering in new interactions for fans to eat up (Milo the goat being the prime example). It also provides audiences an opportunity to better understand their favorite criminals from before we meet them in the books—when they were a bit less organized, a bit less world-weary, and a lot less notorious. The result is a deeper understanding of the Crows, and a greater appreciation for what will come next: likely, a season (or even a whole other show) devoted to their real heist.

Alina is half-Shu.

In Shadow and Bone, Alina is depicted as plain (if not homely), with mousy brown hair and pale, sallow skin. But, played by Jessie Mei Li, who is Chinese and British, Netflix's Alina is half-Shu, an outsider in the country of Ravka, where she endures microaggressions and racism on a regular basis. The result, though contested among fans of the show, is an Alina whose search for belonging is less abstract.

"When it came to the things about Alina's race, I just understood it, and I knew how I wanted to play it," Li told BAZAAR.com. "I was so glad that her race is actually talked about, because it could have been a case of [the show] just wanting to up the diversity. But when your story takes place in a country that is at war and the story is about finding where you belong and identity, there is no better way to show that than what they have done."

Mal gets a new personality.

Malyen Oretsev is famously disliked. Alina Starkov’s one true love and the Grishaverse fandom’s one true hate, he’s the stuff of multi-thousand word Tumblr diatribes. Much of that discourse revolves around his treatment of Alina, especially early on in the books—he doesn’t notice her as a love interest until she’s powerful, and then he resents her power for taking her away from him. He shoulders some of the hallmark traits of toxic masculinity, though he ultimately sheds them for a touching ending in Ruin and Rising, the final book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy.

Still, Heisserer and Bardugo wanted a Mal who would change hearts and minds, and they found it in British actor Archie Renaux.

"When we were initially looking at tapes for Mal, we could not find somebody who we all agreed on," Bardugo told Esquire. "Everybody was this kind of square-jawed teen idol type, and I didn't believe any of them. I didn't believe that any of them grew up in this orphanage. They weren't scrappers. And then Archie came on the screen, and I believed him. I believed that this person would do anything to survive and anything to make sure the people he loved survived. And I think that we, in some ways, shaped the role to that incredible conviction."

The result is a far gentler, more empathetic Mal with a scrappier, more desperate drive. He says no when the gorgeous Zoya Nazyalensky tries to tempt him into bed. He has a crush on Alina before she becomes the Sun Summoner. And, unlike in the books, he never holds her feelings for the Darkling against her. He’s reinvented as “the perfect boyfriend,” as Heisserer put it to Nerdist. And fans can’t get enough of it.

Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX
Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

The Darkling has a shiny new backstory.

The Darkling—coined “General Kirigan” in the show—never has his origin fully explored in the Shadow and Bone books, apart from within a short story called The Demon in the Wood. The tale follows the Darkling as a child who must take on a new name, Eryk, while roaming the world with his mother. At a camp, he meets several Grisha children whom he tries to befriend—only for them to attempt to kill him when they realize he’s an amplifier, a Grisha who can make other Grisha more powerful. Distraught after the attack, he realizes that their violence was brought about by desperation, and he vows to make a safe haven for Grisha one day so they no longer need live in fear.

But, in the show, the Darkling gets a more romantic backstory. In order to make use of Ben Barnes’s stupendous talents, Heisserer and co. reworked the tale to include a much older Darkling, one who’s in love with a Grisha healer. When she’s killed by Fjerdan soldiers, his rage turns him into the black magic-user we know today. This new origin story gives us a much more solid ground from which to understand the Darkling—nothing motivates evil like lost love. But it also gives us a chance to see his gentler side, which warms us to Alina's perspective as a lost girl falling for his wiles.

Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX
Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

Mal and the Darkling get to go head-to-head.

In the books, Mal and the Darkling rarely have an opportunity to fight face-to-face. But the show gives them their own fascinating dynamic when Mal approaches the Darkling with information about Morozova’s stag, yet refuses to reveal the stag’s location unless he gets to see Alina. It’s a bit of leverage straight from Kaz Brekker’s handbook, and it lays the groundwork for a perfect bit of character-building. We see the depths of Mal’s devotion while also understanding the gravity of the Darkling’s seduction, as he examines Mal for cracks, even daring to ask him what Alina’s favorite flower is. Later, they have an even darker conversation, in which Mal is shackled and the Darkling demonstrates visible pleasure at the thought Alina will outlive him.

Finally, in the finale episode, the two men enjoy a dramatic fight sequence, something sorely lacking in the book. Bringing these two together gives viewers an opportunity to re-examine their own loyalties to Alina’s chief love interests, in a way we were never particularly forced to when the books focused only on Alina’s perspective.

Wylan is missing from the Crows crew.

Die-hard Six of Crows fans will immediately notice the absence of Wylan Van Eck, a Crow whose penchant for blasting powders makes him a valuable asset to the team’s heist. But those same fans will recognize that, chronologically, a prequel wasn’t the right moment for Wylan to make his appearance.

“Wylan is the character people have been clamoring for from Six of Crows,” Bardugo told ELLE.com. “We knew this was not the season for him. He has a very different background than any of the other Crows, but I would love to see him in later seasons.”

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