The True Historical Events That Inspired Shadow and Bone

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Adam Rathe
·5 min read
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Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX
Photo credit: DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

Shadow and Bone, the new fantasy-adventure series premiering on Netflix April 23, is not a true story. Anyone anticipating the debut (and there’s an army of fans who are) will tell you the series is based on a series of novels by the bestselling writer Leigh Bardugo.

Those books—a collection of five novels known as the “Grishaverse” series—tell the story of Alina Starkov, an orphan in the fictional kingdom of Ravka who discovers she has a supernatural ability that could change the course of her world. It’s a cloak-and-dagger universe populated by unforgettable characters—spies, thieves, mystics, and kings—and while it all came from Bardugo’s imagination, there are some moments that seem stranger than fiction for good reason.

Here, T&C talks with Bardugo and producer Eric Heisserer about how the series references world history and Lady Gaga without losing what makes it unique.

The Russian Connection

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

Shadow and Bone’s Kingdom of Ravka was built entirely in Bardugo’s imagination, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t inspired by moments in a non-fictional world. “I can point to a very specific piece of research that really altered the course of the books,” Bardugo says. “Obviously, Ravka is heavily inspired by Tsarist Russia of the mid-1800s. And some of that was simply it synced up with the themes that were already in my head for this story—a failure to industrialize, the big divide between rich and poor, this army of young conscripts.”

When she wrote the first draft of the story, two characters who are orphans in the finished version, Alina Starkov and Malyen Oretsev, had parents. “I didn't want to play into the orphan trope of fantasy,” Bardugo explains. “And then as I was researching, I learned that when Napoleon attacked, before this, Russia was all about France, the aristocrats were just heavily invested in being as French as possible, and then Napoleon attacked and all of a sudden, that fell out of fashion. Many of the noblemen just went and hid in their country homes, but many chose to serve, and they served on the front side-by-side with their serfs. This was a sort of a revelatory moment for many of them, spending these long nights in siege with people who they hadn't even considered people before. So, when they returned from this, many of these officers freed their serfs. I found this so poignant that I went back, and I really rethought Mal and Alina's origin story.”

Embracing Fantasy

Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

According to producer Eric Heisserer, history is a great framework to have for a story like Shadow and Bone, but it’s also important to remember that in an imaginary world, you can pick and choose what’s real.

“[1800s Russia] was absolutely the blueprint that me and my team building up this world started with,” he says. “You need something like that when you take on a project as ambitious as a second-world fantasy show, because everything is being made from scratch, everything is bespoke.”

Having those touchstones to reference, however, means making decisions about what real-world history exists in the Shadow and Bone universe and what doesn’t.

“You have conversations that, jumping into this, I didn't expect to have,” Heisserer says. “For instance, my costume designer came to me and said, "All right, so I know we're in this era and we're inspired by this time. However, I would really like to outfit someone in a material that isn't invented until a little bit after the 1860s. What kind of wiggle room do I have?’ We had to make calls like that on a regular basis. But it was always in service of how we could best represent the show and fill out the world. This has to feel like a place that you're being sort of transported to.”

It wasn’t always simple. “There were plenty of problems that we had with the set design and props,” he says, “realizing that it was such an easy go-to to bring in something familiar, until we realized that it stood out like a sore thumb. It felt like, ‘Oh, that is a relic of Earth. What is that doing here?’”

History is Happening

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

Just because Bardugo found inspiration in the 1800s didn’t mean the modern day wasn’t impactful. “You never really know what's going to inspire you,” she says. “I was once in a hotel in Italy, I was there for a meeting with my Italian publisher. I was in my room and all of a sudden, I heard screaming from downstairs. And I looked downstairs and there was this crowd of teenagers, and I realized Lady Gaga was at the hotel. And she was leaving the hotel and getting into her car, and these kids were throwing themselves into the street, into traffic, in order to get close to her. At the time, I was working on these scenes where people were literally clutching at Alina and tearing her clothes off and trying to be close to this kind of moment of salvation. And that invariably influenced the way I wrote those scenes.”

Making TV Magic

Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Photo credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

While there’s a certain type of fantasy series that seems to take place in a past that has all the qualities of the future, Shadow and Bone was careful to make sure its world felt unique but never incongruous.

“You've got to be careful bringing in elements that feel like they're futuristic in something that is otherwise rooted in the historic,” Heisserer says. “Because one of the pleasures of the books and then of the show, I hope, is a question that Leigh has posed, which is ‘What if you bring magic to a gunfight?’ You want that to be the extra spin; the taste of magic is really what you need. You don't need lasers on top of it.”

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