Netflix's Witcher Controversy: When Creative Meets Committee
Behind the curtain is a curtain
Somewhere in here, finally, the deal is done for HP 7 parts one and two, and people are all carefully left in possession of genitalia.
-Alan Rickman, on Harry Potter
The cast of the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011) lived an entire lifetime in the wizarding world. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Gint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) grew up in front of millions of people for a decade, persevering through four directors, two Dumbledores, and eight movies. Late actor Alan Rickman, who played Professor Severus Snape, was one of the actors to see them in every movie for ten years.
Reflecting on the final movie, Rickman wrote in his memoirs:
Here I am with Dan, Emma and Rupert 10 (?) years on (Emma is here on a break from Brown University), blood all over my throat from an imagined Nagini [Voldemort’s pet snake], the three of them still with furrowed brows and panting a bit. Finding it hard to remember any particular scenes over the years mainly because all the decisions are taken in committee rooms and not on the floor. We listen as DY [director David Yates] tells us what we are thinking and why (and in some cases recounts the story … ) and a small piece of something creative caves in.
In earlier years, Rickman writes about potentially pulling out of the franchise after the first few movies. In the above entry, we see why: all decisions are made in committee rooms. With an intellectual property so important and a vested interest in making as much money from the studios, committee control must have been tight and opportunity for creative decisions from the actors must have been scarce. Rickman makes it evident that he felt like little more than a puppet acting on committee command, actions and face controlled by operators hidden behind the scenes and his body nothing but a vessel.
Or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, talking about all the magic behind the miracle of movies and the stars glowing from within them:
If you actually tell [people] anything, you find… they never see the ventriloquist for the doll. Even the intellectuals, who ought to know better, like to hear about the pretenses, extravagances and vulgarities - tell them pictures have a private grammar, like politics or automobile production or society, and watch the blank look come into their faces.
Or, as Joan Didion puts it in her essay, Hollywood: Having Fun (1973), the thrill of production for Hollywood insiders comes not from the movie but the deals.
The action itself is the art form, and is described in aesthetic terms: ‘a very imaginative deal,’ they say, or, ‘he writes the most creative deals in the business.’
Collected in Didion’s The White Album, the essay portrays Hollywood as a creature, not a spotlight. The creature feeds on contracts. As Didion explains:
The picture itself is in many ways only the action’s by-product.
Rickman decided to see Harry Potter through to the end. The same can’t be said for Henry Cavill, who played Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher until leaving the series in Fall 2022 amid rumors about disagreements with the showrunner and screenwriters. A representative Uber Mench of PC gamers everywhere, Cavill once missed a phone call telling him he had gotten the role of Superman because he had been playing World of Warcraft. As the rare actor who had read - and loved - the source material, Cavill was applauded to an alarming degree by the Witcher fans who subsequently helped the first season of the corresponding Netflix series reach a record-breaking 76 million people.
Since then, the loyalists have turned against The Witcher. In the agony of his departure, a random Reddit survey shows that thousands of viewers would choose annihilation or resurrection of the show rather than it continue in its current form.
A man loyal to the lore of the books and video games, it’s widely speculated that Cavill stood his ground when he realized, like Rickman, his character was expected to be a puppet for the committee behind the scenes intent on simplifying his character and wrenching the lore in directions opposed to the source material. In this story, Cavill quit because he couldn’t bear to watch the dismemberment of the books and the character and the video game he loved so much. Or was it because he chased an offer to play Superman again, only for the project to be canceled?
The proof against the committee is in the producer: at least if we’re to believe a man named Beau Demayo, who claimed in October 2022 that some Witcher screenwriters scorned the source material.
I've been on a show - namely Witcher - where some of the writers were not or actively disliked the books and games (even actively mocking the source material)… It's a recipe for disaster and bad morale. Fandom as a litmus test checks egos, and makes all the long nights worth it. You have to respect the work before you're allowed to add to its legacy.
Cavill’s loyalty to the video games and books gave Witcher fans hope that the series could emerge as Netflix’s epic fantasy to rival Game of Thrones and give life to the Witcher world they had experienced in the books and video games. Yet his role faded into a mosaic of characters and storylines reimagined by committee. Watching The Witcher is often like watching a Batman movie that’s mostly about characters in a different city, not talking about Batman or doing anything related to him. The staggered, skit-like structure of the show could be solely based on survival instinct. In the world of Netflix, it’s not hours or viewers that reign supreme: it’s completion rates. Can one blame the committee for trying to change the source material to entice new audiences? The metric that streaming platforms must track now is follow-through, not initial excitement. That was the explanation given when Netflix’s 1899 was recently canceled after one season: even making it in the top trending new shows on Netflix and netting 79 million hours watched in the first four days wasn’t enough to save a show that saw only a 32% series completion rate.
A fear of cancelation easily explains some of the more ludicrous creative decisions made by the committee of The Witcher, who clearly decided to make a series of storylines personalized for a different audience with each transition, from Witcher video game fans and Harry Potter fans to political dramas and steamily misshapen romances and fears about pregnancy. The Witcher has something for everyone… at the cost of having a vision for anything. Viewers who want conclusions to their favorite stories are required to suffer through blasphemous lore failures and dialogue written by generously therapized screenwriters with a decidedly teenage understanding of the world. But that doesn’t mean those stories don’t appeal to another group of viewers who, simply, want to watch something with swords and magic and witches.
Cavill served as an anchor for the base audience of Witcher fans. When his departure was announced, loyalists readily agreed on who to blame: the showrunner behind the series. Instagram accounts were littered with hostile comments. Ask any generation of Star Wars fans: lore violations are serious matters. It’s physically painful to watch inaccuracies that hobble a story’s intentions. The showrunner of The Witcher committed both the sin of sacrilege by changing characters and plot points as well as allegedly having a team of writers that actively derided the source material.
Why did The Witcher fall so easily into the eager hands of a committee? Ask Polish author Andrzej Sapowski, who first published the book series in the late eighties and finished it in 1999. He was thirty-eight and had previously made his living as a traveling fur salesman. By 2020, The Witcher video game series had sold more than 50 million copies. Sapowski had sold the rights to video game developer CD Projekt Red for less than $10,000 and eventually sued the company for a better deal. He likely got a better contract when it came to the Netflix series, but he didn’t seem too concerned with the end product. As he explained in an interview:
How involved were you in the production process?
Sapkowski: Not very much, on my own request. I do not like working too hard or too long. By the way, I do not like working at all. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone at me.” John 8:7.
io9: Was there anything you insisted be included or fought for?
Sapkowski: For the record: I strongly believe in the freedom of an artist and his artistic expression. I do not interfere and do not impose my views on other artists. I do not insist on anything and do not fight for anything. I advise. When necessary. And asked for.
io9: Were there any creative changes the show made that you agreed with, or even changed your view of your work?
Sapkowski: It was inevitable. The process of transforming words into pictures cannot be done without some losses. But I’d rather keep the details to myself.
Sapkowski’s apathy toward Netflix’s interpretation of The Witcher could help explain the radical departures from the source material. Sapkowski’s emotional involvement in the series had likely culminated with the completion of the book series in 1999. Sapkowski’s attitude toward other mediums had likely already led to the original contract with CD Projekt Red that he came to regret. He may never have thought video games were art and never understood the scale at which a story could be told in multimedia formats - or how many people would want to experience that story. Interviews consistently show a man who has some semblance to actor Alec Guiness, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the original Star Wars movies who had previously acted in classical cinema hits like The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and never wasted a moment in lambasting the “appalling” dialogue of a science-fiction series he truly believed was beneath him.
"Can't say I'm enjoying the film -- new rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wages of pink paper -- and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable."
-Alec Guiness / Obi-Wan Kenobi on Star Wars IV: A New Hope
It seems beyond argument that Sapkowski shared a similar sentiment to whatever happened to The Witcher on screen. The committee was given a license to commercialize and Sapkowski didn’t care to defend it. This stands in Stark contrast to George R.R. Martin, who stayed aligned with The Game of Thrones TV adaptation until being cut out of the process around season five.
Without the support of the source’s creator, Witcher loyalists had to take up the flag on their own. This is where the tension with Henry Cavill seems to have originated: he wanted to be more faithful to the fantasy world he loved and it cost him his job. One article explained that Cavill didn’t leave, he was fired for trying to cut the puppet strings:
Now the latest reports claim that Henry Cavill was fired from The Witcher and he didn’t leave of his own will. There are rumours that the actor was toxic on the set and was even given ultimatums about his toxic gamer-bro attitude with the crew and especially ladies making it difficult to work with him…. Cavill was repeatedly cautioned about his “toxic, gamer-bro” like behaviour by Netflix… He was turning out to be extremely difficult to work with and more for the female crew members. There was never any complaints about any sexual misconduct but he was toxic and disrespectful with his words the report claims.
Later, the source of these anecdotes would be called into question and never really verified, depending on who you believe. The final straw, allegedly, is when Cavill “overrode” the showrunner and made changes “across the board without her knowledge.” It’s easy to believe that a lore loyalist like Cavill would rebel against the committee if given something he found particularly distasteful. It’s also easy to believe that the committee pursued a script not maliciously, but strategically: taking The Witcher fans for granted, they wanted to expand the audience beyond hardcore gamers.
The truth of the trials and tribulations of The Witcher is in the truth of Hollywood that essayist Joan Didion captured in her essay, Hollywood: Having Fun (1973), a truth now at the heart of every streaming service as much as in Beverly Hills: the picture is the byproduct of the studio process. In her view, all the movies and TV and multimedia we watch are prefabricated portraits predestined to be disemboweled by the creative compromises of a committees following a process of profit formulated not by feeling but by fallow formulas.
Hollywood: Having Funds
In Joan Didion’s Hollywood: Having Fun, Didion portrays a 1970s deal-making era n which the gears are relationships and the fuel is dreams and the exhaust is bank accounts. Creative enterprises for the big screen are all little more than financial vehicles and behind every pixel is the budget. Those huge numbers for actor salaries and box office expectations? All the numbers that support every element, every creative concept, every compromised dream? Didion insists that all these values only represent a “totemic significance” as meaningful as Monopoly money. Who makes money? Who loses money? The winners are sometimes the losers. Take screenwriter Ed Beckman, who wrote Men in Black in 1997, a movie that made $944 million in today’s dollars and has yet to be paid a dollar for it.
As Didion explains about the studio process:
More perfect… bookkeeping has been devised, but mainly in Chicago and Las Vegas.
In the industry of immersion, the funding of the immersion becomes the immersion. In the case of an intellectual property like The Witcher, everything follows the funds, not the viewers. Viewers are confused when a particular creative decision doesn’t seem to make sense, because they are under the impression that the immersion is for their sake, not for the sake of the funds, and even Cavill may have been under the impression creativity and authenticity was more valued than mass appeal. As Fitzgerald noted during the origins of Hollywood, viewers, critics, intellectuals, and even fellow artists always fail to see the ventriloquist for the doll. What Didion understands, in her experience of Hollywood three decades later, is that even the ventriloquists are dolls to a conversation that is never-ending yet always punctuated by a binding power above all else: the studio.
[All the] very efficient economics of the business render each rhetoric even more meaningless than it sounds: the studios still put up almost all the money.
The showrunner and screenwriters and actors are making creative decisions for the studio first, following the hieroglyphic hierarchies inscribed in the temples of Hollywood. In a culture waterlogged with conspiracies, the obvious fact that no studio product is founded without pre-existing infrastructure architected by an amorphous animal of art whose instincts are survival and whose sustenance is profit seems to be overlooked.
As Didion describes Hollywood’s soul:
Its spirit is the speedy, obsessive, immaterial… the players will change, but the game will stay the same.
The picture, whatever it may be, is not personal. Even if the Witcher showrunner explicitly says that her goal was to make the world more appealing to more people, that decision can be seen as a desire for survival, not sabotage. To come to peace with the mashing mandibles that eject a spittle-laced wad of something that is almost special, like The Witcher, one maybe must admit that it’s a miracle that anything half-good makes it out alive in this process without expecting anything better. Maybe this is why Didion’s final evaluation of thinking too hard about media is a “peculiarly vaporous an occupation.” In this context, “vaporous” could not only be interpreted as if analyzing film is a thing without substance, an occupation for airheads, but also as a description of an occupation dedicated to analyzing what it’s like to be an audience to moving pictures that are all made with a meaning as natural and effortless and transient and intangible as air waves and bank accounts.
The industry of immersion is impossible without the breath of life that is the kiss of the studio, an operation invested in the infinite action behind the action with all the humanity of a random number generator. Whether The Witcher capsizes without the loyalty of lore loyalists, whether it’s canceled, whether it’s remade, is all besides the point to the voices behind the ventriloquists. As Didion explains about a failed movie:
It had been a very creative deal and they had run with it as far as they could run and they had had some fun and now the fun was over, as it also would have been had they made the picture.
It would be impossible to convince most people that The Witcher is even a rival to the last season of Game of Thrones, much less previous seasons, and Cavill’s departure is an ill omen to those hoping for a more authentic telling of the world’s story. But watching the show without reservation can at least still make one feel grateful that any fantasy world, at all, is making it to the big screen in some form, no matter how controlled, contrived, or compromised in the conception of committee. And, let’s be honest, The Wicther is still better than Rings of Power.