How 'Shadow and Bone' Creator Eric Heisserer Brought the Grishaverse to Life
The new Netflix show is based on a complex bestselling fantasy book series.
When you pick up Shadow and Bone, the first novel in author Leigh Bardugo's fantasy book series set in an alternate, magical version of our own world, the setting, populated by element-wielding humans called Grisha, armies of highly trained soldiers, and morally gray characters who flit between the worlds of each, takes some time to get into. That's not because of bad writing or convoluted plotting, but because the world depicted in the so-called "Grishaverse" novels is so highly complex, requiring a full-page map and an introductory explanation of the magic-users' gifts, that it takes about five or six chapters to understand enough to get truly immersed.
Shadow and Bone, the first book that serves as the title of a new Netflix show, introduces Alina Starkov (played by newcomer Jessie Mei Li), a lowly army cartographer from Ravka, a country based loosely on Russia, who learns by accident that she possesses the rare magical ability to channel pure light, making her a powerful (and dangerous) Grisha. In Ravka, Grisha are trained as soldiers and led by General Kirigan (Westworld's Ben Barnes), himself a Grisha with power over darkness and a not-so-secret disdain for the nation's weak monarchy.
To bring the Grishaverse to life onscreen for Netflix, Bardugo and show creator Eric Heisserer, who wrote the screenplays for Bird Box and Arrival, decided to combine the stories and characters from Shadow and Bone with those from another beloved book in the series, Six of Crows, in order to give first-time viewers and die-hard fans a richly imagined introduction to the world of the Grisha. "It was a crucial part of the reason why I wanted to get the job," explained Heisserer in an interview. "I thought if we just did the 'chosen one' storyline of Alina in Shadow and Bone, we were really kind of limiting ourselves, and we weren't really showing the scope of the world."
Material from the first book was already a lot to fit into a single show, but Heisserer was also excited by the prospect of also specifically mixing in Six of Crows' Crow Club, a band of teenage criminals from the slums of Ketterdam whose story in the novel takes place after the first trilogy has ended and has a tone more akin to Ocean's 11 than The Lord of the Rings. By adding in surly fledgling crime boss Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and his crew, the show tempers the romance and high court drama of the main story with a parallel crime-caper narrative, weaving them both together by using flashbacks and lots of creative license—something adaptations of this nature really could use more of.
"Alina and Mal [Alina's childhood friend] are people who have been told that they don't really matter, they've been marginalized, and it's about them finding their power and their place in the world, and who they belong with," Heisserer said. "And in a very different way, all of those things apply to the Crows characters, to Kaz, to Inej, to Jesper, and later on to the rest of the team, so I felt there was a lot of thematic similarity that could make that work."
Bardugo was actually the one who brought Heisserer aboard, knowing (thanks to a few exchanges on Twitter) that he was a huge fan of her books, having read Six of Crows in 2017. "Netflix called me out o the blue, and said, 'Mr. Heisserer, we know you like the Grishaverse, we know how much you like Leigh Bardugo's books.' And my first thought was, 'Are you listening to me? Are you in the room right now??'"
The collaborative nature of their adaptation was a far cry from all those horror stories out there of authors who have had their work mangled and modified without any say in the matter. (Bardugo actually has a cameo appearance in the third episode.) "Sometimes I feel like maybe I was just dragging her along kicking and screaming when she had books to write," he said, "and instead I was calling her day and night asking her all manner of questions, 'What about this? Where does this come from? How do you mean this? Tell me how to pronounce this thing?' And she was like, 'Eric, really, I'm on deadline.'"
He considers himself the "custodian" of this world, above all else, that Bardugo has built her career out of. "We didn't always agree on everything," Heisserer said. "There were some things that I just thought would inherently work better on the show, or couldn't be expressed nearly as well in the show as in the books. And there are things that she's connected to emotionally, so those were the ones I was most careful with."
Heisserer said that the most exciting parts of the story were those you wouldn't necessarily notice at first glance, but were instrumental in realizing this fantastical world to its fullest extent. "I was so fascinated with the Shadow Fold [an enormous cloud of darkness populated by deadly monsters that bisects Ravka down the middle]," he explained. "It's something that I hadn't seen in other fantasy books, movies, TV shows before, so it was a new thing to create, and what does it look like, and how do people travel through it, what does the surface of it look like on the outside, and how does it behave?"
The same amount of thought was put into all of the show's lush sets, which were designed according to which real-world places Bardugo took inspiration from in her books. Posters and banners line throne rooms and drinking halls with script written in languages that were invented for the show, riffs on Russian, Dutch, and Scandinavian dialects—just the sort of exacting attention to detail you can expect from someone who invented the Heptapod language. "If I can nerd out a little bit, we did do a lot of work," Heisserer said. "I had gone as far as to create foreign currency, three types of currency to be exact." Even the labels on the bottles of alcohol in the bar in Ketterdam were written in three different languages, none of which can be found anywhere else on Earth.
"The interesting thing about fantasy," Heisserer continued, "is the moment you bring in something that's sort of a relic of our world, it sticks out like a sore thumb. There's a board game that two people are playing in the background. You never see it. But I was like, 'We should be playing a board game somewhere. It can't be chess. Let's do something new.'"