Early in the summer I wrote of my love for the Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, part of the “Grishaverse,” and how I was glad to have gotten to the show before reading the book(s) because “the book is always better.” Well, I have now read the first book in the series and the exception proves the rule: the book is not better.
The novel has Alina Starkov as its narrator and focuses exclusively on her experience discovering she is the “Sun Summoner,” training to be a Grisha, and navigating palace intrigue. The show, in contrast, has multiple plot lines, not only Alina’s but also that of her childhood friend, Mal; a battle of wits between a Heartrender and Fyerdan witch-hunter, dripping with sexual tension; and those delightful rapscallions The Crows. I learned in this piece from ScreenRant that much of this material, particularly The Crows’ plotline, was written specifically for the show, a way to bridge the various characters and aspects of the world that encompass multiple books.
Proponents of “the book is always better” tend to point to recurrent issues in translation: a flattening of complexity, exciting but nonsensical plot pyrotechnics, and watered down or opaque characters. But these are exactly the pitfalls that the Netflix series avoids, instead creating sophisticated complexity with its multiple plotlines; adding contextual complexity (such as the Darkling’s backstory, a brewing civil war, and Alina being half Ravkan (white) and half Shu (East Asian); and fleshing out flat characters. So I tip my hat to the show-runners and writers for not only faithfully adapting the first book (the Darkling/General Kirrigan is, in particularly, expertly cast and rendered by Ben Barnes per the book’s description), but also improving on the original.
Now, one can only have the first time experience with any story once. This tension came up in my conversation with Martina about the novel Crossings, designed to be read as either three interconnected novellas or one braided novel, which we each read in one of the two ways. I love Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and its semi-sequel A God in Ruins, and I can’t help wondering how different my experience would be if I could go back in time and read them in reverse order. If I had read the novel of Shadow and Bone first, I would likely have thought it a decent YA fantasy and been curious to find out “what happens next.” But I saw the show first and so in reading the book I missed the complexity, I missed the deepening of racial and class tension, and I really missed The Crows. Fortunately, Bardugo was among the show’s writers and so I have to believe that she contributed to and approved of the new additions, perhaps even taking the show as the opportunity to improve upon her already solid base.
Some other interesting things from this week:
- I laughed out loud at this piece by Rachel Sugar in Grub Street begging chefs to stop treating the prosaic beet (and other vegetables) as flashy stand-ins for the protein on a plate. Sugar argues that such treatments never live up to their comparators and furthermore fail to highlight what makes the vegetables great. As a noted beet-hater, I am personally also tired of finding beets as the central vegetarian item highlighted on many menus.
- The poem “Obligations 2” by Layli Long Shoulder is beautiful and devastating in equal measure.
- Last, it’s been a minute since I was climbing but I was still excited to see climbing at the Tokyo Olympic Games, delayed to 2021 by the pandemic. The Olympics are problematic in so many ways, this year more than ever, and yet the magic of watching people excel in their sphere remains. This Olympics also deepened the conversation about athletes and mental health (particularly Black female athletes) via Simone Biles’ decision to skip most of her events and the truly delightful male high jumpers deciding to share gold rather than do a jump off. In terms of climbing, I have nits to pick with the format and scoring and yet I was moved to tears to see this sport that I love in a big picture sense on the world’s biggest athletic stage.