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7 Things To Know About Netflix's Next Epic Fantasy Series Shadow and Bone

Stars Ben Barnes and Archie Renaux and showrunner Eric Heisserer share some key details about season 1 of the show based on Leigh Bardugo's book series — and their hopes for season 2!

by | April 22, 2021 | Comments

It’s not easy to explain the premise of Netflix’s newest epic fantasy series, Shadow and Bone, to a newcomer. After all, it’s based on not one but two different book series set in a sprawling fictional universe with complex narratives and different timelines. But we asked the stars and co-creator of the series, which premieres April 23, to try.

“It’s a fantasy show — it has the Harry Potter elements, it has the Game of Thrones elements, it has Lord of the Rings elements, it has elements of Star Wars,” star Archie Renaux said. “But really at its core, I think it’s a coming-of-age story about a girl discovering she has this power that could really unite her country, which has been divided in two by this expansive, massive darkness called the Shadow Fold.”

Honestly, it’s a pretty great elevator pitch for the eight-episode drama, which is based on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone/Grishaverse trilogy and its companion duology, Six of Crows. The series follows teenage soldier Alina Starkov, an orphan from the Russian-inspired land of Ravka who discovers an unharnessed magical power that could be the key to helping fight the supernatural forces that have been dividing her country via a dense darkness called the Shadow Fold.


SHADOW AND BONE star BEN BARNES

(Photo by David Appleby/Netflix)

“At first glance, it is your traditional dark versus light massive-scale fantasy allegory in a war-torn world in which some of the characters, the Grisha, have magical abilities,” star Ben Barnes explained.

Plus: heists! The world has a “czar-punk Russian aesthetic” mixed with an industrial revolution vibe, which means “you have early trains and guns and revolvers mixed with magic and swords and horses and capes. And complicated love risks and unspoken feeling and massive amounts of of tension between all of the characters and their individual agendas and politics of power,” Barnes said.

Barnes and Renaux star alongside Jessie Mei Li, who plays heroine Alina. An orphan since she was a young girl, Alina’s closest ally is her BFF and fellow orphan Mal (Renaux). Although in the books Alina is from Ravka, in the show she’s half Shu Han — which adds another layer of depth to her struggle, considering Ravka has been in conflict with its neighbors Shu Han and Fjerda. With the supernatural Shadow Fold blocking most of Ravka’s access to the True Sea (and thus all trade), Ravkans must make their way through the terrifying area in order to survive.

Barnes, Renaux, and showrunner Eric Heisserer (the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Arrival and Netflix fave Bird Box, among others) spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about what fans can expect from the first season of their series, including the star power of Li, green-screen acting, some romance, and even some spoiler-free details about what could happen in season 2, should Netflix give it the green light. Here are a few things to know before you watch the first eight episodes of the series.


1. There Are Plenty of Differences Between the Books and the Show

NETFLIX

(Photo by Netflix)

While a knowledge of the books is useful when watching the series, it’s not required. And Heisserer and his writers — in cooperation with Bardugo, who was intimately involved as an executive producer — changed plenty of details in order to create a compelling television narrative. But that was inevitable, considering the books are told from Alina’s point of view only — not to mention that the show also worked the Six of Crows characters in despite the fact that those books take place after the events of the Shadow and Bone series.

“The show does differ quite a bit from the book, especially for Mal,” Renaux explained. “The books are written in first person, so there’s a lot of space in terms of Mal’s story there. You know where he is, but you don’t exactly know what he’s going through and how he’s feeling and all that sort of stuff. So I had to refer to the scripts for that. We used [Shadow and Bone] as like a Bible, really, a reference point.”

In fact, Barnes carried around a book of quotes from the novels that he’d hoped to include in the show, and Heisserer and his team were more than willing to indulge him when he felt that one would be appropriate to use.

Of course they were useful, Barnes explained: “Leah spent years in the minds of these characters and there would be lines from the book which would be really, from my life perspective as an actor, juicy lines that would really help raise the stakes in a particular scene sometimes.”


2. Heisserer Has Twitter To Thank for His Involvement in the Series

NETFLIX

(Photo by Netflix)

Heisserer devoured the Six of Crows books after a friend recommended them as “Ocean’s 11 in a Game of Thrones world.” He loved them so much that he even Tweeted Bardugo about just how much he loved them. When he got a call from Netflix a year or so later about the project, he wondered how his name even came up as a potential collaborator — then he remembered his Tweets.

Because of his Six of Crows love, he originally wanted to adapt those books only. But Bardugo made him realize why that wouldn’t be possible.

“You can’t introduce a magic system and a magic system on steroids in the same breath, that’s not gonna work for viewers. And if you think I’m gonna let you get away with putting the Darkling and jurda parem in the same space, you’re dead wrong,” she told him.

Non-book readers, don’t worry about jurda parem just yet — it’ll come into play if the show catches up with the Six of Crows book timeline. Instead of the storyline that happens in the book, Heisserer pitched what amounts to a prequel story for those characters and imagines what they were doing during the time that Shadow and Bone takes place.


3. Production Wrapped Just Before Covid-19 Shut Everything Down

(Photo by Netflix)

Filming took place from late 2019 to early 2020, and the Budapest production finished filming just before the pandemic led to a worldwide shutdown. While they were lucky to have completed filming, they faced the same work from home challenges the rest of us did as the post-production team attempted their work from their home offices.

About 99.9 percent of post-production work was remote, Heisserer said.

“That was the challenge for everybody on the team. I can tell you that you found out right away who had decent internet carriers,” he joked.


4. The Hunt for Alina Didn’t Take Very Long

DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

(Photo by David Appleby/Netflix)

Heisserer, Bardugo, and the Netflix team settled in for what they thought would be at least six months of hunting for their lead, but Li turned up in the first batch of auditions and the two EPs fell in love with her immediately. She did an excellent job in her scene, but what came after was just as important as what she did during.

“When Jessie introduced herself at the end of the audition tape she lit up. She was effervescent. She was this joy bubble that you couldn’t wait to be around,” Heisserer said. “And we were like, well, there’s the sun summoner!”

The problem came after, when the powers that be were worried they’d found someone too fast.

“The tension and the anxiety and the nail biting all happened when everybody else in the machine felt like we couldn’t have found our Alina that quickly, and that we needed to keep looking and make sure,” Heisserer said. “I get that because so much rides on this, but at the same time, when you find someone you know is perfect and the larger process goes on, then every day is a chance that they will get hired on to some other show some other movie, you miss your window, and you’re heartbroken.”


5. Ben Barnes Really, Really Loves This Show

DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

(Photo by David Appleby/Netflix)

Barnes’ character has some hidden depths, although we meet him as General Kirigan of the Grisha Army. He’s an amplifier, which means he can help enhance the power of other Grisha. The depth was a prerequisite for him taking the role, considering he’s not even in the first episode. But once he learned more about his character’s true nature — no spoilers, book people! — he knew he not only wanted to play the character, but he also wanted to make sure his contribution to the series made a real impact.

Why does he care so much? It’s simple: At this point in his career, he only wants to work on projects he believes in, especially if he’s uprooting his entire life and moving to Eastern Europe.

“I think you have no choice but to make the thing that you think would appeal to you. I have to do these scenes in a way that I think I’d like to watch them,” he said. “I made myself a promise with my career five or six years ago that I was only going to do things that I think I’d like to watch, because it’s very difficult to choose otherwise. And in the end that’s how you can feel proud of yourself, I think, and I love all this stuff.”

Living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and you’re away from all your family and friends is difficult, and not something he’d do for just anything.

“I’m in my late 30s,” Barnes said. “I very often uproot my entire life, and I go and live in Eastern Europe with people that I don’t know. That wasn’t easy at 24, and it’s not easy now.”

Once he arrived in Budapest, he and the cast quickly became close — especially after he made it abundantly clear that although he was a decade or so older than most of them, he still wanted to hang out. In fact, he sent the Steve Buscemi GIF from 30 Rock — you know, the one where he has a backwards cap and a skateboard and says “how do you do, fellow kids” — as an ice breaker to the group chat.

“I was circulating a GIF of it because I was like, look, we’re all here by ourselves and just because I’m 15 years older than all of you doesn’t mean I don’t want to come for dinner and have a nice time,” he said. You’ll be happy to know that it worked, and he and the rest of the cast are all close friends still. They haven’t been able to see each other in person because of Covid, but they eagerly await their reunion someday soon.


6. There’s Smooching

DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

(Photo by David Appleby/Netflix)

Listen — any good fantasy series is going to have some more fun human elements in its complicated, magical world, and Shadow and Bone is no different. There’s plenty of romance happening too, particularly between Alina and some of her costars.

Although she and Mal start out as childhood BFFs living strictly in the friend zone, their relationship becomes romantic in the books — and that may happen in the show, too.

“Here is the possibility,” Renaux teased, wary of giving too many spoilers. “It’s that thing of not knowing what you have or not appreciating or not seeing something in a romantic light until it’s gone, which could happen. I’m treading on eggshells here with what I can and can’t say! There’s a possibility that things could blossom but, you know, it might not! I can’t say!”

Luckily he didn’t let anything major slip so Netflix called off the hit squad they had waiting outside of his house while he did interviews, he joked. He knows how sensitive people can be about spoilers, and worked very hard not to say anything that would ruin the viewing experience.

Why was he so paranoid about spilling the beans? Blame Tom Holland and his many Marvel slip-ups.

“I’ve just seen Tom Holland spoil it so many times by accident. I remember watching him and thinking, ‘God, that’s something I would do,’ so I just have to bite my tongue as soon as I feel like I’m anywhere near any spoilers,” Renaux teased.



7. There’s Plenty of Ground To Cover in Season 2

Without giving too much away, the first season of Shadow and Bone ends with plenty more of its magical world to explore — and plenty of the book’s characters to meet.

The series has not officially been renewed for a second season, but Heisserer and his team have big plans should it continue.

“This first season does end on a bit of a cliffhanger and is my equivalent of begging Netflix to bring us back,” he said. “We have a lot of crazy, grand, and fun plans for future seasons if we get the privilege to do so. But I’m also aware that these are big swings, and sometimes they can result in an uncertain future.”

But Barnes, Renaux and their costars have plans of their own for their characters, and are all hoping they get to make more.

“I’d like to see it all turned up to 11 a little bit in the second season,” Barnes said.

With a Certified Fresh 92% Tomatometer score before the show has even premiered, season 2’s chances look pretty good.

Shadow and Bone season 1 begins streaming Friday, April 23 on Netflix.

 

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