From the moment it was announced, Netflix's Shadow and Bone drew comparisons to HBO's Game of Thrones. They're both fantasy series based on best-selling novels with intricate world builds; they even debuted the same week (just 10 years apart). But unlike GoT, Shadow and Bone doesn't have that same exacting faithfulness to its source material that the HBO show was praised for — and that's a good thing. Shadow and Bone's creators recognized where improvements could be made to the story and thus transformed the source material to meet the cultural moment. The most significant of these deviations? Netflix's Shadow and Bone changes Alina Starkov's (Jessie Mei Li) story, and her metamorphosis is an example of how TV can sometimes tell a better story than what's on the page.
When I was a kid, my local public library had a poster of a castle, three-quarters of which was submerged underwater. The small section visible above the waterline was labeled "The Movie." The rest of the building, hidden underwater, was labeled "The Book." The metaphor was obvious; if you've seen the film, you've only scratched the surface of the story being told. Shadow and Bone totally flips this poster's point on its head. Sure, the series openly condenses entire sections of its namesake novel. (Alina's time in the Little Palace is particularly compressed.) But it also adds both small details and whole plotlines that enrich the story far beyond what fans could have imagined.
Right off the bat, the show makes a point of diversifying the original novel's world. Making Alina half-Shu (and bringing in author Leigh Bardugo's later, far more progressive Six of Crows crew from Kerch) reminds viewers that just because the source material fails to tell a diverse story, it doesn't mean the adaptation has no choice but to repeat this. Although some viewers have criticized the show for incorporating moments of racism into Alina's story, the decision creates a character who deals with real microaggressions instead of imagined slights that are merely her insecurities talking (as they are in the books).
The series turns Alina into a far more complex character than she originally was. Consider, for example, the series' opening: As part of her First Army regiment, mapmaker Alina arrives in the encampment just outside Kirbirisk, the inland port where sandskiffs attempt to cross the Fold. In the novel, her whole unit is there to cross the Unsea and Alina is terrified because she and her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux) are expendable. But in the series, Alina is not there to cross; she's there to make maps. Only a chosen few enter the Fold — the best of the best, including super tracker Mal. Terrified over being separated and never seeing Mal again, Alina decides to burn a bunch of maps, thus creating a reason to make the journey across the Fold with him. Her entry into the Shadow Fold (which triggers her Grisha abilities) is no longer a thing that happens to her, but rather a choice she actively made.
At nearly every point where things happen *to* Alina in the book, the series stops, rewrites, and finds a way to make her the one in control. Some of these are minor details, like not having her use the mirrored gloves, which improve her ability to manipulate light in the novel. Instead, the show version of Alina controls her power with her bare hands. That might seem like a small thing, but she's choosing to be confident in her power without an aid made for her by someone else. There are also larger changes: Alina's escape from the Little Palace in the Crows' stolen coach (and stealing stablehand's clothing on her way out) is her decision. In the novel, Baghra brings her those clothes and orders Alina to run.
By giving Alina agency, Shadow and Bone changes the entire tenor of her story. For example, in the novel, The Darkling (Ben Barnes) is the one who kisses Alina first, using her innocent, virginal desire as a way of keeping her under his sway. The show reverses this by having Alina be the one to kiss him. Not only does this change the nature of Alina's relationship with The Darkling, but it also puts her on more equal footing with Mal, who, in the books, is getting laid right and left while Alina silently pines for him.
But perhaps the most important change from book to show is how the series handles Alina's Grisha abilities, which are an essential part of who she is. The suppression of her abilities as a child in the novel is almost a non-event — she refuses to respond to the Grisha testing her, and that's that. The series makes it a bigger deal, having her cut her hand with a piece of a teacup, which distracts her from the tester's attempt to surprise her into reacting with her power. This turns her denial of her true self into something painful, a scar she treats with reverence, subconscious proof of her control over her life.
But before fans get all up in arms over the series making these wholesale alterations, it should be noted that Bardugo, who wrote the novels, highly approves of them. As she said in an interview with Elle, "I wanted there to be changes. I don't believe that a page-by-page adaptation is necessary or interesting." Her ability to let go of her original creation hung on her trusting the person who was adapting it, and she found that with showrunner, Eric Heisserer. "There was never a time in this process that I felt disrespected, and that meant I felt able to step away and put my ego aside and say, 'Be bold.' And I think the writers did," Bardugo said.
Of course, some of these changes do lose vital points from the books. In the novels, Alina's repression of her Grisha abilities takes a physical toll on her. She exhibits disordered eating and her inability to practice any self-care actively hobbles her training. She cannot access her full Grisha strength and she cannot fight or keep up with her fellow trainees because she has no physical stamina. The series makes a few offhand references to her appetite and strength improving, but otherwise, this subplot disappears. The message that subconsciously denying who you are can manifest in physical ill-health is lost as a result. On the other hand, one may argue that having a healthier, stronger protagonist is, overall, for the better.
Although not every change from page to screen is an improvement, they are, in general, an upgrade. This isn't the first time Netflix has found ways to improve on adaptations; Bridgerton and The Witcher both added diversity and promoted female characters into main leads, respectively. But it *is* the first time a fantasy series in the Game of Thrones vein has so clearly (and successfully) refuted the idea that to be good, one must be strictly faithful to the books. One can only hope this will spawn a generation of fantasy shows that improve upon the source material and empower beloved characters in the process.