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Can Netflix really do The Witcher without Henry Cavill?

Cavill’s fandom bled into the character of Geralt, but word’s out on how hard replacement Liam Hemsworth will go

Henry Cavill in The Witcher season 2 cropped at his bulky chest wearing giant studded armor and a wolf medallion, his white hair looking extra crinkled Photo: Netflix
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Henry Cavill seemed to care more about getting Geralt of Rivia “right” during his tenure on The Witcher than most actors playing real people in prestige biopics. In 2019, before the premiere of The Witcher season 1, I asked Cavill how he found his way into the character. For the actor, it was all personal.

“I really feel a connection to Geralt and who he is and his nature, especially from the books,” Cavill said with a sense of conviction that is pretty much unlike any other actor I’ve ever talked to. “And having played the game for many, many, many hours, it was something that I had a connection with. And so it was just about bringing a version of me, which is a version of Geralt, into [showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s] show.”

The Witcher season 3 will arrive on Netflix in 2023, and with it, Cavill’s final bow. On Saturday, just days after Cavill revealed that his Superman would return to the DC movie universe in some shape or form, Netflix announced that The Witcher would return for season 4, but without its main actor. Geralt would instead be played by Liam Hemsworth, best known for his work on the Hunger Games films.

“My journey as Geralt of Rivia has been filled with both monsters and adventures, and alas, I will be laying down my medallion and my swords for Season 4,” Cavill wrote on Instagram. “I pass the torch with reverence for the time spent embodying Geralt and enthusiasm to see Liam’s take on this most fascinating and nuanced of men.”

“As a Witcher fan I’m over the moon about the opportunity to play Geralt of Rivia,” Hemsworth posted in a timed response. “Henry Cavill has been an incredible Geralt, and I’m honoured that he’s handing me the reins and allowing me to take up the White Wolf’s blades for the next chapter of his adventure.”

I’d give Hemsworth the benefit of the doubt and say he’d make a solid Geralt if I could remember literally anything he did in The Hunger Games movies as Katniss’ stud bud Gale. The murkiness of Hemsworth’s IMDb page combined with Cavill’s ascendence as Geralt leaves the announcement feeling uninspired. Clearly, in the IP game, killing a character or wrapping up a show imprinted on by an actor is not an option. The Witcher must go on. But at this point, getting a new Geralt is like getting a new Jon Snow or Don Draper — it’s unthinkable, and downright strange.

Henry Cavill poses in big black studded armor in a castle type area looking ready to punch a guy in The Witcher Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Maybe Hemsworth’s Geralt is the “younger” version of Geralt (though the actor is only seven years Cavill’s junior) or the product of some transformative magic? (I did not expect to be thinking about The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in the year 2022, and how Terry Gilliam recast Heath Ledger with Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell after his leading man died halfway through filming, but here we are.) Whatever explanation or lack thereof The Witcher season 4 provides, there’s little precedence for such a switch; yes, Game of Thrones recast its fair share of characters mid-series, famously tapping in Michiel Huisman for Ed Skrein in the role of Daario, while Doctor Who changes Doctors every few seasons thanks to the ultimate hand-wave of regeneration. Notably, Ruby Rose left The CW’s Batwoman after season 1 due to injuries and claims of on-set abuse, but instead of recasting the character, producers opted to reframe the show around a new character, Javicia Leslie’s Ryan Wilder. The decision feels more aligned with how major studios have treated comic book casting in recent years: In a world where four actors played various Peter Parker Spider-Mans over the course of a decade, or where multiple Batmans are on their own crime-fighting paths courtesy of the multiverse, why not just bid one Geralt adieu and bring in the next? People want The Witcher, give them The Witcher.

The messaging around Cavill’s departure does glow with the aura of a mutual decision. Per his Instagram, he is passing the torch and moving on, despite being a man who loves The Witcher in all its forms, and has graciously spoken about his time wearing the white wig over the last few years. So why now? There are obvious reasons: The Witcher is an enormous time-consuming television show and Cavill is a busy movie star, having dabbled in Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series, played the grown-up lead in Enola Holmes, and stepped up to give us the multiple Man from UNCLE sequels we deserve in the form of Matthew Vaughn and Apple’s upcoming spy thriller/franchise-starter Argylle. Soon he’ll be back wearing the cape for DC. It’s easy to see why that was the choice over more time as Geralt: Returning as Superman is a hurrah-worthy comeback story, and whatever Man of Steel 2-ish thing he stars in will get a global push unlike any other film release on the planet. The Witcher season 4 is part of Netflix’s dutiful churn.

More troublesome are rumors that Cavill may not have been terribly happy working on The Witcher, and that there was conflict behind the scenes on how seriously to take the source material. In a recent Instagram Stories Q&A, former The Witcher staff writer Beau DeMayo admitted that, during his time on the show, that he was surprised to learn many involved with the making the series didn’t really care much for The Witcher.

“I’ve been on show[s[ — namely Witcher — where some of the writers were not [into] or actively disliked the books and games (even actively mocking the source material),” DeMayo explained (via TheDirect). “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.”

Henry Cavill’s Geralt hugs Freya Allen’s Ciri in the woods in The Witcher Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

By all accounts, and I include my own, The Witcher showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is not one of these people. In our early look at The Witcher season 1, Hissrich delved into her own love for author Andrzej Sapkowski’s work, and how carefully she wanted to piece together not only Geralt’s story, but what it meant to expand on Ciri and Yennefer. When we discussed season 2 (and season 3), Hissrich displayed a commitment to the source material and her collaboration with Cavill on shaping Geralt. And Netflix clearly loves what she’s done with the world, asking her to oversee the upcoming The Witcher: Blood Origin miniseries and expanding her involvement with the company on Witcher and non-Witcher shows.

But throughout the first two seasons, Cavill has hinted at his frustrations with the direction of Geralt as a character. In the lead up to season 1, he explained to me how the literary quality of Sapkowski’s books became particularly difficult to adapt, and made pinning down Geralt’s human qualities a greater challenge. He agonized over exactly which voice to use, and eventually departed from Doug Cockle’s American accent in the games to a gravely British take.

“For me it was about boiling it down to the very essence of who Geralt is,” he said at the time. “In the books, there are complexities and nuance in long-held conversations, and if I were to use my own natural accent, that would have worked for me. But due to the nature of there being a selection of storylines, and those storylines being slightly adjusted and there being less of an opportunity to be extraordinary, verbose, and nuanced in long conversations, I had to boil it down to Geralt’s stony exterior and directness.”

The actor went on to detail how he turned moments of expression found in the books and games (e.g., “I can smell this,” “I can hear this”) into physical mannerisms. But even at the time, he was worried about it breaking through the scope of the show. “It was important for me to have the audience understand that he has abilities far beyond a human being and that he uses them all the time,” Cavill explained, “whether it be me breathing in and trying to see if there’s any scent on the wind, or just hearing something slightly different. It’s all small stuff. Whether they made the cut or not is another part of the storytelling, but they’re all in there, and on the day [of shooting], that was absolutely something I focused on enormously.”

Cavill’s personal connection to Geralt runs deep. As he has said many times, before becoming an actor, Cavill was nearly ready to join the British army, and his family’s connection to the military became pivotal to understanding Geralt’s service and commitment to brotherhood. Cavill saw himself in The Witcher books, and when he arrived on set to play Geralt, Sapkowski’s words were seared into his memory. So much so that during the filming of Roach’s death in season 2, Cavill pushed back against a scripted moment and rewrote the scene by himself. On the page, the death of Geralt’s horse was written with a bit of a wink to fans who knew that a “new Roach” scene was inevitable. Cavill, exhibiting great Horse Guy valor, wanted to play it straight.

“Henry was so unhappy with the line,” Hissrich told me before the premiere of The Witcher season 2. “Finally I said, ‘You know what, you come up with something. I trust you, you know this material so well, you know the book so well, you don’t even have to pitch it to me.’ And he came back the next day with a beautiful speech that’s at the end of Sword of Destiny when Geralt is facing death and it’s such a pitch-perfect moment.”

Henry Cavill as Geralt pets his horse Roach in a green forest area Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Cavill has not commented directly on rumors of frustration or his departure, but fans have seized on recent moments that connect some dots. In the wake of the recasting announcement, Cavill gave an interview on the Happy Sad Confused podcast in which he described how he invests in roles — and when he knows to walk away.

“It’s just about belief,” the actor said. “If you believe what you’re doing is the right thing then you’ll be able to keep on doing it. If you realize you’re doing the wrong thing, that’s when you stop doing the wrong thing. You don’t just keep on going, because that leads down a dark path.”

While The Witcher may have been Netflix’s blockbuster-sized play to rival Game of Thrones, it’s anything but a clone. The series is grungy, gory, sensitive, and far away from the regal shenanigans of the Iron Throne. There are big dumb fantasy monsters and moments of fairy-tale delicacy. It’s easy to see how it could be more generic; the Witcher games became classics thanks to a fusion of story and gameplay — narratively deeper than Skyrim, more realistic than Zelda — but the Witcher show didn’t have the advantage of full immersion. A live-action retelling required a beating heart, and Hissrich found it in Cavill. His Geralt not only slays, but wrestles with demons and struggles to be the surrogate dad of an up-and-coming ass-kicker. Cavill goes deep in each episode, amid slobbering demon carnage. Is there a show without him?

There is a world to The Witcher beyond Geralt: Blood Origin will give us a gnarly taste of it this December, drawing from the clans of the Continent fans have only seen in passing. Animated and kid-friendly Witcher projects are in works, and could send the fantasy saga barreling in other directions. It’s not hard to imagine Ciri actor Freya Allan one day leading her own Witcher story. There are other ways to go in this world than just down the well-trodden path. Consider me excited for them all.

But in an unexpected move, Netflix remains dedicated to putting Geralt on screen, first with 2023’s The Witcher season 3, then with a new version played by Liam Hemsworth, years after that. I’m not sure the show just needs a warm body to keep its fictional character alive. Yes, the company has tossed a coin to its Witcher — just not the one that made the show the underestimated triumph it is today.

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