Author Leigh Bardugo had one big request when Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer came on board to adapt her acclaimed YA series Shadow and Bone for Netflix: “I want you to do this better than I did.”
Based primarily on the first book in Bardugo’s initial “Grishaverse” trilogy, Shadow and Bone follows young mapmaker Alina as she discovers her ability to summon sunlight capable of blasting away a literal, tangible darkness that divides the kingdom. With her debut novel, Bardugo wanted to step away from the typical medieval England setting so commonly seen in fantasy novels and chose Imperial Russia as inspiration for her world, Ravka. But while the setting itself bypassed the usual conventions, she leaned on a narrow worldview to populate the saga.
“I was really echoing a lot of the fantasies I’d grown up with, which were very white, very straight sort of traditional Chosen One stories,” Bardugo tells Polygon.
Those who kept up with the Grisha books noticed this evolution. While none of the central characters in the original book were introduced as specific races, many of the main key players in the later books, especially in the spinoff Crows duology and subsequent sequel series, were explicitly stated to be nonwhite. Even some characters whose races were not clarified in the first trilogy were defined in later installments. “As I wrote, as I gained more confidence, I started to write a world that looked a lot more like the world around me,” she says.
That conscious effort to diversify the cast was a priority for the series. Both Heisserer and Bardugo felt that the most natural change for the television show was to make Alina half-Asian. In terms of the series’ worldbuilding lingo, this meant making her a descendent of Shu Han, the country that roughly corresponds to East Asia. After the casting call was put out, Heisserer clarified on Twitter, he did not want to restrict the casting to a specific ethnicity and “would rather find the right talent who can inform the look of Shu Han vs the other way around.” In the books, Ravka is at war with Shu Han over border disputes. By making Alina part Shu, Bardugo says, “her journey as an outsider [became] even more poignant.”
Jessie Mei Li, who plays Alina, says that while Alina’s race isn’t the only important thing about her, the heritage shaped her character. It was something, she tells us, she was able to pull from her own real life experiences of being biracial.
“[Alina] spent her whole life being told she looks like the enemy. She’s had to stand up for herself and grow this thick skin, but she’s also so vulnerable,” Li says. “And she’s suspicious of new people and she’s soft-spoken because she doesn’t want anyone to feel that she’s aggressive. It was really nice to be able to bring some of my own experiences.”
For Heisserer, it was equally as important to recruit a diverse set of writers for the project. The showrunner says writer Christina Strain (Finding ‘Ohana, The Magicians) was particularly essential in honing the voice of the main character.
“She helped shape that part of Alina that didn’t detract from the story that we were adapting, but gave an authenticity, and allowed Christina to speak some of her truth and some of her personal experience,” he says.
Though Shadow and Bone adapts the first book in the main Grisha trilogy, everyone seems to agree that adapting it now, with the full trilogy and spinoffs having fleshed out the identities of the characters, benefits the series in the long run. Inej and Jesper, two Six of Crows characters now integrated into the first trilogy, are both characters of color. But notably, proud and talented Grisha soldier Zoya, who for most of the first book is at odds with Alina, was not revealed to be biracial till the first book in the sequel series, King of Scars.
Clearer origins adds another layer to the complex relationship the soldier shares with Alina. Zoya, formally Grisha leader General Kirigan’s favorite soldier, feels threatened by Alina’s power and status. Her insults to Alina take on a new edge with their races directly involved, since Zoya is acutely aware of what it means to look like an outsider.
“Although she is very aware of her identity, and her race and where her parents come from, she also will use it as a dig or a means to hurt Alina because she knows as another mixed race woman, these things hurt,” says Sujaya Dasgupta, who plays Zoya. “She’s been probably told all these digs and horrible things.”
Weaving in these characters and actively changing Alina’s race immediately bolsters the diversity in the original story. The Grishaverse may have started off in a traditional, white-centric way, but the show, which puts a young biracial woman at the center of an epic fantasy, mirrors where Bardugo’s writing has gone in the nine years since the first book debuted.
Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on April 23.