Young adult fantasy adaptations have stalled in recent years. We all knew and occasionally loved the first wave of dystopian fantasy. We saw the good (The Hunger Games), the bad (the unfinished Divergent series) and the now-cult classic (Twilight, with a cringe factor so high it circles back around to being entertaining again). Streaming platforms has seen more success with adaptations of contemporary books. The quirky To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy launched Noah Centineo, and the After series was adapted from, of all things, a Harry Styles fanfic. But could the release of Shadow and Bone on Netflix spark a renaissance for YA Fantasy?
On first glance, Shadow and Bone has all the hallmarks of classic YA fantasy. An ordinary, unassuming teenage girl (our heroine Alina Starkov, played by breakout star Jessie Mei Lee) discovers she has a secret power that nobody else in her world has. She’s taken away from her childhood best friend that’s definitely not in love with her, brought to a magnificent palace, introduced to a whole host of complex and dangerous aristocrats. Then she undergoes training with a mysterious prince/general/magician/all-of-the-above who – of course – has a romantic interest in her. But this series, adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling trilogy, turns these conventions upside down.
Let’s all swoon over Ben Barnes. . . or not?
First, we meet Alina’s love interest the notorious General Kirigan, played by Ben Barnes. Barnes, perhaps known just as well for being the popular fancast of Harry Potter’s Sirius Black as he is for his star-making role as the Narnia franchise’s Prince Caspian, gets to exercise a different stash of acting chops here. No longer the moral, solid romantic lead of his early career, Barnes carries echoes of his more intriguing characters, like Punisher supervillain Jigsaw and the titular Dorian Gray.
But for the first five episodes, Kirigan is almost bog-standard – it’s no revelation to have a bad boy as a love interest in 2021. Twilight did it back in 2008 with sparkling vampire Edward Cullen. Then, in 2014, The Hunger Games and Divergent provided us twin swoon machines with Liam Hemsworth’s incendiary Gale and Theo James’ stoic Four.
It’s at the end of the fifth episode that Shadow and Bone breaks convention with Kirigan as a love interest – and we don’t want to spoil, but it does it marvellously. So often, YA books and their adaptations treat their teen readers condescendingly. Well, he might be a bad boy that tries to control his leading lady and kills anyone who gets too close, but he’s a hero at heart because we tell you he is!
We love how Shadow and Bone ignores the easy way out and demands that its audience think for themselves about the characters in front of them. After all, it’s a young adult TV show, isn’t it? Shadow and Bone places itself on the top tier of YA adaptations by treating Kirigan’s character with moral complexity, and treating the audience with the respect they deserve. After all, (and look away if you don’t want to be spoiled, but) . . . who doesn’t love a villain, right?
Kicking ass, taking names, causing chaos – what’s not to like?
The second way that Shadow and Bone flourishes above its contemporaries is with the introduction of the fan-favourite Crow Club. Even viewers who haven’t read the books will be drawn in by the chaotic plans and witty intrigue of this gang-member trio: cocky sharpshooter Jesper, deadpan spy Inej, and frustrated mastermind Kaz. Again, Shadow and Bone re-iterates its moral ambiguity. None of the trio would blink at committing a few crimes to get a fistful of cash – but what’s strongest about their inclusion is how they anchor this fantasy adaptation to the real world.
Too often, fantasy films and TV shows get bogged down with their saving-the-world plots, and suddenly the audience aren’t attached to any of the characters and their desires anymore. It’s even present in the A-Plotline of Shadow and Bone at times. How many viewers will be able to relate to Alina’s embarrassment that she’s so important to the country, a slave has to test her food before she can eat it?
But with the B-Plotline focusing on the Crow Club, we’re thrown into the dirty, dangerous, human underbelly of Shadow and Bone’s fantasy world. It’s a lot easier to find pieces of ourselves in the merchant streets of the harbour than the hallowed halls of the Little Palace! Inej drops PG-13 references to the abuse she suffered at the Menagerie and affirms her religion even when her friends scorn her. Jesper hooks up with a stable boy as a distraction for a plan and brings forgetfulness and impulsivity to the team, reminding the audience that the characters, too, are young adults. Kaz uses a cane to assist for his limp, wielding it skilfully as a weapon.
While Alina and Kirigan are battling shadows and monsters, the Crow Club are the humanity in Shadow and Bone’s world. They steer us closer to the young adult contemporary adaptations that are so popular now, and away from the run-of-the-mill, unrelatable fantasy that dominated the early 2010s.
A new era?
Only time can tell whether Shadow and Bone retains staying power in the next few months. Or if, like its contemporaries The Darkest Minds, Chaos Walking and Artemis Fowl, the series will be lost in a sea of adaptations that its audience has aged out of. But we think it’s got a fighting chance of surviving. With the bright diversity its audience wants, the relatability it needs, and a flip to the standard genre formula, Shadow and Bone has a chance of breaking out of the stagnated YA adaptation mould and forging a bright future for the genre.