This interview was conducted by text on November 23rd, 2019. Oktawian Grochowski is a test manager in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and a fan of The Witcher series. He follows Benjamin on Qoura.com, occasionally reading and commenting on Ben’s work on that site. This interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Rose: Tell me about yourself and your experience with The Witcher. How did you discover the franchise?
Grochowski: I first heard of Sapkowski and The Witcher from a friend when I was in high school. This was in the late 90s. He [my friend] was reading the books as they appeared, and was a big fan back then, but somehow failed to spark my interest enough to read it myself. I read all the books and stories finally during my university [years], sometime about 2004-2005.
Rose: What prompted you to read the books or play the games?
Grochowski: Mostly because I got a huge archive of ebooks from a friend and read the “Witcher”1From 1986, later included in The Last Wish story out of curiosity. At this point, I had already seen the “Hexer”2 A Polish-language adaptation of “The Witcher” (Hexer is an alternative translation of “Witcher”), panned by critics and audiences alike in its homeland. movie, which I did not understand a thing from, and heard a lot about the Saga already. At this time, the hype for Sapkowski in Poland had already been growing, and it was hard not to hear about it. The game I picked up eagerly in 2008, as soon as it was released, because I was already hooked by the books. And supporting a Polish video game studio seemed the right thing to do – the Polish video game industry was not too big back then.
Rose: The Hexer is a bit infamous for being a poor adaptation, correct? I heard reviews in Poland were bad.
Grochowski: “A bit” is an understatement. The movie was so horrible that it single-handedly killed any hope for fantasy cinema in Poland, and its cultural impact is felt to this day in more ways than you can imagine. The series was a little better, but it was released a year after the movie, and the damage had been done already. If you want to know more (and spare yourself the trouble of watching it), I can elaborate.
Rose: Let’s come back to that later, because I wanted to ask you about the new adaptation. Naturally I suspect there’s mixed feelings in Poland about an American adaptation. What has the fan response been like so far to production news about the show?
Grochowski: Okay, I’ll finish with the response and get back to this in a bit. Actually, the response [to the Netflix production] was not so bad as I expected – while we Poles are well known for our complaining tendencies, the response is getting warmer and warmer. Initially there was a mixture of hope (“finally we will have a GOOD Witcher movie”) and fear (“they will surely ruin it with political correctness and other weird Hollywood stuff”). The news about casting a non-white actress as Ciri enraged most of the fandom here, but after the actress was announced, the rage died as quickly as it started .There were some controversies about casting non-white people in the series, but that’s mostly because Polish fans are used to thinking of the Witcher as a Slavic fantasy. The second trailer was a bit better than the first, according to the general fandom public, and nowadays most complaints seem to have died out, and everybody is waiting impatiently for the premiere.
Rose: The race issue has been a huge point of contention in the English-speaking fan base as well. Sapkowski is pretty political in a left-wing fashion in the books and dismissed the controversy though. To what extent do people care about the politics and philosophy of the Witcher in Poland? And how do Poles view Sapkowski himself, as he is deeply unpopular in many Anglo-American fan circles.
Grochowski: The race issue was a lot less contentious here, because we just don’t have these kinds of issues in Poland. Poland is almost monolithic racially, and always was, so the only reaction for any racial discussions was “eh, those Americans have to insert political correctness everywhere”. As for the politics and philosophy in The Witcher, it really varies from fan to fan. There are people who genuinely enjoy the philosophical aspects of the books and are ready to debate those parts for hours. Those are mostly older fans, of course. Younger readers are more focused on the action. That’s rather obvious, I guess. I have yet to see any university courses devoted to Sapkowski’s philosophy, but maybe there are some. As for how Sapkowski himself is viewed in Poland – he basically ruined his public image recently.
Rose: Right, the lawsuit.3Sapkowski sued the makers of The Witcher game trilogy, CD Projekt Red, in 2018, alleging inadequate compensation for selling the gaming adaptation rights. According to Sapkowski himself (quoted in a Redanian Intelligence article on a recent interview with Wired, litigation is ongoing and he is no longer authorized to speak in public on the matter.
Grochowski: Not only is his conflict with CDPR is viewed by most fans as stupid and greed-driven, but he also intentionally offended all the gamers, including those who play Witcher games, a few months earlier.
Rose: How so?
Grochowski:He offended them by saying in a public interview that he considers anyone who plays video games to be stupid. If I remember correctly, he was asked if he knows anyone who played The Wild Hunt…He answered: “I don’t know anyone who plays video games. I spend time only in the company of intelligent people.”
Rose: Unwise, considering the games’ role in the Witcher’s popularity outside Poland.
Grochowski: Exactly – to make matters worse, he said it during one of the biggest fantasy conventions in Poland. Then came the lawsuit, and now most people think he holds gamers in contempt, but somehow is not above taking their money.
Rose: So getting back to The Hexer, why is it so terrible, exactly?
Grochowski: It was ruined by two things: a screenwriter who hadn’t read the books, and idiotic allocation of its limited budget. Mind you, I’m not saying the limited budget itself was bad. We have a Witcher fan-film made in Poland this year, which looks as good as the Netflix one, and it was made by a few people with a crate of beer. The Hexer from 2001 was an adaptation of all the Witcher short stories. Imagine doing it in two hours.
Rose: Sounds like idiocy.
Grochowski: The series was 13 episodes long and did a better job, but changed too much to be popular with fans. For example, Yennefer was relegated to a one-night stand. She appeared in 2 episodes out of 13 – “The Dragon” and “The shard of Ice”. After the business with Ystredd she just disappeared and was never mentioned again. Three initial episodes were devoted to Geralt’s childhood in Kaer Morhen, and somehow it turned out that the witchers are not held in contempt by everyone else – it’s only Geralt who is hated by other witchers. Not to mention that the child actor who played boy Geralt did a terrible job. There were many more such examples. As for the budget – the filmmakers had blown most of their money for a CGI dragon that aged terribly, and had nothing left when it was time to show Novigrad for the “Eternal Fire” part. So instead of a bustling city we see Geralt and Dandelion chasing the doppler across an empty castle in Malbork. Which is a shame, because most of the adult actors did a great job, and the music was wonderful – the series could perhaps still have been saved if not for the screenwriter. Actually, the music was so good that it forever defined the music style for every Witcher adaptation – movies, games, musicals and so on. One of the complaints from Polish fans about the first Netflix trailer was that “the music was too generic”. “Too generic” meaning “it didn’t sound like in the Hexer”. (the composer’s name was Grzegorz Ciechowski, if you’d like to check it out without having to watch the movie).
Rose: That was a common complaint in the States as well, the bad music. I’ll check him out. That about covers it unless you have more to add. Thanks for your time. This interview will appear on the Path in December.
Grochowski: No problem. Here is the full OST from the Hexer:
And one more thing that might interest you: I mentioned the Witcher fan movie that is being made in Poland currently. It is going to be released in a week, as it turns out. It’s called “Alzur’s Legacy”, and is about Lambert. Check out the trailers, they look incredible. No worse than the Netflix ones, and all made in a proverbial garage. They even talked Zbigniew Zamachowski, the Dandelion from the Hexer movie, to reprise his role for free. And his Dandelion was one of the few things everybody loved in the Hexer. That would be all from me.
Rose: Aight, sounds excellent.
Grochowski: Have a nice afternoon then! And good luck with The Path!