Why Netflix's 'Shadow and Bone' Changed Main Character's Race

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SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV of SHADOW AND BONE Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2021

Why Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ Changed Main Character’s Race

Showrunner Eric Heisserer tells TheWrap how that switch also shaped the look of his writers’ room

“Shadow and Bone,” Netflix’s long-awaited TV adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, premieres Friday with a leading lady that looks very different from the one the author described in her novels. This change takes main character Alina Starkov, a teenager working as a mapmaker in the First Army of the Russia-esque country of Ravka, from being the “pale” girl she’s described as in the book “Shadow and Bone” to a mixed-race character played by mixed-race actress Jessie Mei Li.

And the reason for this switch is because Bardugo and showrunner Eric Heisserer wanted to find a better way to tell the “outsider” story in Bardugo already has in her book in a visual way that will resonate with viewers more than any heavy-handed dialogue could.

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“Well, one of the things that we uncovered when we dug into the deep dive of the characters of both stories is that a common theme that binds a lot of our heroes, our scrappy, young kids, are these two thematic questions,” Heisserer told TheWrap. “And one is, ‘Where do I belong?’ And the other is, ‘What is within my power?’”

He continued: “In exploring that, we found that it worked from a story perspective for Alina to be mixed race and half Shu, so that she feels even more so like an outsider, and visually so. And that she’s told she doesn’t matter. These are parts that are already existing in the book, that we felt that, when you’re doing an adaptation, if there is a way to communicate that without saying it, with using voiceover or having to lean into something in a forced way, that’s the way to do that.”

Shu Han is “Shadow and Bone’s” version of an Asian country that happens to be at war with Ravka. This gives the TV series’ Alina, who is half Shu and living as an orphan in a world of mostly white Ravkans, more adversity to face than her book counterpart was already up against as she slowly learns who she is — which is actually a very, very special person with a supernatural gift that could save her country from a monstrous threat.

Archie Renaux as Malyen Oretsev and Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in “Shadow and Bone.” DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX

Bardugo told Entertainment Weekly that while she is “very proud” of her book and Alina’s story, she is “also conscious of its shortcomings.”

“I wrote this very white, very straight ‘chosen one’ story that was rooted in echoes of what I had grown up reading in terms of fantasy, but certainly didn’t reflect the world around me or the world that I live in,” Bardugo told EW. “We knew we wanted to make some changes there, and it made a lot of sense for us to write Alina as half Shu.”

Alina’s mixed-race status on the series led Heisserer to staff a writers’ room with half mixed-race writers to write a story he wanted to show up on screen, but knew he was not able to tell himself.

“I knew there would be plenty more to explore that I just wouldn’t have the expertise on,” Heisserer told TheWrap. “And so that’s why I made sure that half of writers’ room was mixed-race and could really champion that and help tell the story from their own personal experiences. And that’s a part of being, I guess, a good custodian, is that like, I’m not going to have the world-weary personal life experience to draw on for such a diverse cast. And so, you want to try and get as much of that in the room with you as possible and listen to them when they tell you something.”

“Shadow and Bone” premieres Friday on Netflix.

Jennifer Maas

Jennifer Maas

TV Reporter • [email protected] • @jmaas421

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