[This story contains spoilers from the book and Netflix series Shadow and Bone.]
Fans of the book version of Shadow and Bone likely noticed a small but important change in the Netflix adaptation concerning the relationship between the heroic Alina Starkov and powerful General “The Darkling” Kirigan.
In Leigh Bardugo’s novel, Kirigan (Ben Barnes) stuns Alina (Jessie Mei Li) with an unexpected first kiss. Later, after they demonstrate Alina’s abilities to the king’s court, the two passionately make out and the narrative suggests they come very close to having sex before they’re interrupted. But in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone released Fy, it’s Alina who makes the first move to kiss Kirigan in episode five, and, later, when having sex seems imminent, Kirigan abruptly stops and asks, “Are you sure…?”
“That was one of the things that was really important to everyone involved — the writers, directors, myself and Ben as well,” Li said about the first kiss earlier this year. “Like we were really keen for that to be included because there are a lot of younger viewers watching this and I just think it’s a very important message. In the show, Alina has so much more agency and she’s independent and makes decisions based on her heart and her intuition rather than what she’s being told.”
Barnes agreed, but added that he still had a concern about the scene. “There was definitely discussion about that — that if she kisses him, it gives Alina more agency,” the actor told The Hollywood Reporter. And I said, ‘But does it?‘ Because we’ve been paying attention the last couple of years and it gives her the semblance of agency, but she’s still an orphan who doesn’t really understand the rules with this man who is willing to burn things to the ground and is manipulating his power.”
Ultimately it was decided, however, that “Alina kisses first” was the wiser play.
As for the “Are you sure?” line in the subsequent scene, Barnes said he pushed to have the line, or something like it, added into the script.
“My contribution was during the steamiest moment in the book and in the show where I throw Alina on the table,” he said. “I wanted to add something, which ended up being, ‘Are you sure?’ It doesn’t solve anything. He’s a problematic character no matter which angle you look at him from. He’s unforgivable and uncondonable in his abuses of power. But I wanted to flag that as a theme worth exploring for them because it makes it relevant. It’s a catalyst for discussion about whether she does have agency in this moment and whether we’re making our own choices and whether there’s any room for understanding between them given that he might really have feelings for her. And it was very important to me to bring something of myself to the moment before it’s revealed that he’s as manipulative as he is. As an actor, I have to come up with ways to forgive him and motivate his choices. But we’re not pretending this man is any kind of anti-hero, really.”
Despite The Darkling’s mass murderous ways, Barnes says the absolute worst thing his character does is something rather subtle near the end of the first season.
“The worst thing that he does in the whole story — to me — is to use the knowledge [gained from Mal] that Alina loves blue irises, and then immediately presents her with blue irises,” Barnes said. “It makes me feel sick, at that moment, because it’s the most outward show that he is manipulating, and it’s just so outward that it makes me feel ill. When I saw that part in the show I was like, ‘I don’t want to play a bad guy, I want to play a good guy.”
Shadow and Bone is currently streaming on Netflix.