Updated: May 28
by Paola Cesarini
In December 2018, the Netflix release of “The Protector” (original Turkish title: Hakan: Muhafiz) finally marked the end of the long Çağatay-drought. Reviews of the series ranged from best TV show ever to cheap Turkish copy of Marvel fare. This is not surprising, as evaluation of artistic productions is often subjective and highly dependent on one's prior expectations. Thus, a Turkish audience is likely to assess “The Protector" based on a different metric than a foreign one. The die-hard fans of Çağatay Ulusoy will value the series more than those who have never heard of him. And those unfamiliar with the novel Karakalem (on which the series is loosely based,) will react to "The Protector" differently than those who have read it.
On the eve of the release of Season 2, this article will address three fundamental questions about "The Protector". Without giving away major spoilers, the answers will hopefully clarify the expectations of those who have yet to watch the Netflix series. They may also provide useful orientation to those who have already seen Hakan: Muhafiz, but are still unsure what to make of it.
1. How "Turkish" is “The Protector”?
Well, the story is Turkish, the actors are Turkish, the directors are Turkish, and a Turkish company produced it. However, "The Protector" is a Netflix series with a target audience clearly meant to transcend Turkish borders. By design then, Hakan: Muhafiz not only dilutes several features one might expect from a mainstream dizi, but also brings significant innovations to this genre. It is a tightly compact show containing more action and special effects than traditional Turkish series, but less in terms of character and relationship development. It provides beautiful views of Istanbul and some interesting information on Ottoman history, but it gives relatively little attention to the intricacies of Turkish traditions. Finally, "The Protector" offers the first Turkish language fantasy/superhero cinematic product, but it still features the beloved and familiar dizi themes of honor, loyalty and family.
Some have criticized “The Protector” for attempting to "Westernize" Turkish TV shows. This viewpoint echoes others heard in Europe and elsewhere against the so-called "Americanization" of indigenous cultural production. In this case, however, such criticism is mostly unwarranted. To find inspiration, artists have always transcended political and cultural boundaries. Previous Turkish cinematic productions are no exception. Indeed, what Hakan: Muhaifz does is not very different from what Içerde, Medcezir, Çukur, Cesur ve Güzel, Șeref Meselesi, Çarpișma and other Turkish series have done before. While these take an initial story line from a Western production and expand on it dizi-style, “The Protector” starts with an original Turkish script and develops it with inspiration from classic fantasy sagas such as Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, etc.
True, “The Protector” is definitely faster and shorter than what hard-core dizi viewers would like. And yes, it does in part sacrifice the slow-motion character and relationship development that epitomizes some of the best Turkish series. When all is said and done, however, Hakan: Muhafiz still manages to retain a great deal of Turkish flavor. In addition to offering a glimpse into Ottoman art and history, “The Protector” deals seriously with traditional dizi issues such as: deep family ties, the mixed legacy of tradition, the beauty of innocence and integrity, the complexity of social and generational conflict, the power of love in overcoming adversity, redemption, and even feminine empowerment. Moreover, with three remaining seasons, the series still offers plenty of room to deliver on character and relationship development, as well as tell the full story about Hakan's ancestors, the Immortals, and the Sultan's talisman shirt.
The answer to the first question, then, is a positive one. "The Protector" is definitely Turkish in both content and production. However, it also innovates on the dizi tradition in at least three ways. First, it delivers a Turkish fantasy/superhero series that can withstand comparison with some of the genre's best products. Second, it provides a faster and more compact format, and offers the cast and crew significantly improved working conditions. And third it introduces, in the most authentic way, the wonderful world of Turkish cinema to a sizable global audience increasingly eager to watch good stories from non-Western sources.
2. How did Çağatay Ulusoy perform as "The Protector"?
Sporting a less-than-flattering mushroom haircut and pretty much the same drub outfit through season one, Hakan initially comes across as a young-ish, disheveled, not-too bright, totally ordinary person. This is in sharp contrast to Çağatay’s previous stylish, larger-than-life impersonations -- such as Bariş in Delibal or Sarp in Içerde. Nevertheless, within a few short episodes, Çağatay gradually transforms Hakan from a boisterous, frumpy, irascible, insecure and somewhat unattractive outgrown teenager into a comparatively controlled, introspective, sensitive and self-confident young man. Moreover, he accomplishes this almost exclusively through body language and the visual emotions he displays, since Hakan has relatively little to play with in terms of meaningful, self-revealing lines. And yet, with each episode, this character grows on you. At the end of season one, Hakan becomes a more attractive and emotionally compelling creature than when we first met him. Because the first installment of "The Protector" ends with a cliffhanger, Hakan's journey is clearly incomplete. It will therefore be interesting to see where the script and, more importantly, Çağatay's performance takes Hakan in season two.
Given Çağatay's well-known acting abilities, it is perhaps unfortunate that thus far "The Protector" has restricted the in-depth representation of Hakan's internal turmoil. Simultaneously losing a father, discovering his superpowers, falling in love, learning about a tragically lost family, integrating into the well-established "Loyals" community, facing terrifying immortal creatures, and fighting for his life at every turn would drive even the strongest being to madness. And yet, thus far the viewer only got rare glimpses into Hakan's emotions. Case in point is the romance between Hakan and Leyla, which “The Protector” unfortunately depicts as a shallow tryst.
Largely missing is the protracted courtship phase that gives most dizi viewers butterflies. We are left to wonder what in the world these two characters have in common besides a strong physical attraction. This is why, when Hakan eventually tells Leyla that he loves her, the declaration comes across as both unrealistic and superficial. Perhaps, just as Içerde before it, "The Protector" offers very little romance by design, preferring to focus on other aspects of the story. However, the slow-burning attraction that is building between Hakan and Zeynep leaves room for hope. In between action scenes and mythological puzzle solving, the remaining seasons may yet deliver the epic love story that most viewers of Turkish TV series are thoroughly addicted to.
Looking at Çağatay's decision to take the role in "The Protector", his career appears to be a succession of very smart choices. After brilliantly stumbling into the profession with Adını Feriha Koydum and Anadolu Kartalları, he carefully selected roles that progressively broadened his acting repertoire. Medcezir showcased Çağatay as a vulnerable romantic hero with surprisingly outstanding musical credentials. Delibal offered a challenging and wide-ranging role, in which he evolved from happy-go-lucky, artistically gifted college student into a severely disturbed mental patient. In Içerde, Çağatay forsook his musical abilities to deliver an extraordinary performance of uncommon depth and nuance, in which unspeakable tragedy and spectacular fight scenes alternated with thoroughly enjoyable comedic interludes.
Viewed in this context, "The Protector" may represent somewhat of a pause in Çağatay's professional growth. Indeed, a full-fledged musical, an intellectual comedy, an historical saga, and a gender-bending or evil-type role would have constituted more logical extensions of his acting repertoire. And yet, in taking on the role of Hakan, Çağatay wisely seized the opportunity to make himself known to a global audience -- a first for a Turkish actor. In conclusion, even if "The Protector's" remaining seasons may not push his acting skills to the limit, the whole world is now Çağatay's oyster. As soon as an internationally acclaimed director looks carefully into his acting portfolio, he will become a strong player on the international stage, following in the footsteps of Antonio Banderas, Gael Garcia Bernal, Christoph Waltz, Javier Bardem and other non-English native speaking actors.
3. How does Muhafiz compare to Karakalem?
"The Protector" differs in important ways from the N. İpek Gökdel's novel on which it is based. Such a radical departure might be due to financial constraints, the perceived need to tailor Karakalem to a global audience, the screenwriter's personal preference, or a combination of all three.
Let us start with the main differences from the original narrative. First, in Karakalem, Yavuz (renamed Hakan in "The Protector") is an intellectually gifted young man attending one of Istanbul's prestigious universities on a merit scholarship. In "The Protector", we learn instead that Hakan's resume' is exceedingly thin and that he relies principally on his street smarts to guide him through life. Why the producers chose to dumb down the series' main character is unknown and constitutes a rather questionable choice.
Second, the book's title Karakalem refers to an omnipresent, ominous and mysterious raven that appears to follow Yavuz everywhere. This pivotal figure inexplicably disappears in the series, depriving us of a central narrative symbol.
Third, in the novel, Yavuz' key ancestor is Dengiz -- i.e. the master weaver of the talisman shirt. The shirt is a secret copy of a magical original that Dengiz made for Sultan Yavuz Selim himself. It is the meeting of the two shirts that gives Yavuz superpowers. “The Protector" drastically simplifies the novel's complex explanation behind the shirt's origins by creating a fictional dynasty of Protector warriors that is completely absent in the novel. Regrettably this deprives viewers of a wider exposure to some fascinating Ottoman mythology.
Fourth, there are no rings or daggers in Karakalem, only a horseshoe amulet broken in several pieces and a mystical ancient book. The novel also fails to mention the Loyals and the Immortals, but includes instead an elixir of immortality, an ark, the anti-Christ, and a secret sect seeking to restore Christian dominance over Istanbul. It would therefore appear that the novel's depiction of the Christianity/Islam struggle over the city was purposefully left out in the series, probably to appeal to the large Western audience of Netflix.
Fifth, in the novel, Faysal is called Korkut. His wife Guneș not only is still alive, but also thoroughly hates him, having always been in love with Ahmet (i.e. Kemal in the series). Asli (i.e. Zeynep in the series) is Ahmet and Guneș' daugther. Here again, "The Protector" sacrifices interesting narrative complexity for the sake of a simpler storyline.
Finally, in Karakalem, the talisman shirt affords Yavuz numerous special powers. With it, he can move through time, project holograms from his past, hear distant sounds, acquire superhuman strength, throw arrows with his hand and fire with his eyes, climb the highest mountains, and breath like a fish underwater. Conversely, in "The Protector" the shirt chiefly appears to make Hakan invulnerable to physical harm. One can only hope the producers have saved the shirt's additional superpowers to create unique and visually stunning scenes in the remaining seasons.
It is worth mentioning that “The Protector” makes at least two interesting additions to the novel. In Karakalem, Yavuz' exclusive lover is Asli, who also happens to be the evil character's (Korkut) motorcycle-riding, historian, adopted daughter. Perhaps to add romantic excitement to the story, "The Protector" introduces instead two different love interests for Hakan (i.e. Leyla and Zeynep). Because in the novel Yavuz falls desperately in love with Asli, one might speculate that Hakan will eventually end up with Zeynep, who bears far more resemblance to Asli than Leyla. The second clever addition is that of Sinan Mimar. By making him loom large in the story, the audience is taught a great deal about Istanbul's amazing architecture, while at the same time showcasing the beauty of Turkey's mesmerizing capital.
Whatever the reasons might be for departing so radically from Karakalem, "The Protector" could benefit from following Gökdel's novel more closely. The TV series misses not only some of the book's narrative complexity, but also quite a few potentially stunning special effects. What is more, the novel contains a treasure trove of fascinating references to Ottoman history and mythology that would not only increase the esoteric character of the series, but also give it a more distinctive Turkish character.
Since its December 2018 release, millions around the world have viewed "The Protector". As a result, Netflix has renewed the series for a third and fourth season, ensuring a steady supply of Mr. Ulusoy to his devoted fans for the near future. Undoubtedly, season two of "The Protector", set for release in April 2019, will offer some version of the epic battle between good and evil included in Karakalem. Beyond that, it is everyone's guess where the series will take us. To date, we only know that N. İpek Gökdel has already penned a sequel to Karakalem scheduled to hit Turkey's bookstores in the summer. This second novel will apparently take Yavuz outside of Istanbul for new exciting adventures around the world. Dedicated Çağatay Ulusoy fans look forward to following Hakan (and Yavuz) on whatever media platform they may appear in the future.
The second season of "The Protector" airs on Netflix on April 26, 2019.
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A native of Italy, Paola Cesarini has a Ph.D. in Political Science and worked as an international civil servant, a university professor, and a leader in higher education for many years. She is fluent in six languages and is currently learning Turkish. She lives in Denver, CO with her husband and two children. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, classical music, swimming, skiing and exploring other cultures.
@Copyright by North America TEN and Paola Cesarini