Adapting The Wheel of Time to the screen was always going to be an uphill battle. Robert Jordan’s sweeping fantasy series (completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death) ran 14 books, plus a prequel novel, each one hundreds of pages. With a sprawling cast, intricate rules for magic and a detailed world, it does not lend itself well to the screen. But Amazon has filmed it. So far though, the show’s caution in diving into the greater mythos and world of the series is leaving it feeling indistinct.
It’s a difficult challenge. The show wants to set up its characters first, since without internal thoughts that emotional attachment is harder to create. But it also has to thread the needle of being true to the books’ main themes and thrust while also doing what is best for the medium of television, and likely won’t please anyone in the process—it’s 2021 and people are still mad Tom Bombadil was cut out of The Lord of the Rings films. Book readers such as myself have to accept that things will be condensed and altered, but the hope is that it still feels like The Wheel of Time, rather than a show with the occasional forced reference to the books. And for the most part, showrunner Rafe Judkins and the crew have done so. As of the fifth episode, it’s clear Judkins isn’t going for an exact translation from page to screen. And that mostly works. But some alterations in plot and direction leave parts of the mythos unfocused—which is a shame because the strongest moments come when those elements come to the forefront.
On paper, The Wheel of Time is a fantasy series in which a chosen one is expected to return to fight the “Dark One” with magic. It’s easy to write off the books as a generic fantasy adventure, another Lord of the Rings knockoff without the deconstruction of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (whose TV adaptation The Wheel of Time is inevitably compared to). But Jordan wasn’t a generic fantasy writer. Unlike the Medieval trappings of other books, the technology and social system was much closer to the Renaissance or early-modern era with massive cities, nation states, and complex politics that had more depth than Martin’s, although without the nihilism.
The books exist in a Third Age, thousands of years after male and female magic users called Aes Sedai used the One Power to fight Shai’tan “the Dark One.” The One Power has two forms, gender split, Saidin for men and Saidar for women. The channelers sealed the Dark One away, but Saidin was corrupted, driving male channelers insane, and they wrecked the world. The greatest of them, “The Dragon,” went crazy, killed his family and then himself, but is prophesied to be reborn, either to save the world or destroy it. The chosen one figure is destined to go mad from the corruption of Saidin, and everyone has their own short-sighted or selfish agenda for manipulating them. The Aes Sedai, now only women, hold power and influence, but are massively distrusted by the public or seen as witches while the Dark One’s minions are regarded in part as myth.
The show sadly skips much of that for the first few episodes. The Dragon is only vaguely discussed and the corruption of Saidin doesn’t get attention until the fourth episode. The book’s prologue, showing the Dragon’s suicide, is entirely cut, despite its massive importance to the story (it was adapted in an aschcan copy of a pilot called Winter’s Dragon that aired on paid programming late at night on FXX in 2015, so maybe that’s why they avoided it). Also, the characters from the Two Rivers don’t show their superstitions about monsters or the Forsaken, losing a lot of the dread and awe that fills the first half of The Eye of the World. One of the strongest moments early on is when Moraine (Rosamund Pike) tells her companions about the long-dead kingdom of Manetheren. It’s a small scene Judkins apparently had to fight to include, but it adds depth to the world. The show’s strongest episode so far is oddly the fourth, “The Dragon Reborn,” because despite a new made-up plotline, it has the chance to stop and talk about the aforementioned big, driving plot point. It’s exposition, but it is handled in a way that deepens the narrative and even provides some interesting action and visuals of channeling.
That expanded plotline with the Aes Sedai and false Dragon Logain (Alvaro Morte) works, but other additions are odd. Given the limited time, events have been condensed, combined, or outright cut. Some parts make sense; readers might love Mat (Barney Harris) and Rand’s (Josha Stradowski) traveling music act for the character development, but there’s only so much time in the show. Some characters are changed, with Mat going from a trickster to a petty thief and the son of a drunk, while Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) gets a wife, who is immediately fridged for angst the show barely touches on. His internal struggle over his capacity for violence in the books might be too contemplative, but the show’s invention is just bad. A central conversation between Rand and his father that sets up much of the rest of the first book is entirely absent. A subplot with the Warder Stepin (Peter Franzén) initially adds some worldbuilding to the relationship between Aes Sedai and their bonded guards, but then becomes the dominant subplot of the fifth episode. The acting is good, but the outcome is expected and it takes screen time away from the main cast and their journeys, which already have been heavily shortened. Without the benefit of internal thought as in the books, the central characters—chief among them Rand—end up feeling underdeveloped, especially since the show shifts to Moraine as its central character, unlike the books.
The show may struggle with how to be loyal to the themes and plot, but it also understands it doesn’t need fealty to some minor details. Fans can enjoy references to “The Travels of Jain Farstrider,” the heron mark on Rand’s sword, or the headband Lan (Daniel Henney) wears, even if other touches were removed. Gleeman (essentially a bard) Thom Merrilin (Alexandre Willaume) doesn’t have his bushy mustache or the colorful patchwork cloak gleemen all wear; he traded that for corduroy, which honestly looks less silly than a book-accurate costume would. Some characters show up much later, chief among them Thom, part of the core party since the first few chapters, but his introduction feels natural. Even in the fifth episode, the protagonists arrive in the Aes Sedai city of Tar Valon, with many meetings and occurrences happening there instead of Caemlyn in Andor. It’s a solid condensing of the plot, but it does raise some questions as to when that nation’s royal family and their importance to the main plot will come into play.
The Wheel of Time looks to be adapting the first book in full for its opening season, the only question now is what gets combined or discarded. Even the “Eye of the World,” the source of the first book’s title, has been drastically altered for the plot. The show wisely updates the sometimes grating gender dynamics of Jordan’s novels, although the twist that the Dragon Reborn might be a woman in this show does put it at odds with the central idea that Saidin’s corruption will drive the chosen one mad.
Paste’s Kaitlin Thomas noted that the series feels as if viewers are watching the sequel without context. Game of Thrones was essentially a sequel to the epic of Robert’s Rebellion, but that show weaved its backstory and world together with the current plot from the start. Something has been lost in the translation of The Wheel of Time to the screen. As a show, it’s flowing and getting better, but what’s missing is some of the context and buildup that made many of these events so strong in the books.
Nicholas Slayton is a journalist based in Los Angeles covering arts and inequality. You can follow him @NSlayton.
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