Robert Jordan’s best-selling fantasy book series has traveled a weird road to get to TV. Now that the live-action adaptation of The Wheel of Time is here, the results are… well, weird. It’s a show that’s full of contradictions; it clearly loves the source material but constantly fights with it. The series is condensing an 800-page novel into eight hour-long episodes of TV, and the story still feels like it’s meandering sometimes. It’s both better and worse than the books. And yet, for some reason, I’m ready for more.
Suffice it to say, if you’re a book purist who was hoping for an exact page-to-screen adaptation, just walk away now. A lot has changed during The Wheel of Time’s journey to Amazon Prime Video, most of it understandable. The core concept is still the same: Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a member of a group of sorceresses called the Aes Sedai, and her Warder/bodyguard Lan (Daniel Henney), travel to the small town of Emond’s Field. Moiraine has tracked down the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a sorcerer who stopped the villainous Dark One from conquering the world but went mad and broke it at the same time. After an attack by the Dark One’s army of monstrous Trollocs, she rounds up her young candidates—farm boy Rand (Josha Stradowski), the healer-in-training Egwene (Madeleine Madden), the town’s ne’er-do-well Mat (Barney Harris), and blacksmith Perrin (Marcus Rutherford)—and spirits them away in hopes of keeping them safe. They’re chased down by the village’s headstrong healer, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) later and, as it turns out, all of them are much more than what they seemed.
I’m leaving out so much, but so does the TV show. There’s a lot that’s had to be excised from the books to keep from overwhelming new viewers with the world-building, and the story of the first novel (The Eye of the World) has been significantly streamlined for the same reason. That means major events that fans of the books would think are essential have seemingly been removed or, more likely, saved for later seasons. A new storyline has been added, presumably to help attract mainstream viewers more organically familiar with the setting and core concepts of the story such as the prophesied Dragon Reborn, the cabal of sorceresses called the Aes Sedai, the gendered system of magic, etc. It works, but if you’re already familiar with the books, it can sometimes feel a little like you’re watching Wheel of Time 101.
This makes The Wheel of Time accessible to that giant audience that made HBO’s fantasy series Game of Thrones a mainstream hit, should they choose to give the new series a try. But it’s almost like too much is cut out. It’s one of those weird contradictions about the show, that the first season absolutely flies through The Eye of the World, but often feels like it’s taking its sweet time. To be fair, Jordan’s massive, 14-novel series took its sweet time permanently, so the show has that in common with the books.
There is also a major change to part of The Wheel of Time’s fundamental premise with the much-ballyhooed reveal that the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of the powerful sorcerer destined to either save the world or destroy it, could be any gender—as opposed to just a man. This has huge implications for how the show will treat gender and update The Wheel of Time for the 2020s. The original was so laser-focused on a gender binary it permeated almost every facet of the novel series; it’s not only the most-dated part of the books but also the worst. The TV show is a major improvement on the books in this regard, even if all those implications are still just implications… at least by the end of the show’s first six episodes.
Where The Wheel of Time loses to the books is in its sense of scope. Jordan had his flaws as a writer but he was an excellent, if overzealous, world-builder. What the TV show gains in clarity and focus it loses in the sense that this is a real place where things happen beyond the quintet of heroes. Part of the problem is that the show doesn’t feel like it has any of the realism that made Game of Thrones look so good. The clothes are too clean. Villages’ dirt grounds are so flat and smooth they’re obviously sound stages. The magic VFX looks mediocre and uninspired. The Trollocs—orc-like monsters who serve the Dragon Reborn’s ultimate foe—are guys in suits that look like they were made by ILM in the ‘90s: good, but it’s nothing like the quality of TV viewers are used to nowadays.
This is especially bizarre given that Amazon is reportedly spending $10 million or more per episode—more than Game of Thrones had before its final two seasons. There are some epic shots of nature scattered about that look great but so much in the show just looks… workman-like, as if The Wheel of Time got the back-up production team while the real pros went to Amazon’s even more ludicrously expensive Lord of the Rings TV series.
So why am I looking forward to finishing the rest of the series? It could be that I’m just enjoying seeing the core story of The Wheel of Time being told in live-action, without the massive time commitment and frustration of reading the books. But I’ll give you four more reasons: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Henney, Zoe Robins, and Madeleine Madden. The first two bring warmth and humor to two characters who were made out as ciphers in the books, while Madden and Robins give depth and nuance to Egwene and Nynaeve, whereas the novels gave them stereotypes and clichés.
At its heart, The Wheel of Time is simply a compelling fantasy story, and it’s one I’m looking forward to seeing more of (thankfully, season two is already in production). I don’t know if this first season is going to be enough for people to want to stick with it, but The Eye of the World was a slow start to the epic too, and that certainly didn’t hurt the novel series. Hopefully, the same will hold true for the TV show.
The Wheel of Time’s first three episodes begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on November 19 with the remaining five of the first season debuting weekly. Created by Rafe Judkins, the series writers include Amanda Kate Shuman, Michael Clarkson, Paul Clarkson, Justine Juel Gillmer, Dave Hill, Kameron Hood, and Celine Song.
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