This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
In some ways, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time to be greenlit as a TV show. After the success of Game of Thrones it seemed for a while like everyone was looking for the next fantasy giant to adapt, and while talk of The Wheel of Time making the jump to the small screen has been ongoing for years now, there was never anything concrete – give or take that bizarre, no-budget Billy Zane ‘pilot’ made to hang on to the rights in 2015.
But now it’s official; Amazon has given the series the go-ahead, with Rafe Judkins as showrunner. For fans of the books, it’s an exciting development and an apparent no brainer in a world that soon will be without Game of Thrones. But adapting The Wheel of Time presents a very different set of challenges to Game of Thrones or even Lord of the Rings, and while those challenges are not insurmountable, nor are they insubstantial.
From the outset, we should probably eliminate any narrative of The Wheel of Time being ‘the next Game of Thrones’. In book form the two series are vastly different. Game of Thrones, despite having slid further and further into fantasy tropes later in its life, made headlines for being a subversive take on the genre unlike anything that had been seen on screen before. The characters were complex and morally ambiguous, it was full of sex and swearing, while magic, in the early days, existed on the dark fringes of the story. Back then it was a series far more concerned with political machinations and human failings than it was epic battles and dragons. Game Of Thrones was a drama first and a fantasy second, at least until about season five or six.
The Wheel of Time is a very different beast. The story centres on Rand Al Thor, a simple farm boy whose world is changed when he learns he is The Dragon Reborn; the reincarnation of a powerful magic wielder destined to defeat the Dark One and bring peace. The problem? In this world magic is drawn from a ‘True Source’ with a male half and a female half and, anticipating the danger posed by a male wielder, The Dark One corrupted the male half to ensure that anyone who channels it will go mad and die. As such Rand, and any men like him who can channel the source, are treated as untrustworthy objects of danger.
It’s a clever twist on the ‘chosen one’ trope – Rand must save the world, but left unchecked he’s just as likely to destroy it. As Rand’s power and madness grows, those around him seek to either help, influence or outright stop him before the prophesised final battle.
But honestly, that’s about where any subversion ends. The Wheel of Time builds on the foundation of high fantasy created by Tolkien to tell a far lengthier, more in depth fantasy epic – the series is comprised of fifteen books (including a prequel) and none of them are fleet reads. And while there are clever innovations, at its heart The Wheel of Time is a hero’s journey quest narrative writ very, very large.
This could ultimately work in the show’s favor. A more traditional fantasy epic might be refreshing after Game of Thrones – were it not for the fact that Amazon has also greenlit a series based on Lord of the Rings. Implicitly, however, the fact that it’s making both could confirm the rumors that Lord of the Rings will in fact be a grittier prequel focused on the adventures of a young Aragorn. Ironically, the series based on the original template for high fantasy may well end up being the one that hews closer to the darker take on the genre offered by George R.R. Martin’s opus. That said, producing both shows does seem like a somewhat risky proposition; neither will come cheap (the Lord of the Rings series is supposed to be the most expensive TV show ever made) and creating your own competition doesn’t exactly look like the smartest of business moves. However, fans will watch both so maybe it’s a coup after all.
But for these shows to work they have to reach more than just fans, and this is where Lord of the Rings has the edge. Not only does it have far greater name recognition, but by merit of not retreading old ground, it can offer us a new take on a beloved universe. Wheel Of Time, for most prospective viewers, needs to really make an impact in order to thrive and this is where the aforementioned challenges start to loom large.
Biggest amongst them? The Wheel of Time is really, really long. And more than that, it’s dense and sometimes maddeningly complex. There are over a thousand named characters in the series and some of those names are so similar that getting people mixed up in the later books becomes par for the course. And furthermore, there’s no way in which The Wheel of Time can take its cues from Game of Thrones and adapt roughly a book per season. For a start, fourteen seasons is an unreasonable length for a show that will be this expensive, and it’s exceedingly rare that even the most popular TV shows reach that point. The realities of television production mean that after seven seasons shows tend to become impractically expensive to make; your series needs to be either very cheap to begin with or absurdly profitable. For The Wheel of Time to get past seven years means hoping fervently for the latter outcome.
Luckily, the sheer volume of the book series isn’t entirely made up of crucial storytelling. While you do need to read every book for the whole to make sense, they’re pretty inconsistent in terms of how crucial each one is to the overall saga. The first two books are eventful and propulsive, the third is a drag that barely features Rand Al Thor at all, the fourth, fifth and sixth boast some of the best storytelling of the series then after that things slow to a crawl until the tenth book is quite literally made up of characters reacting to the climax of the ninth while having three-page baths. After that the final four books are essentially all payoff to a very, very long set up.
Inconsistency of pace means that there is a lot that can be cut or streamlined. Even the most generous fan of the series would have to concede that Jordan had a tendency to waffle and I would be curious to meet the person who could argue with conviction that Perrin’s three-book search for Faile had any of the narrative momentum or intrigue of Rand’s rise to power. And while part of the satisfaction of the final book absolutely came from the length of the preceding journey, general television audiences aren’t quite as committed as dedicated fantasy readers. I would suspect that The Wheel of Time could comfortably fit seven seasons of strong TV without having to lose anything too crucial.
This of course begs the question of how faithful we can expect the series to be. In Twitter Q&As Rafe Judkins has been pretty up-front about the fact that things will have to be changed to fit the new medium and a curious note from the (admittedly sparse) released information regarding the series lies in the synopsis, which states: “The story follows Moiraine, a member of the shadowy and influential all-female organization called the ‘Aes Sedai’ as she embarks on a dangerous, world-spanning journey with five young men and women.”
While Moiraine is a major character and essentially the Gandalf figure of the series, even in the first book she isn’t the protagonist. Foregrounding her in this way is an interesting, and not entirely illogical choice, although given that her role in the books recedes sharply it creates further questions of just how closely this adaptation will hew to the source material. While big changes could be welcome in the context of this series, fantasy fans aren’t exactly known for being too forgiving of loose adaptations, and Amazon will be at least partly relying on those who already love this series to give it an audience right out of the gates.
To make The Wheel of Time work on screen is a difficult and doubtless expensive proposition, but in the right hands it could be brilliant. There is, after all, a reason the books are so beloved and that millions of readers stuck through multiple volumes of tedium to get to the pay-off. The characters are rich and endearing, and over the course of the series you can’t help but end up feeling like they’re your close friends. The themes of balance, free will and corruption will never not be relevant and in its best moments the book series was nothing short of rousing, thrilling and awe inspiring. The potential for stunning visuals is rife in the magic system and the various fantasy locations that populate the story while some of the twists could become water-cooler moments on par with anything Game of Thrones had to offer. If Amazon pulls it off, the potential for this series is huge.
The Wheel of Time is in many ways the definition of a flawed masterpiece, and as such the adaptation process will have to be especially judicious to make it work, walking a fine line between compromise and remaining true to the spirit of the material. To be successful will also mean not trying to emulate Game of Thrones and instead foregrounding what makes The Wheel of Time a classic in its own right, while also finding a way to make the relatively traditional appeal to an audience who might expect something edgier. It’s a tough job and I don’t envy Rafe Judkins, but if it works? It might just be something special.