Review: Amazon’s The Wheel of Time

Amazon Prime Video has started to release episodes of the first season of their adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (WoT) series. I have a few thoughts about it and thought I’d put them here. While I’ll try not to spoil anything major, no guarantees so if that is important to you don’t read on. I’ll update this post as new episodes come out.

TLDR; I am pretty new to The Wheel of Time story, having so far only finished the first book and I’m most of the way through the second, but I am cautiously optimistic that Amazon will do a good job translating this story to television.

The success of HBO’s adaption of Game of Thrones (GoT) sent other streaming services looking for material for similar shows. Robert Jordan’s fourteen book The Wheel of Time series was a natural choice, but like Game of Thrones it could be considered un-film-able.

The Wheel of Time is an epic fantasy which, of course, means it is a struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. In this case power, i.e. magic, is given to those who can “channel” the True Source, the driving force of the universe that turns the Wheel of Time. Often represented with something like the yin-yang symbol, it consists of a male half and a female half. Only men can access the male half and only women can access the female half, and people who can channel this power are known as Aes Sedai.

The main antagonist is Shai’tan, The Dark One, imprisoned at the moment of creation by the Creator in place called Shayol Ghul. He can still wield influence from his prison, and is constantly working to free himself. In the Age of Legends, he almost escaped his prison, but Lews Therin Telamon, known as the Dragon, and a hundred male Aes Sedai were able to reseal his prison. But in the process, The Dark One was able to taint the male half of the True Source, causing all who used it to go mad. In their madness they engaged in what is called The Breaking of the World, reshaping the land and scattering its people. Since then only woman were allowed to channel the True Source and become Aes Sedai.

The action in the books starts some 2000 years later when the prophecy predicts that the Dragon will be reborn to face off against the Dark One and either destroy him forever or cause him to be freed to begin an age of darkness.

At least that’s what I get from having read the first book and most of the second. As I mentioned, there are fourteen of the darn things, so there is a lot of material to cover. Jordan died from a heart related illness after Book 11, but he had enough notes that his work was finished by the author Brandon Sanderson. Overall my friends who know these things are pretty positive on the series as a whole (although Book 10 seems to be universally loathed) and so a couple of years ago I asked for and received the books as a gift. I decided to start them once I saw that Amazon was adapting them to a television series.

When I was in my long and storied college career, I took an elective course called “Film and Novel”. I thought it would be something where we read a book and then saw a movie version, but instead it was an examination of how the structure of a film narrative differs from that of a book. For example, if you are reading a ghost story, and someone sees a ghost no one else can see, it is pretty easy to get that from the written word. But what about when you are watching a movie, and you see the ghost, too, right there on the screen. There are conventions used in film that let you know that maybe the ghost isn’t real, such as other characters not seeing the ghost, or when the main character points it out and the camera shows the same shot but the ghost is missing, etc.

In any case, the course taught me to judge a film narrative separately from a written narrative. In other words, the book isn’t always “right” and the story told by a film adaptation can be just as valid.

Getting back to Amazon’s WoT, after four episodes I’m feeling kind of neutral. There are only eight episodes in the first season so they are having to do some serious editing to get the story down as I believe they want to cover the entire first book, at least based on the episode titles. Of course those changes are going to result in a much different story than the one told in the books. For example, in the books much is made of a sword carried by Rand al’Thor which is marked with the image of a heron. In the series there is a single shot, a nod to those who have read the books, and then it never comes up again.

The story focuses around five young people from the remote village of Two Rivers. All five of them are ta’veren, a person around which the Wheel of Time weaves a story, but only one of them can be the Dragon Reborn.

The first major change is that these characters, who are around seventeen in the books, are now portrayed in their early twenties. This allows for a little more sexuality, and considering the gratuitous use of sex in GoT it was a bit off-putting to me. There is also a dark turn in the first episode that I also thought was a little too much and it seemed a desperate ploy to make the story more “gritty”. It seemed to be there just to make it appeal more to the GoT crowd, and WoT is a much different story.

I’m pretty okay with the casting, and it is obvious they turned the diversity dial up to 11. I can’t begin to catalog the different ethnicities represented by the cast, although the nerd in me is a little unhappy that the people in the town of Two Rivers are so different (from a story telling perspective, not a Hollywood inclusion perspective). I mean, this town was supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world for 2000 years, and in that time inbreeding should have made everyone look pretty much the same (well, unless they are a bunch of racists and only bred along ethnic lines). I get why they did it, though, and so I’m able to overlook it, and at least Rand has red hair.

Where they didn’t get very diverse is with the evil foot soldiers, the Trollocs. In the books they were a mish-mash of different animals: some had goats heads, some those of a bear or a wolf, and even others looked like birds. These Trollocs all look like goats, and I couldn’t help but think that they lifted the model from the Khazra goatmen from Diablo III. I guess even with a reported budget of US$10 million per episode they have to cut corners somewhere.

On the upside, I love how they represented the Trolloc’s bosses, the Myrddraal (the Fades). Spot on.

One of the main things I dislike about the show is that they imply that a woman could be the Dragon Reborn (there are two women out of the five people from Two Rivers). Look, I’m all for gender diversity in story telling, and in the books woman play a major role if not a dominant one, but the whole point of the Dragon Reborn is that it is a man who can channel the True Source without going mad. Even in episode four, where one of the female characters displays great power, they are still hinting that a woman could be the Dragon. I could more easily overlook it if it wasn’t key to the story, but if they follow the books everyone will know who the Dragon is by the end of the season, so I guess it is moot but it still grates on me a bit.

Overall, we’re halfway through Season One and I’m not looking for those four hours back. My main complaint is that you just can’t tell a story like this correctly in such a short amount of time. A large part of epic fantasy involves large amounts of boredom and tedium punctuated my moments of sheer terror, and Hollywood seems eager to cut the slow bits out when filming such stories (well, unless you are Peter Jackson then you get nearly eight hours to cover a story that fits into a 280 page book). Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, seems to be enjoying it, although I have to fill in some of the back story.

They apparently have at least eight seasons planned, so if the show is successful I’m certain I’ll have more to both praise and complain about. I’ll update this post as the season progresses.

UPDATE: Having watched all eight episodes I’m still pretty neutral on the whole thing. I mean, it tells a story, just not the story I enjoyed from the books. Andrea, who hasn’t read the books, liked it, so it obviously works on some level.

I felt the same way about season one of The Expanse but I enjoyed the following seasons, so maybe the same thing will happen with WoT.