Breaking The Wheel

It's safe to say that The Wheel of Time TV series, streaming on Amazon Prime, has divided fans of the source material, namely Robert Jordan's enormous, sprawling, epic book series of the same name, spanning 14 door-stopping volumes published over a period of 24 years (1989-2013).

I would not call myself a great connoisseur of fantasy, but I do know something about these particular books, having been introduced to them as a teenager by a high school friend in the early nineties. I have warm memories of the series, and less warm memories of the tense, multi-year waits in between installments.

Their publication also coincided with the birth of the Web and the popularization of the Internet that came with that. It's impossible for me to separate my memories of these books from my memories of scouring Wheel of Time themed newsgroups and fan sites, often over dial-up, looking for plausible answers to the various plot mysteries that had maddeningly accumulated over the years. I even had a fan page at one point, now lost to the mists of time.

I lasted until book nine, after which I gave up. The infamous slog had begun, and I was knee deep in it. Sometime after book six, it became clear to me that Robert Jordan didn't know what to do with all the loose narrative threads he had created, and I despaired of them ever being resolved in a satisfactory manner. He eventually died without finishing his life's work. I know Brandon Sanderson picked up the baton after Jordan died, but I never finished reading the series.

I say all this to give you some sense of my relationship to these books - my credentials, if you will. I'm a fan, but I'm not an uber fan. I haven't even read the whole series once, let alone multiple times. I liked the books a lot, and they definitely left an impression on my teenage mind, but I can't say that I loved them - especially the later ones. I am (or at least was) an enthusiastic fan but not an obsessive one. Keep that in mind for what follows.

The Difficulty of Adapting The Wheel Of Time

When I heard that Amazon was adapting The Wheel of Time, my primary emotion was surprise followed by...curiosity? I wanted to see how (or if) they would pull it off.

Adapting such a well-known and well-loved series has to be a difficult and thankless job at the best of times, but it must be particularly hard in the case of The Wheel of Time, with thousands of characters, and hundreds of locations. Amazon didn't do itself any favours by restricting the seasons to eight episodes each.

But it's not just the size of it. The simple truth is that this is no ordinary book series. Its structure doesn't really translate well to a traditional season-based TV narrative format. It's been deemed unfilmable more than once and it's not just because of its length.

So much of the series is invisible. Aes Sedai in the books are famously composed - almost Vulcan-like. Warders are famously stoic. A lot of the plot consists of people thinking to themselves, something that is nearly impossible to portray compellingly in a visual medium. And don't get even me started on the background material. Half of the story takes place in the insanely comprehensive glossary at the back of each book, before you even read the first page.

Add to this: the books are full of characters and artifacts that often appear in one or two chapters in one book, and then don't reappear until several (long) books later - if, indeed, they ever do at all. This might be workable in a printed medium (barely) but it becomes a real problem when you have to hire real actors, and you're at risk of losing them to different projects in between seasons.

It doesn't help matters that Robert Jordan originally intended The Wheel of Time to be a trilogy - and it shows painfully in the story structure. The first three books have a drastically different feel to them than the rest of the series. He basically recycled the same ending three times - it's the same sword fight between the same two characters. In some cases, major characters were almost completely rewritten later on; fan favourite Mat, for example, might as well be a different character in book four.

In fact, it's generally agreed that it's only around book four that the series really starts to come into its own. That might not matter to patient readers, but it makes life infinitely more difficult for people trying to adapt it into a episodic, season based visual format. I mean, what exactly are you supposed to do? I don't know, but I'll tell you what you can't do - you can't really do a straightforward "one book = one season" kind of adaptation. You need to adapt the whole series at once, and that's hard. I don't envy the people who've been given this task.

Separating the Wheat From the Chaff

Okay, so with all that in mind...was The Wheel of Time show any good?

Before I express any concrete opinions, there are a few things I need to get out of the way. The first is that, as a general rule, I don't consider "faithfulness to source material" to be the yardstick by which I measure the quality of an adaptation. We're talking about fiction, not historical documents and writers are allowed to take some liberties. Changes, in and of themselves, don't bother me unless they make the story demonstrably worse - and this goes double for something like The Wheel of Time. There is a kind of fan who won't be happy with anything other than a scene for scene adaptation but this is something that is simply not possible with this franchise, and hence I'm not going to devote too much time to this pipe dream. I wish these people good luck.

Other fans veer into legitimately racist territory, focusing on the skin colour of the cast. For obvious reasons, I won't devote any time to these people either except to say that while the show has a lot of flaws, the cast is not one of them.

This leaves us with the fans who, for whatever reason, criticize the actual show and it's here that we can have an actual discussion. We're obviously headed into major spoiler territory, so be warned. I'll also point that that if you're not already familiar with either the books or the show, then literally nothing I say here will make any sense whatsoever - but if that's the case, then why are you even reading? :-)

Alright. Here we go.

On the whole, I liked the show, but I didn't love it. I wanted to, and there were moments when I thought I could, but I never quite got there.

There were definitely a lot of changes, and they were definitely a mixed bag. Some of them made the story flow better, some of them were utterly baffling and some of them just...were. To say that the quality of the show was uneven is to put it mildly.

The show was at its best when it made changes that expanded on underdeveloped aspects of the books. Season one, episode four ("The Dragon Reborn") is a good example, A Logain-centric episode depicting events that happened "off screen" in the books, it was, in my opinion, the best episode of the season and one of the best of the show. I say "one of" because the title of "best episode" has to go to season two, episode six ("Eyes Without Pity"), an emotionally intense Egwene-centric episode that explicitly portrays certain events that were, at best, only hinted at in The Great Hunt.

Moiraine and Siuan's romantic pairing on the show is another example. The books hint that these two characters may have been more than friends at some point in their past, but it's never made explicit and it's open to interpretation. The show makes it explicit, and it adds to the drama. I liked the change.

In some cases, the show added depth to characters who sorely needed it. Liandrin comes to mind in this regard; introduced in The Great Hunt, she exists as little more than an evil foil for Nynaeve and Egwene, but the show turns her into a complete three dimensional powerhouse without fundamentally altering her role. I love it.

Sometimes, the writers made significant alterations to the lore in order to simplify the narrative mechanics. One of the best examples is in how they streamlined a Forsaken's relationship to death. The Forsaken, if you recall, are the Dark One's main lieutenants - The Wheel of Time's Nazgรปl, if you will - and, in the books, their deaths were always complicated affairs. A Forsaken could be killed, like anyone, but they could also be resurrected at the Dark One's whim in a different body later on. Robert Jordan did this quite a bit - the only Forsaken, killed by conventional means, who doesn't get resurrected at some point is, to my knowledge, Asmodean.

This kind of works in print, but it's confusing in a visual medium. You'd have to hire a different actor to play the same character, several seasons later. So, on the show, they simply make the Forsaken straight up unkillable - at one point, Moiraine slits Lanfear's throat and Lanfear just magically heals up and continues along as if nothing happened. I like the change; the result is more or less the same as the novels, but less messy. If you look closely, Lanfear's eyes have small specks floating in them as she comes back to life, indicating that the Dark One is connected to this regeneration ability via the True Power, a little nod to the lore that I very much appreciated.

In the books, the only way to permanently kill a Forsaken is to use balefire and though it obviously remains to be seen, I suspect that show will do the same.

Sometimes, the writers made changes...just because. My opinion on these tends to be neutral. Many people, for example, disliked the way Mat gained his extra memories on the show, by sounding the Horn of Valere and suddenly remembering his past lives. In the books, it's a bargain struck with some weird, otherworldly creature in the Aiel waste. I don't really care either way - the end result is a character with new memories that will become, presumably, more useful later on. When I say I'm not overly concerned about faithfulness to source material, this is partly what I mean.

Of course, not all the changes were positive or neutral, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the ones that rubbed me the wrong way. I hated everything related to the Rand-Egwene-Perrin love triangle - it came out of nowhere and added nothing. I also didn't care for how they gave Perrin a wife just to kill her off and give him an edge - fridging at its most blatant.

I especially didn't like how the ending of season one robbed Rand of his big power moment against the Trolloc army in order to give it to Nynaeve who had, by that point in the show, already had several big power moments of her own. The show does this in season two as well; despite Egwene having a major character arc, culminating in a final confrontation with one of the more despicable characters in the show, the showrunners still, apparently, found it necessary to insert her into Rand's final confrontation with Ishamael. It's almost as if the writers hate Rand, which is awkward given that he's supposed to be the protagonist. At this point I'm not sure why we're supposed to be invested in him at all.

Some of the problems with the show are more systemic. The writers don't go out of their way to explain how the magic system works and indeed, go to some length to de-emphasize certain crucial aspects that I suppose were deemed "problematic". The fact that there's a male and female half of the One Power, for example, isn't specifically stated on the show, which is puzzling because this aspect of the magic system is so deeply entrenched in the books that you can't really get away from it and still have the same story. It permeates every aspect of the plot and trying to pretend otherwise makes for some very confusing TV.

Why is it that only women can use the One Power safely? Why do men eventually go mad when they try? The answer is an essential part of the written lore - the Dark One tainted the male half of the One Power, and left the female half untouched - but the show downplays the gender split so much that I suspect a lot of non-readers don't understand that there's a difference in the way men and woman channel at all. It certainly doesn't help that the show implies that people can switch genders when they're reborn (Nynaeve as the Dragon Reborn?), or that it's possible for women to give men channelling lessons (something that's simply impossible given how the One Power works in this world). It's frustrating because Robert Jordan's magic system and history are probably some of the most meticulously crafted aspects of series.

The show's treatment of written lore is a general sore spot for me. I liked learning about the history of that world in the books. I liked learning about the Dragon and the Age of Legends and the War of Power and the origins of the Forsaken. I liked learning about Artur Hawkwing and his relationship with Aes Sedai. None of this is in the show, and its absence is deeply felt. How are we supposed to know who the Seachan are without knowing about Artur Hawkwing? The show mentions once, in passing, that the Dragon tried to "cage darkness", but what does that even mean and why would he do that? Who exactly is the Dark One and why would a bunch of channelers go over to his side? Is it even clear that the Forsaken are channelers? So much is missing.

It might be a deliberate ploy. The writers might be planning to trickle the history out bit by bit in later seasons. That might be their plan but...I wouldn't hold my breath. It makes me sad.

Closing Thoughts

I guess you could summarize my feelings on the show as "mixed". The good parts are good enough for me to say I liked it and I will eagerly watch season 3 when it comes out. And the bad parts aren't enough to turn me off completely.

But it's frustrating. The overall quality is uneven. You'll see a great episode, with amazing acting, followed by one that makes little sense at all. You sometimes get the impression that, because this is a fantasy show, the writers believe that they can get away with non-sequiturs and inconsistencies if they paper them over with dramatic lines containing little of substance.

The show appears to be setting up an ensemble cast, but it's done at the expense of making Rand completely uninteresting. I can only hope that season three is better in this regard. I know it's supposed to be adapting The Shadow Rising, which is reason for optimism; that book is one of the best in the series, and Rand features quite prominently in it, so it's chance to make the show version of the character more engaging. The Shadow Rising is also where the series finally starts breaking out of the repetition of the earlier novels and starts becoming more straightforwardly adaptable.

I guess what I'm saying is that, despite everything, I'm looking forward to the third season. I hope they make it to their planned eight.

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