It’s adaptation week here at The Beat, and like I said when I was reviewing Cowboy Bebop, when it comes to adaptations, there are those who are loyalists and those who are experimentalists. Showrunner (and 11th season Survivor contestant) Rafe Judkins faced an unenviable task when it came to adapting Robert Jordan‘s best-selling high fantasy epic The Wheel of Time.
Like all adaptations, it’s virtually impossible to satisfy everyone. Those loyal to the books will balk at the major changes (and minor changes) made for the screen. Those uninitiated will be plunged into a world that is unfamiliar and lore heavy.
It’s difficult to imagine The Wheel of Time successfully making it onto our screens in a time before shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Lord of the Rings, so The Wheel of Time will have to contend with the constant comparison to these two fantasy giants, and unfortunately, it comes up short in a few aspects.
The Wheel of Time Season 1 follows essentially the same plot as The Eye of the World. Four young adults named Rand (Josha Stradowski), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Mat (Barney Harris), and Egwene (Madeleine Madden) are taken under the wing of two mysterious figures named Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) and Lan (Daniel Henney). Moiraine, we learn, is an Aes Sedai, a woman who can use the One Power aka the magic of the world. Lan is her warder, a type of suped up magical bodyguard. And Rand, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene all have the potential to be the Dragon Reborn, a reincarnated chosen one who will either save or destroy the world. Along the way, they are followed also by Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), who follows the group and is protective of the youths.
Early on, the series diverges from the books in one major way that has been ruffling feathers since the trailer dropped. Instead of limiting the Dragon Reborn to a chosen man, the Dragon can not be a person of any gender. For those who are loyal to that storyline, this will probably turn them off of the adaptation, but as a new fan of Jordan’s work (having only recently read the series) this is a refreshing twist. Without spoilers, readers of The Eye of the World and the rest of the series don’t ever really have a doubt of who the Dragon is. This deviation from the source adds a level of uncertainty to the mix and modernizes the immensely outdated gender binary of the book series.
For a book reader, it’s hard to ignore some of the large scenes sliced out from the first book, but with eight one hour episodes dedicated to covering a nearly 800 page book (the audiobook clocks in at 30 hours), trimming feels necessary. Despite that, the series doesn’t really start picking up until the halfway mark of the season. Having seen six of the eight episodes, the first three are merely intriguing, with the bulk of the meat of the story taking place in the back half of the season.
It’s understandable, though. Given the massive amount of world building that must take place when it comes to this story. Some beats are familiar, we understand the concept of a chosen one, the concept of a hero’s journey, the idea of orc-like beings who work for a nameless ultra-evil being, even the recently released Dune gives us a shorthand for the Aes Sedai in the form of the Bene Gesserit. But there’s more to tell and The Wheel of Time sometimes struggles to balance exposition drops with character work and storytelling.
When it comes to those characters, veteran actors Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney offer much when it comes to their typically mysterious characters. Early on in the series, it’s hard to decipher much of what Moiraine or Lan are thinking. There can be no doubt of Pike’s prowess as an actor when we slowly see the different sides of Moiraine unfold. Both are able to add layers to characters that have little to no emotion in the first book.
On a similar note, Madeleine Madden’s Egwene and Zoë Robins’ Nynaeve add multidimension to two characters who frequently fall into the category of either love interest or strong powerful female character. Jordan’s world has no lack of female characters, but to say that he developed them all as well as his favored three leading male progratonists would be a lie. And with the newly adapted prophecy, Egwene and Nynaeve’s fates feel more consequential. They are not relegated to the sidelines but hold equal footing to the male protagonists.
And what about those male protags? Josha Stradowski does a decent job as Rand, who mostly is a love-struck puppy in much of the first half of the season. Marcus Rutherford’s Perrin has an additional storyline that often times feels a little extraneous but his performance as Perrin is one of my favorites. And who doesn’t love Perrin? Barney Harris is compelling as Mat, who is arguably one of the most interesting characters of the series, but is a curious case as Mat has already been recast with Dónal Finn for Season 2.
Despite the grand scale of the book series, The Wheel of Time show can often feel rather small scale. The world of the story does not feel as massive as it should be. Until the group makes it to Tar Valon, the first major city, it feels like they are wandering a small countryside sometimes. Add to that the difficult pacing of the show which seems to be trying to match beats from the book (which also has abysmal pacing), and it almost feels like the show would do better to be released in binge format rather than weekly. Those pacing issues will be much more blatant with a week between each episode rather than just a few minutes.
But, I can’t say that I haven’t been seduced by the show. Despite its flaws and my fears from the complicated book series, I want to know more. And after six episodes, I’m very eager to watch more and wishing I could jump forward in time just to watch them (book fans will know that time travel isn’t even off topic when we’re talking about this series). With a second season already greenlit, The Wheel of Time could hit its stride by the end of this first season, and it’ll prosper if it’s willing to let go of some of the books’ more outdated stories and experiment a little more. Will it lose some diehard fans? Sure. But the risk might dole out a greater reward in the end.
The Wheel of Time premieres with the first three episodes Friday, November 19, 2021.