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Amazon's The Wheel of Time is better and worse than the books, but it's still compelling

  • "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," says Rob Bricken. "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."


    • The Wheel of Time is the latest big-budget fantasy series that makes Game of Thrones look like a masterwork: "Here’s a shortlist of the attributes that the many big-budget, epic-scale medieval, sci-fi or fantasy shows trying to become the next Game of Thrones keep missing about what made that swords-and-sorcery saga an improbable crossover hit: humor, charisma, human stakes in addition to apocalyptic ones," says Inkoo Kang, adding: "Conventional wisdom rightly holds that Game of Thrones ended miserably, but it feels like a masterwork when compared to virtually any of the shows that have aspired to replace it. The latest production expensive enough to bankrupt Scrooge McDuck and wildly miscalculate what made its predecessor so watchable is Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time, an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s 14-book series. Starring Rosamund Pike as a member of a medieval magical sisterhood fighting an eternal war between good and evil against a backdrop of reincarnation (hence the title), it’s an epic with little sense of grandeur, populated by characters with missions but no personality. In that sense, it fulfills Jeff Bezos’s alleged demand that Amazon develop its own Game of Thrones — in the most unspecial manner possible. But the fantasy staple that The Wheel of Time resembles most closely is The Lord of the Rings (which gets its own Amazon prequel series next year). Like LOTR, the action begins in the last place imaginable: an idyllic village tucked away in the mountains where the townspeople pay little attention to the wars brewing below. It’s there where four unworldly young adults are recruited by a mysterious stranger to embark on a long journey that’ll determine the fate of humanity (and several other species, like the demonic Trollocs and the ogre-ish … Ogiers)."
    • Viewers will enjoy The Wheel of Time if they're not expecting the next Game of Thrones: "The Wheel of Time, Amazon’s foray into epic fantasy, is not Game of Thrones," says Preeti Chhibber. "There’s a natural inclination to compare the two, or to imagine that the audiences of one could swap out for the other; there’s also that persistent rumor that Jeff Bezos pushed for Amazon to acquire the series as an answer to HBO’s breakout genre hit. But where George R.R. Martin wrote of lands wrought with cynicism and intrigue, murder and anger, Robert Jordan — and showrunner Rafe Judkins — bring in a lightness, innocence, and hope. This is not to say there’s no violence or backstabbing in The Wheel of Time. In the six episodes made available to reviewers, there are plenty of battles and monsters that strike fear into the most heroic of hearts. But part of what people love so much about Jordan’s series is that it’s the hero’s journey, an epic quest, but turned sideways and far more gender inclusive than its mainstream compatriots at the time. Consider yourself warned: don’t come to The Wheel of Time for gratuitous sex scenes."
    • The Wheel of Time tries to do many things in each hour-long episode, and whipping up a must-binge story for the Prestige TV era is not one of them: "The Wheel of Time, at least in its first five episodes, is the case of a show that’s so busy, and so packed with characters worried about the past and present, and yet it fails to gain momentum or edge," says Nick Allen. "Its medieval world is on the brink of apocalypse, and Rosamund Pike can conjure wild streams of magic with the tense cupping of her hands. But it's hard to get lost in this world when it feels so emotionally distant, so scattered, and so packed with thin plotlines." He adds: "And then the show's focus splinters even more by the end of episode two, in a way that won’t be spoiled. It doesn’t add momentum to the story, but just gives you more mental juggling to do as a viewer, while being dragged through numerous scenes of characters detailing ominous backstory via the show's commonly on-the-nose dialogue. Perhaps aware of how much the show can be so chatty, The Wheel of Time has some bombastic scenes of combat that are fitfully claustrophobic and chaotic, and it can be jarringly brutal as if trying to prove something."
    • The underwhelming Wheel of Time is a reminder that money alone does not make a fantasy world go around: "The thing that’s easy to forget about Game of Thrones is how relatively modest it was in the beginning compared to what it became," says Alan Sepinwall. "Battle scenes were often skipped over in their entirety due to budgetary limitations. It didn’t matter, though, because the heart of that show at its best was its interpersonal dynamics; put any two characters with even a bit of shared history in a room together, and something interesting was sure to happen. The huge fight scenes of the later seasons were fun in their own right, but they worked because the audience was already invested in, say, Jon Snow before he had to defend Castle Black against a horde of Wildlings, or in Jamie Lannister and Bronn before they came under literal fire from a dragon. There’s an action set piece in the climax of the first Wheel episode that’s bigger and mostly more visually impressive than anything Thrones did in its early seasons, but it feels like hollow spectacle because we’ve barely gotten to know any of the people involved by that point. Battle and chase scenes in later episodes aren’t much better, because even though the show has spent more time on the characters, they remain flat ciphers whose fates feel irrelevant. The scenery in and around Prague is stunning, though, with certain vistas capable of evoking a similar feeling to some of the New Zealand travelogue sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. But when the scenery is one of a drama’s biggest selling points, that’s a problem. Whether a lot is happening in a given episode or scene, or we’re just watching people journey from place to place, little of it feels engaging because the characters are so threadbare."
    • The Wheel of Time fails to indicate what makes Robert Jordan's fantasy world distinctive: "Amazon’s The Wheel of Time television series isn’t like visiting a Wheel of Time theme park, but it’s definitely like watching somebody else film their visit to a Wheel of Time theme park on an iPhone," says Daniel Fienberg. "It’s not the real thing, and you’re not really there, and, in and of itself, it’s almost shockingly devoid of artistry or narrative momentum. But its adjacency to a thing that lots of people love is likely to prove sufficient for many of them. The thing that is distinctive about The Wheel of Time, as best as I can explain it, is the degree of its world-building. Any basic summary that I could give you would probably make it sound like the most generic fantasy thing ever, to which a fan would say, 'Sure, but that’s just the beginning!' Both reactions would be appropriate."
    • The Wheel of Time works as a frivolous diversion -- just don't pay close attention: "Whether you literally hit the pause button to log each new vocabulary word or your brain simply can’t get past a a gaping hole in logic, too many queries can create an all-too-bumpy ride," says Ben Travers. "But there is an alternative: Just go with it. Produced by Sony Pictures Television and Amazon Studios for a worldwide audience of Amazon Prime Video subscribers, the eight-episode first season features a lot of strange names and stranger creatures, along with plenty of magic problem-solving and silly CGI, but it’s also designed to be universally accessible. Exposition is repeated, characters fit familiar archetypes, and the plot hues closely to a traceable line. Showrunner Rafe Judkins ... isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; he’s just trying to keep it spinning. If you’re a fan of the genre and just want to partake in the spectacle of an imaginary world filled with Not Orcs and Kinda Witches, you’re probably in for a decent time. (And if you’re a fan of Robert Jordan’s books, hoping these beloved novels will inspire TV’s next great fantasy show… well, lower your expectations.)"
    • The Wheel of Time is worthy of a grand adventure, knowing which parts of the books to emphasize: "The series faces an uphill battle for fans of the novels versus fans of prestige television: How does Jordan’s arguably old-fashioned story about chosen ones and dark lords translate to modern audiences hungry for something new?" says Jon Negroni. "After screening the first three episodes, the strategy employed makes decent sense. Seize on the forward-thinking ideas and concepts already in the original story — there are more than enough — and focus far less on the tropes. No need to dwell on this being yet another tale about farm boys realizing their destinies. Lurking behind the pages of Jordan’s first novel is a morsel of mystery behind who the chosen one really is, even if it might be somewhat obvious to some. By that count, the TV series wisely picks up on an opportunity to center more of its tale on the female leads. While The Eye of the World mostly fixated on one point of view throughout the first half or so, later books were far more varied and complex when it comes to who this story is truly about. So TV’s The Wheel of Time kicks off with that very approach by utilizing a large cast and plenty of conflict to get the swords and magic going sooner than readers of the books might expect."
    • Each Wheel of Time episode is better than the last: "Showrunner Rafe Judkins does an admirable job trimming the fat from Jordan's novels," says Belen Edwards. "This is no small feat, considering that the first book in the series clocks in at over 800 pages long. He wisely condenses much of the characters' travel time, so we don't spend entire episodes slogging from inn to inn. Plus, he centers Moiraine and the Aes Sedai as much as possible to give us a wider sense of what's at stake. As Moiraine, Pike mixes weary gravitas with undeniable cool. The scenes where she interacts with her fellow magical sisters are among The Wheel of Time's best, full of political machination and women who are strong, flawed, and fascinating. Pike and Henney also have excellent chemistry. It's oh-so-easy to believe the intimacy of their bond. There's a clear sense of shared history in even the smallest of their exchanged glances....If you're totally unfamiliar with Jordan's books, you'll be pleasantly surprised not knowing who the Chosen One is right off the bat. Despite everything it does well, The Wheel of Time isn't without its missteps. The pace varies from lightning-fast to maddeningly slow, only hitting a happy medium towards the later end of the available episodes. Special effects — especially when it comes to the One Power — are either awesome or hilariously fake-looking. Perhaps the worst offense is the dialogue that basically screams, 'Listen to this important exposition!' Too often, clunky lines are slipped into conversation for the sole purpose of delivering as much background information as possible."
    • The Wheel of Time finds itself stranded on various morasses: "Part of the issue with Wheel is its addiction to spectacle: We seem to be constantly moving toward or coming down from violent conflagration, so much so that the show’s power to startle us quickly dwindles," says Daniel D'Addario. "If this is an attempt to match what Thrones became in popular memory, Judkins and his team would be well-advised to recall that much of that drama’s first season was a high-stakes character drama, not a war with a new front opening each episode. This perversely gives the show a pinched and narrow-feeling universe, with its focus limited to what peril lies directly ahead. This hurts its ability to draw out character. We see more of the five’s skills than of their interactions or group dynamic on a pretty unusual mission, though the actors portraying them try their best. And Pike can easily summon imperiousness, as fans of her films from Gone Girl to I Care a Lot already know well. But it’s only in the sixth episode that we get to see her do significantly more than intone gravely — during which time many may have lost interest. And the young people she shepherds rarely transcend their roles in the story as cogs in, well, a wheel, significant for how they collectively affect the story but not in and of themselves."
    • The Wheel of Time will suck you in even if you're unfamiliar with Robert Jordan's book series: "After eight seasons of Game of Thrones and its labyrinthine world of competing houses, internecine conflicts, religious clashes, and rich characters with complicated histories, Amazon Prime Video's new The Wheel of Time can, at first, feel a bit like a fantasy series determined to take the genre back to basics," says Keith Phipps. "The feeling doesn't last. While the first episode plays like a collection of familiar fantasy elements — it features a search for a chosen one, a land threatened by an overpowering darkness, and a band of horrifying sentient animal men called 'trollocs' — subsequent installments reveal these are just cornerstones for a bigger, far more ornate structure. It might start small, but by the end of the six episodes provided to critics, The Wheel of Time begins to look massive." He adds: "It helps, too, that the series puts a lot of emphasis on its characters. Pike plays Moiraine as a woman who never says more than she has to, makes hard choices without missing a beat, and who's learned to keep secrets as a survival tactic. But she also conveys deep reserves of anger, fear, and regret without saying a word. Pike's the biggest name in the cast (though Sophie Okonedo shows up in later episodes) but both the newcomers playing the potential Dragons and the TV and film veterans that make up the supporting cast have all been carefully chosen. (Don't get too attached to Barney Harris as Mat, one of the possible Dragons, however. His part has been recast for the already-announced second season.)"
    • The Wheel of Time is watchable, even with its bland characters: "Despite the weak characterization, I still found The Wheel of Time rather watchable," says Chancellor Agard. "It definitely isn't lacking in incidents. The writers keep the plot wheel turning as characters are chased from one location to the next, action is adequately sequenced, and magic is performed (albeit rendered goofily). Not only is that a blessing in this age of streaming bloat, but the constant forward motion supports the world-building because the show introduces us to new things at a steady pace — from the revanchist White Cloaks, an army of men who resent and hunt the Aes Sedai with religious zeal, to a community of peace-loving nomads who are just here for vibes, and the surprisingly interesting internal politics of the Aes Sedai. Furthermore, the series provides just enough history, adding context to the present and making the world feel lived in without overwhelming viewers (at least not until Amazon orders a prequel as it expands the Wheelverse.) The setting is so captivating that it leaves you wishing the characters had received the same amount of attention."
    • As a TV adaptation, The Wheel of Time sure looks as if it wouldn’t mind your confusing it with Game of Thrones: The similarities are "right down to the opening credits with their circular Ouroboros-like logo, not unlike the emblem in the Thrones credits," says James Poniewozik. "The good news for fantasy-hungry viewers is that this lush and ambitious series quickly approaches Thrones, and even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, in grandeur and polish. It’s in the verve of life and depth of character that Wheel is a few revolutions behind. Vast series like Jordan’s (which was completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death in 2007) can be quagmires to adapt; an abortive pilot aired like a thief in the night on FXX in 2015. This new attempt, developed by Rafe Judkins, hints at a mammoth world and mythology to be built out, based on a mix-match of eastern and western philosophies and aesthetics. But it begins simply and approachably, in what you could call Modified Frodo’s Quest Mode: There’s a prophecy, a wizard, a band of ordinary folk swept up in history, a perilous journey, a shadowy foe and talk of a decisive final battle."
    • The Wheel of Time is much closer in tone to Lord of the Rings -- a shadow that it struggles to escape from: "In early episodes, you could draw a very close comparison between the two, but The Wheel of Time fares better as the world opens up and leans more on the unique aspects of its world, it’s got a stellar cast bringing it to life, and it offers just enough to keep you watching," says Michelle Jaworski. "The Wheel of Time is a vast tapestry set out for us to parse, a point that’s driven home just about every episode as the title sequence plays. Threads are pulled through a loom to form and relay the shape of something much bigger than any single scene or thousands-year-old legend and the sense of which will likely differ depending on your familiarity with the source material. The visual metaphor makes sense. Even if you haven’t read a single page of Robert Jordan’s bestselling 14-book series and a prequel published over 23 years, spanning over 10,000 pages, and which was concluded with an assist from Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death in 2007, it’s clear from its very first moments that Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation is only scratching the surface of its source material. It’s both an attempt to mold a behemoth of a book series into an enticing TV show and not to overwhelm newcomers who will soon become familiar with a wealth of new jargon, world-building, and lore."
    • How is it that a TV series with all the time in the time in the world managed to bypass most of the character development?: "It’s genuinely baffling how perfunctory the storytelling feels in The Wheel of Time," says William Bibbiani. "There are answers to almost every question that doesn’t meaningfully affect our protagonists — color-coded outfits, enchanted weapons, long-lost sheet music — but all the young stars are given rudimentary backstories and then shoved along their way...The pilot episode of The Wheel of Time establishes these young protagonists, and a few more who will be important later on, in their rather boring day-to-day lives. When they embark on their journey, within a few episodes they’re drifting off in other directions. We don’t spend nearly enough time with them as a group to care that they’re split up, and when they’re split up they still refuse to take one another in their confidences, so no connections can be forged. They’re just floating in the wind and if they bump into each other, or an important plot point, it feels completely random."
    • Showrunner Rafe Judkins says his goal was to capture the spirit of Robert Jordan's expansive world: “Wheel of Time in the literary world really sits as kind of the pillar between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones,” Judkins -- who placed third on Survivor: Guatemala -- said with the confidence of someone who gets the canon. “But (the show is) coming out after both of them. So, we have to be mindful of that I think, too. There are things that Wheel of Time created that Game of Thrones did their riff on, and it’ll feel like we’re being repetitive when it was actually in Wheel of Time first.” With all that in mind, Judkins is excited for new audiences to discover the series. He knows the legacy of Wheel of Time doesn’t begin or end with his show. “A lot of people are picking up a fantasy series today ... it’s not like if you didn’t read it in the ’90s, you’ll never read it. Or if you didn’t start Game of Thrones at the beginning that you’re not going to pick it up. People are picking up Lord of the Rings today and reading it,” Judkins says of his approach to adapting a book with an ever-expanding fan base. “I try to be really true to what the Wheel of Time books are, and what makes them great.” 

    TOPICS: The Wheel of Time, Amazon, Rafe Judkins, Robert Jordan, Rosamund Pike

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