Hippoi Athanatoi

The Wheel of Our Time

My discovery of The Wheel of Time preceded my introduction to the Internet with at most a year. As such, it was the first Fantasy series that I ended up experiencing in part through various on-line communities, something which paved the way for my later involvement in the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom. In fact, and this is something I have written about before, Westeros.org would not have existed if it was not for The Wheel of Time. In part because Elio and I would not have met and in part because we modelled some of our early contributions to the fandom on existing Wheel of Time-resources. And before we lost ourselves in Westeros, we spent countless hours on Wheel of Time roleplaying games, arguing lore minutiae.

As you might guess from this, and from my opinion of the later seasons of Game of Thrones, I am a nitpicky book purist. However, I will make an attempt to discuss the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time both as an adaptation and as “just” a TV show. But it is always an impossible task to completely separate an adaptation from its source material, because the very fact that it is an adaptation is an integral part of its existence.

As a show

In the reviews I have seen so far, comparisons to Game of Thrones are a common theme. In one sense, it is impossible to avoid, because GoT did pave the way for the wave of fantasy adaptations. But it is also clear that GoT has loomed large in the minds of the creative team, both in terms of what they want to emulate (the grittiness) and what they want to avoid (complaints about the world being too white and too misogynistic). One gets the sense that they did not really have a strong image of their own series as a separate entity, only in relation to Game of Thrones. That is a problematic point to start from and it may be a major contributing factor to how underwhelming the first three episodes are.

As a book reader, I cannot judge whether the lore is introduced in a way that strikes the right balance between too much exposition and leaving viewers in the dark. I do, however, feel that the pace is much too quick initially. Neither the characters nor the story is given any chance to breathe. When Rand, Mat, Perrin and Egwene depart the Two Rivers together with Moiraine and Lan at the end of the first episode, right after the climactic battle, we’ve barely gotten to know them and their families. At least Rand’s father and Perrin’s late wife are named, the families of Egwene and Mat do not fare as well. This makes having one of them forlornly asking “Do you think we’ll ever go back?” in the second episode feel both unearned and premature.

Once they have left the Two Rivers behind, the pace is a bit better for a while, only for it to slow to a crawl once the group is split up and the viewer is treated to more than a few shots of people walking, walking and walking. Though to be fair, the first book has this issue too.

Apart from some nice views of ancient ruins, hinting at the world’s past, it mostly looks and feels like generic fantasy, especially the costuming. When Thom in the third episode says he can identify people by their accents and their dress it ought to leave both book readers and those new to the world puzzled. By then we’ve seen that the only ones that seem to dress in a distinct way are the Aes Sedai and the Whitecloaks. Even the Two Rivers are full of such a mishmash of people and fashions that you might think its a major trade hub.

There is also at least one scene that shows that there were some late-stage changes, something that does not inspire confidence. When Moiraine questions Nynaeve about her background at the pool in the caves, this must surely be a remnant of when she (as was the case according to some previews) was supposed to be looking at five possible candidates for the Dragon Reborn. And speaking of previews and the pool, a scene actually using it as part of the Women’s Circle business appears to have been cut, leaving only the scene of Nynaeve cleaning it after the fact.

If I wasn’t a book reader, I would probably continue watching anyway. There were enough intriguing hints about the world, as well as a promise of magic playing a central role, that I would be curious to see where it would be going. But I would not have been eagerly awaiting the next episode like I did with something like The Nevers, where I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. So far, it is a passable hour of entertainment, on the level of something like The Witcher. I would give it an average score of 6 of 10, maybe 6.5.

 

As an adaptation

I have not been impressed by what I have heard from series creator Rafe Judkins in various interviews leading up to the show. There’s been a clear sense that he’s set out to “fix” the books for a “modern” audience; it has been quite clear that he feels that they’re not diverse enough and they’re not representative of modern feminism and modern ideas about gender.

I am not going to say the books are flawless. I like them, some of them quite a lot. But they have their problems and I have always felt they would be very difficult to adapt, although not for the same reasons as Judkins. I certainly disagree that they need any sort of updating; if you don’t want to adapt the central themes of a book, you should probably not adapt that book. The “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” attitude that permeates the books is not a bug, it is a feature and part of what makes the series what it is.

Yes, Jordan went to the same well a few too many times with his joke about Rand, Mat and Perrin all believing the other two were so much better with women, but while you can tone it down you can’t just rip it out and have this still be The Wheel of Time.

But it is clear right away that Judkins has gone much further than some toning down. Moiraine is looking for “he or she” that is the Dragon Reborn. The idea that the Dragon could be a woman is completely at odds with the central dilemma of the books, that the prophesied saviour is also someone who could doom the world by causing a new Breaking. Less lore-breaking but more cringey is the scene at the beginning of the first episode with Egwene’s initiation into the Women’s Circle, which makes it feel much more like a mystical female sisterhood and rather less like a part of the way a village is governed. Judkins also seems to have decided that the world of his “progressive” Wheel of Time is one where same sex relationships are common, as suggested by the scene in Breen’s Spring where the woman at the inn assumes Mat and Rand are lovers. Rand’s response is not the shock one might expect from a sheltered farmboy but instead he says that if he liked men he could do better than Mat.

The choice of turning Two Rivers turned into diversity central is clearly a political standpoint, one which apparently was allowed to trump having the world make sense; a population largely isolated for many generations would be much more homogenous. The closest comparison would be to make Lord of the Rings today and make sure to have black, Hispanic and Asian hobbits in the Shire. The most curious part of this change is that the world of The Wheel of Time is quite diverse once you get outside of the Two Rivers. But of course, for the production it clearly had to be the main cast that ticked all the necessary boxes. And if these three episodes are anything to go by, I am not sure how much in the way of distinct cultures that we will see.

When it comes to the characters, I was very disappointed in the changes to Perrin and Mat, particularly the latter. I see why they did these changes, to be able to quickly sketch out the characters without the internal parts of the books. But while having Perrin go into a berserker rage and accidentally kill his show-invented wife during the Trolloc attack means we now know about his fear of hurting people with his strength, it also means he ended up with a wife who got all of three lines before being killed and who pretty much only existed to further his story. Still, the Perrin we get out of it is more or less Perrin of the books so far. Though I am afraid the actor’s propensity for standing around with his mouth open is not doing the role any favours.

Making Mat’s father a drunkard and womaniser and him a compulsive gambler who steals to take care of his sisters is a more long-term change to the character. Mat is not coming across as a somewhat immature rascal who will grow into a trickster with a heart of gold but rather as a very troubled young man where the addition of the Shadar Logoth dagger and its effect on his mood is hardly noticeable. His appetite for adventure is also thoroughly gone, all he wants to do is get back home to take care of his sisters.

And then we have Nynaeve. I am a fan of Nynaeve in the books. I recognize that she’s a bit over the top at times, but exaggerating character traits for humorous effect is a significant source of comedy in the books. The basic character, one who feels put upon because everyone at home thinks she’s too young to be the Wisdom and who takes her job to protect her village and her villagers seriously, is sound. So is her temperament and the fact that accepting things she cannot change is extremely difficult for her. Their Nynaeve comes across as a lot more confident in herself but also bitter rather than thorny. There are no sniffs and crossed arms and the only braid pulling done is by a Trolloc. I am also very troubled by the changes to her backstory; grounding her dislike of the Tower in the story about the wisdom who raised her not having been accepted as a Novice because she was a poor villager is a clumsy shorthand that breaks lore for no reason. Also, without a father teaching her woodcraft, how did she track and sneak up on Lan? Even the show doesn’t seem to know as she refuses to answer him when asked.

To my mind, it is very clear that this is Rafe Judkin’s Wheel of Time, not Robert Jordan’s, and I don’t think there was a single moment during the first three episodes where I felt “oh, I finally got to see this awesome moment from the books”. Even Moiraine’s retelling of the story of Manetheren loses too much in this version, being shared with the group when they have already left the Two Rivers behind, rather than as a powerful moment to remind the whole village of its roots. There is also very little in the tone of show that speaks of the books; apart from a few uses of “Light!” I do not recall any of the book-specific curses, instead the characters use a coarser, more contemporary language. Indeed, tone is where the influence from Game of Thrones shows most clearly and it is very unfortunate.

As an adaptation, I would consider it to be at a 3 or 4 of 10.

 

Notes

How many women do they drown each year when doing that ceremony? Egwene’s father certainly seemed to have been concerned for her.

Rand and Egwene being in a sexual relationship is not only a significant change to the attitude regarding pre-marital sex in the Two Rivers, it also changes what was a sweet and interesting part of their relationship. They were the childhood sweethearts now just on the cusp of becoming physically interested in each other when they are torn away from their home. As they leave their old lives behind, they slowly start to realise that they aren’t meant for each other after all. Of course, the show also dispenses with that by having Egwene already breaking up with Rand.

Emond’s Field (sorry, Two Rivers) is a lot rowdier and less isolated. Its not a Shire-like idyll where an uneasy feeling is starting to intrude, its already a bit grim and gritty. There’s no innocence to lose.

The Trollocs and the Fade appear to play at being White Walkers, making the Dragon’s Fang out of skinned sheep carcasses.

When Perrin accidentally buries his weapon in his wife’s stomach, she’s shown with her weapon over her head, like she was about to swing it down. Looney Darkfriend theory incoming?

Department of totally unnecessary changes: Making the Aes Sedai who foretold the Dragon’s rebirth blind to fit the trope of the blind seeress. A blind woman could never become an Aes Sedai as you need to be able to see to Channel.

How on earth are the Whitecloaks supposed to be capturing live Aes Sedai? The idea that they manage to kill Aes Sedai on a regular basis is a major shift in the power balance and I am not sure how they are going to be able to explain it.

Why the change in the Third Oath to exclude that the One Power can be used as a weapon against Shadowspawn? We’ve already seen Moiraine do this, even against Trollocs that were not specifically threatening her or Lan.

What’s up with Perrin’s leg wound and the wolves? I hope he’s not a Wolfbrother because a wolf-stock Trolloc scratched him…

How does Egwene already understand that Moiraine is boosting their energy?

With no Padan Fain following them into Shadar Logoth, are they dropping the whole Mordeth angle? They did simplify the Shadar Logoth backstory quite a bit.

Nynaeve threatening to not help Moiraine may be the biggest change to her character. This is the character who started channeling because she could not stand not being able to heal people and who hates wasteful deaths.

By not having the Prologue, non-readers will have no sense what’s so special about the Dragon’s abilities. Magic doesn’t seem to be that rare, after all, so being the Dragon Reborn probably isn’t that big of a deal. Certainly, the four suspects don’t treat it as something particularly frightening.

Egwene is a very quick study, and Perrin is very casual about the One Power being used.

I am not sure how Darkfriends are supposed to believe that Ishamael brought the Dragon to the Dark 3000 years ago, when the madness and the Breaking came from the Dragon attacking the Dark One.

How did I know that Dana (is the name a coincidence) was going to say that the Dragon will “break the wheel”? Well, I did point out when I cringed about it in Game of Thrones that it belonged in The Wheel of Time.

 

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