My Conflicted Feelings on Amazon’s The Wheel of Time (First Three Episodes)

I haven’t taken the time to post here in a while, but this was too big a thing to pass up. After what feels like an Age, Robert Jordan’s epic series The Wheel of Time has finally been adapted.

The reasons this is momentous are many, but the biggest reason for me is that the Wheel of Time was my gateway to Epic Fantasy, and was incredibly formative for me as a writer, a reader, and to an extent, as a person. Put simply, I would not be who I am without it. I absolutely love this series, and while other books written since have taken the series to new heights since Jordan’s passing, what he gave us is still precious to me.

I don’t bother doing write-ups on things, especially as high profile and current as this, because my voice will almost certainly be drowned out by higher profile names or companies talking about it, but because this is such a cornerstone of myself, as I said, I felt if I was ever going to say something about anything, it had to be this.

So naturally, I have thoughts and feelings on Amazon’s adaptation. I was lucky enough to see the first two episodes at the Atlanta Premier Monday (Thank you, JordanCon people for organizing that), and I watched Episode 3 when I finally realized what day it was.

TL;DR : There are things I love and things I hate, and things that make me go “Huh?!!?” but ultimately I plan to continue watching and hope to enjoy its entire run

Because this series is so ingrained into my bones at this point, having taken up nearly 20 years of my life, and literally present in my life since I was born, I cannot with any sense of certainty tell you how this show will come across if you are a newcomer. I’ll have to wait for my non-fan friends to tell me when they catch up. I can only speak on how it comes across to a life long fan. However, I will try to keep this spoiler light, meaning I will only refer to what the show has currently given us (Episodes 1-3) and how it stacks next the books as much as I can. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of differences, but examples will be given to make my points as needed.

I understand things need to change with adaptations. I really do. Things need to be cut for time, phrases or descriptions that work in a book don’t always mesh with live action, budgets, etc. Sometimes, those changes can add a lot. A good moment of improv by the actors, a really cool visual, neatly avoiding a plot hole, introducing a major character at an earlier point to let the audience get a sense for who they are when they’re still in learning mode….

I get it, and I can roll with a lot of punches if I can at least see why the change was made and feel that it feels faithful to the spirit of the original even if not the letter. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Witcher, Stardust, most of Game of Thrones…. I love the adaptations, even if they aren’t 1:1 with the source material, because they kept to the spirit. (again, mostly in the latter case)

What I loved

So, I want to put this here because I have a lot of complaints, but I don’t want to give the impression that there is nothing good here, because that’s just not true. I’ll try not to use this as an excuse to avoid talking about the positives as I go, but again, I want to be very clear, this is worth watching.

I’ll be writing this list sort of stream of consciousness style and it’s late, so I may miss some things, but this should still paint a picture.

First and foremost, almost all of the main cast is terrific. Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney steal the show as the iconic dynamic duo, Batman and Robin Moirane Damodred and Lan Mondragoran. Both of them have the presence of their characters, and they have chemistry for days. Every time they are on screen, I want them to lay that exposition on, or kick some ass, because they do both so well. Holy shit, in the battle in episode one, where Lan swings his sword and Moirane just casually ducks without interrupting her channeling —

Ahem. More on that later.

Marcus Rutherford as Perrin, oh, man, without saying a word of it, you get his caution, his fear that every move could hurt someone if he isn’t careful, is slow, deliberateness of motion and words that lead people to underestimate his mind, and the way he hunches like he’s trying to become smaller… all Perrin’s mannerisms brought to screen.

Rand, Egwane, Nyneve, all really well casted. Episode 3 gives us Thom, the Gleeman, and whatever else I have to say about his adaption, he’s damn cool.

The Opening credits sequence is gorgeous, it really fits the way the books describe the way the Wheel of Time weaves the Pattern of Ages, it is colorful, and I love it.

Many of the costumes are fantastic. Shifting to a visual medium, I definitely think the more full-outfit Ajah colors work better on screen than simply wearing a color-coded shawl on top of any old dress. Full marks there.

I love that the show uses practical effects as well as CGI, instead of just relying on CGI. The trollocs look damn threatening.

That One Power though…. switching gears, where the show does use CGI, it looks great. The weaves of power really evoke how they’re used in the books, and in episode one the visuals do a phenomenal job of conveying that the One Power is the fundamental driving force of the entire world and creation, and it is so satisfying to see on the big screen.

That leads to the battles. The fight choreography is fun and energetic, the monsters feel threatening, the people feel in danger. So engaging!

The sets are creative and look great, and the locations are beautiful. Shadar Logoth probably takes the cake. That wall…. wow.

This is going to sound weird, but seriously, the exposition. The worldbuilding and history of Wheel of Time is one of the greats in literature, and Rosamund Pike can deliver that exposition with an air of someone who feels passionately about the history of her world, and you believe her Moirane is exactly the kind of person who would be drawn to a great cause.

Mat’s shift towards being less helpful and more irritable after Shadar Logoth. It’s subtle so far, but I see it!

First Impression

Amazon’s Wheel of Time started on a rocky note for me by starting with an exposition dump rather than showing us the backstory of the Dragon, and his reincarnation The Dragon Reborn. The fact that the prologue of the first book was my favorite part of the book made this disappointing, but by no means a deal breaker. In that exposition, we learn something I’ll address later under the heading of Thematic Changes, but over all, it’s cool.

We open up with a show exclusive scene of Red Ajah sisters hunting down a male Channeler. if I just scarred you off with those unfamiliar words, it’s okay, I’m not gonna throw too much at you, we’ll get through this together. But basically, a bunch of women on horse back chase what must be the fastest man in the world through a winding road in the mountains. Magic battle happens, the woman in charge tells the man he should not have this power, it belongs to women.

BAM! Solid, we get a sense for where things stand, what the prejudices are, things are looking up. And it looks damn good, to boot. I have a couple niggles we’ll get to later, but there are some massive changes that really soured my experience for the entire two hours I spent in the theater (and no, it’s not the change that was causing Twitter discourse since the last trailer dropped).

At points the tone gets a little too Game of Thrones-y

So after that mostly pretty epic opening, we meet our main characters in the quaint little village of the Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers valley (in the Kingdom of Andor). At first, all is good, everyone’s getting ready for the winter celebration, there’s love in the air, we meet people, and while there’s very little in this establishing sequence that I could point to and go “HEY, that’s pulled right from the book!” it looked nice, and it foreshadowed certain character’s later traits.

BUT THEN, our lovable scamp of a rogue, Mat Cauthon, says to his good buddy Perrin, “You’re married now” and I was like “EXCUSE YOU?!” They gave Perrin — consummately unsure around the ladies, always thinks Mat and Rand know the ladies so well — Perrin Aybara a wife. Well, this set off my cynicism bells right off, because unless they decided to include a +1 to the adventuring party later, there was only one reason she could have been written in, and it ain’t exactly a progressive storytelling device. Hold, on, I need to grab a drink out of my fridge — LAYLA, WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE?!

But we’ll swing back around to that.

The next big change comes later that night. I’m not going to set this one up, I’ll just come out and say it: they made Mat’s parents the WORST. His dad is now apparently a cheating lecher (and when I was in the theater, that girl looked WAY too young, and before Mat’s mom got all mad I thought he was talking to his daughter, but that’s a whole other can of worms) while his mom is now a drunk, bitter old woman who would tell her son what a horrible person he’s destined to become. There was absolutely no reason for this change. There’s plenty of drama in what happens to the village without getting into a Game Of Thrones-ian look at how shit life is and how horrible people are.

The Two Rivers folk in the books had their problems, but were largely wholesome to contrast with the larger world the heroes would face, and their parents doubly so because one of the recurring themes of the story was how the heroes’ upbringing would shape who they became when they came into their own! Instead, you get a sick old drunk saying, “He’s a prick, and you’ll be a prick just like him”, and like…. even the phrasing feels completely incongruous to the books.

This continues in Episode 3 with the introduction of Thom (pretty late, considering he showed up in the Two Rivers, but whatever), a gleeman who brings exactly zero glee to a little mudpit of a town, sings exactly one dour song that no one seems to care about before they cheer about what really matters — drinking more. They made a point of showing off that his coat has the colorful patches of a gleeman…. but they’re on the INSIDE of his coat. If he’s on the job as a gleeman, he shouldn’t have them turned in like he’s trying to lay low. The only thing I could think was that they were embarrassed to have him look colorful and silly and uplifting. Never mind that the town really needed it.

Thematic Changes and Gaps In the World Building

So, as with any adaptation from a book, things had to be cut. It happens. Literature is the most free to both dive deep and expansively with the lore (though Video Games are giving them a run for their money).

The trouble is, when you cut too much, you risk losing the heart of what was beloved in the first place. Again, I’m not going to list every single change made in the adaptation process. There’s a youtube channel that does that professionally (look up Lost In Adaptation, by Dominic Noble, it’s a damn good time), and frankly by the time I’ve finished the next episode will be out. Instead, I’m going to give a few examples of the changes that I feel do the most damage to the story itself.

Remember earlier when I found Layla in the fridge? Yeah, I want to address that. In Eye of the World (book one of the Wheel of Time) Perrin did not have a wife. It was very clear as soon as I saw she existed that she was going to be fridged* to add extra angst to an already angsty event and character.
*(Fridging is the narrative trope of killing a female character for no other reason than to develop or motivate a male character. It’s often derided as hackneyed and sexist, and considering other changes seem to have been made for the sake of moving away from what some have called the more dated parts of Jordan’s narrative, this seems particularly egregious)

What’s worse about this is that for the sake of speeding things along, the show completely omits the tangible metaphor for Perrin’s internal conflict. In the books, Perrin fights with an axe and a blacksmith hammer. One of his core dilemmas is that he wants to live the peaceful life of a blacksmith (represented by his hammer) but he is called on to fight and kill, and he’s good at it (represented by the axe). This is a very power and evocative image that would be very effective for an onscreen adaptation. But in the show, he has neither! And to add insult to injury Layla was killed with an axe and she was using a hammer! It was right freaking THERE!

The next one I want to talk about also involves weaponry. Rand al’Thor carries his father’s sword, a heron marked sword. If you have only watched the show, I suspect that your thoughts on this must be “Why did they zoom in on the bird decoration?” Because it’s never mentioned in the show that the heron mark is a designation for Blademasters. It’s a revelation that in the books leads Rand to wonder about the secrets his father kept.

In fact, Rand’s father is an incredibly important part of Rand’s arc in the first book. When Tam al’Thor was wounded in the books, he was delirious and feverish, implied Rand might be adopted, and that his life was a great deal more interesting. In the books, Rand sought out Moiraine’s healing specifically out of desperation, and he joined Moiraine as the price for saving his father’s life. In the show, she just heals him in passing like it wasn’t a big deal and kinda meanders away. This stems from another aspect of the show I’ll address after the third thematic change.

The next point is one that has had people up in arms before it was even confirmed, and, yeah, it bugs me too.

In the books, one of the absolute core themes of the series was the interplay between men and women. It could be said the thesis of the series is that men and women are stronger when they work together because they make up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Now, in the 2020’s, and indeed in the years leading up to them, this has been a very contentious aspect to the series, with some fans and many non-fans alike disapproving of the cis-normative binary of male and female, and if you want to read about the million debates as to whether Jordan was progressive or not 30 years ago when Eye of the World you can probably find six on Reddit right now, I’m not getting into it because frankly there are people better equipped to discuss the nuances.

But what I will say is, if you don’t want to explore the themes of the source material because you think they’re dated, why adapt it at all?

Now, some of you may be thinking, “But Vincent, you third-rate Disney villain, how can you say that, Men still go mad from using the Power, that part of the story hasn’t changed” and yeah, but the trappings around it certainly have.

For a start, the possibility that the Dragon Reborn could be a boy or a girl. Within the book universe, the power to channel is determined by your soul. This doesn’t come up a lot, but it is proven that if you can draw upon sai’din, the male half of the power, your reincarnation will too, and same goes for sai’dar, the female half. There is even a female equivalent to the Dragon, and the Pattern apparently alternates which one gets reincarnated as the destined hero across the ages. In the show, however, there are no mentions to the sides of the One Power. Sai’din and sai’dar go entirely without reference, unless I’m just completely missed it. Which is a bit odd considering the opening sequence and the promo materials still reference the ancient Aes Sedai symbol (basically a simplified Yin-Yang symbol).

The pacing is too fast

Aside from Mat’s parentage and Perrin’s marriage, this is probably my biggest complaint, and it directly leads to the missing world building I mentioned earlier. It also just messes with the narrative a bit Shadar Logoth happens in freaking episode 2, which is hella early, but Thom didn’t get introduced until episode 3 because they felt the need to have the Leavetakings happen in the first episode and had to pare so much down.

I feel like in the balance of character and plot, the fast paced nature leans too hard to plot and away from character. I don’t know whose decision it was to only give this first season 8 episodes, but I think 10 might have been enough to give that little bit extra breathing room to get into more character development.

In summation

For all my complaints, I have enjoyed it overall, and I want this show to go far. I want it to succeed, for a few reasons. The biggest is that I just know if it fails, the lesson won’t be “we need to be more faithful to the source material”, it will inevitably be “Let’s never touch that again ever.” Part of it is my love of the source material and my hope that my favorite parts will be brought to the screen in all their glory. But also because there is real talent behind this. There is clear passion and effort and even if I don’t agree with a lot of the choices made, the artistry on display deserves love.

And fantasy fans need a win.