Rosamund Pike leads the charge in The Wheel of Time, Prime Video’s action-fantasy epic based on the long-running book series by Robert Jordan. With so much story to adapt in so little time, how does the potential Game of Thrones heir stack up?
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. These are the opening words of the late Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first book in his 14-volume high fantasy series known as The Wheel of Time, with the final three books completed by Brandon Sanderson.
It should be no surprise, then, that Sanderson serves as a consultant on the highly anticipated TV adaptation, which releases its first three episodes on Prime Video starting this Friday, Nov. 19. 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?
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.
Set in a possible future perhaps thousands of years from now, mankind has already gone through an apocalyptic reset or two. The current “Age” looks a lot like Middle Earth and Westeros, but closer to a Renaissance period in terms of the clothes, technology and the arts. In this world, human beings can channel incredible, magical powers, but there’s a catch. Women can learn to control these abilities quite well, but men “go mad” when they try it themselves, and are therefore deemed a threat to society.
Moiraine (played by Gone Girl‘s Pike) belongs to an order of female channelers known as Aes Sedai. But unlike her contemporaries, she’s less concerned with seeking out and defanging male channelers. She wants to find the “Dragon Reborn,” a prophesied reincarnation of a powerful individual who could either save the world… or destroy it.
The potential for absolute greatness (or destruction) leads Moiraine and her blade-wielding Warder companion, Lan (Criminal Minds‘ Daniel Henney) to a remote village where four young adults apparently fit the description of the Dragon Reborn and must be protected at all costs from the seemingly all-powerful “Dark One” and his deadly hordes.
Yes, it’s a standard setup as far as high fantasy narratives go. But the central characters are where things get a bit more surprising and distinct. There’s Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), a quick-witted sleuth who’s always up for a game of dice. Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) is a gentle-natured blacksmith who fears hurting others with his large size and potentially dark nature. Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) is the strong-willed leader of his friends, and he has eyes for Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), who has been all but promised to him as a wife from birth but has larger aspirations of her own.
When these characters and mystical forces collide with one another, it results in fairly satisfying intrigue and set pieces, plus some much-needed tension between those with power and those without. Because the books have been completed, Jordan’s meticulous world is filled to the brim with baked-in ideas and stunning world-building that the screenwriters can pick and choose based on where they want everything to ultimately end. In some cases, the show takes some welcome shortcuts and adds a few nice updates to an already well-worn story.
There’s no meandering around the Two Rivers and getting to know all of Emond’s Field before the adventurers set off for what fans really want to see, and rightfully so. Logistically, it would be a nightmare to do a single book’s worth of content per season. Let the books be the books and the show be the show appears to be a mantra for showrunner Rafe Judkins (Chuck, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
A nice addition to the drama, for example, is a bit more motivation behind Mat’s gambling. He isn’t purely a selfish character, he simply struggles to trust others and wants to do right by his two sisters. These characters are also aged up slightly, so the romantic elements are far more pronounced and less reduced to schoolyard crush material. (That was fine for the books, but in the show, cutting to the chase will probably be for the best.)
Unfortunately, The Wheel of Time misfires in other attempts to mix things up. Perrin’s story is needlessly complicated by guilt and horrific violence that is technically new to the canon, yet somehow feels painfully outdated, even for 1990. There are also times when it feels like the story is obviously speed-reading, which even newcomers might be able to pick up on.
Still, The Wheel of Time has enough potential to ride past these initial frustrations thanks to a high budget and deep commitment from the actors to faithfully bring the magic of this story to life. It’s simply a thrill to see these cherished characters finally get an adaptation worthy of such a grand adventure. Assuming future episodes and seasons continue to innovate (it’s already renewed), even if not every bold departure hits the mark perfectly.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Prime Video’s sleek, ambitious The Wheel of Time is off to a promising start, though this heroic journey risks getting a little too ahead of itself.