The Wheel of Time is available from your local library or independent bookstore (potentially through bookshop.org).
The live-action series is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
This article discusses the plot through the first three episodes of the show and the first thirty-or-so chapters of The Eye of the World.
I’ve grown a small collection of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels for a few years now. Every time I’d drop through a local bookstore, I’d check to see if they had the next volume as a matter of course. Not even so much to read them, really. More as something easy to grab so as not to feel so guilty about window-shopping.
Sometimes book-collecting and book-reading are slightly separate hobbies.
Of course, having them right there on a shelf made them all the more tempting when Amazon announced a high-budget adaptation with big promises. Doubly so when the first trailer came out, and all of a sudden the local group chat was abuzz talking about its potential. Well, those of us who had actually read the books, mostly over a decade ago.
So we decided to start a book club, timing ourselves to finish the first novel right around when the adaptation would go live.
This turned out to be an exceptionally poor idea.
New Wheel, New Weave
Now, with any adaptation, things will always change. There’s just no good way to translate of 100 pages of narration and dialogue into 60 minutes of video with everything intact. It’s too much content, and told in too different of a way.
But not every change that comes from an adaptation is some concession for a lack of time or internal monologue. Some of them are just changes, and the writers for the live-action adaptation seem awfully fond of those. To wit:
#1 – Our protagonists are less awful.
Rand and his friends are utterly ignorant in the books.
That’s not necessarily a condemnation in and of itself – they’ve hardly-if-ever been more than thirty miles from home in their entire lives, after all. Who are they to know anything about the wider world? But it does result in some crucially-uncomfortable moments for them, unfairly judging whole swaths of people based on stories rather than what’s right in front of them.
And yes, the show nods to this here and there, like the nomadic Tuatha’an making a comment about their reputation as thieves. But this is both brief and, crucially, doesn’t come from our protagonist. In the book, he’s allowed to air his prejudiced misconceptions and grow by being proven wrong. In the show, he kind of… stands there.
This isn’t an isolated example, either. From the very get-go, the village of Two Rivers is populated by a multiracial cast in live-action. And, to be crystal clear, diverse casting is good practice that should be the norm. But it also prevents the live-action Wheel of Time from having a longer conversation that moves from a point of tension and wrong-headedness to one of (hopefully) openness and better understanding.
Perhaps that would make the audience uncomfortable – some in ways that are helpful and introspective, but others in ways that are only disappointing. It’s probably not even a fair analogy for a lot of folk. And I’ll be honest, for better or for worse, it wasn’t terribly fun to be stuck inside these characters’ heads early on in the book.
That’s a whole can of worms that I’m not equipped to handle, least of all within this article. But it is a choice they made, to trade away the complexities of insular, judgmental main characters for something that matches modern expectations.
#2 – Thom Merrilin is kinda hot now?
Okay, this one is a bit petty.
But the fact that it is so petty arguably signals of a sort of intent.
There’s a certain fantasy series that really took off last decade. It arguably opened the door for every premium direct-to-streaming “TV” show that came after. And the defining features of its cast? Everybody was socially-ruthless, and also (generally) very attractive.
The books’ Thom Merrilin was always a charismatic old fart, but he was fully white-haired and gnarly – described as looking possibly older than his seventy-ish years. More than a bit crabby, but still operating in the party’s best interest. The show’s Thom Merrilin is a silver fox who squeezes the boys for the last two coins in their pockets.
You could even follow that thread to how certain rival factions show up ages earlier than in the source material. Or at how the characters break into a storytelling song in Episode 2, an indulgence that we love to rib The Lord of the Rings for, but that isn’t so much a part of Jordan’s telling.
Am I reading far, far too far into this? Almost certainly; you can’t really blame actor Alexandre Willaume for looking like he does, and it ultimately doesn’t directly change anything. But retrofitting an existing story to fit a model that sells? For every boy-wizard or Dread Pirate Roberts, you have the Hollywood treatment of a video game. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
 Citation needed – both the books and Jordan himself sidestep any mention of his exact age.
Different, Not Worse
Here’s the thing, though. Often enough, the thought “they changed it” is followed by “and that’s frustrating”.
That’s not what this is.
I mean, we’re not talking about Eragon here. What the new writers have done with the Wheel of Time is sometimes confusing, and sometimes interesting. But, for the most part, you can’t point at anything that’s an objective downgrade. Just things that you prefer about one telling or the other.
They’ve made trade-offs, choosing to give a different color to many of the same plot beats. And that results in a distinctly different story than many of us read three decades ago or just last month. It’s not quite a reboot, but it isn’t trying to follow the book step-for-step, either. It’s somewhere in the middle, and I don’t know where to place that, which makes it both exciting and a little scary.
Both make a story hard to look away from.
And neither leave it beholden to the source material. Continuing to compare the two would honestly be a disservice to both.
As a friend put it after the recent Episode 6, paraphrased:
“Don’t come to us book-readers with too many questions. For the most part, we’re almost as lost as the rest of you – but I’m interested to see if they stick the landing.”