The long-anticipated live-action adaptation of Robert Jordan's epic fantasy cycle The Wheel of Time landed on Amazon Prime last weekend. I've watched the first three episodes and I have opinions! I'm a fan of the books, but I had a decidedly mixed reaction to the show. There are things I really like about it. I like the diverse casting. If there were ever a property that could be diversified while still holding to its medieval sword-and-sorcery roots, it's this one. This is the series that asks the question: "What if desert bedouins were Celts, but also ninjas?" I like the location shots. They're beautiful and unique, and very clearly not shot in New Zealand. I loved the design of Shadar Logoth. And I'm mostly fine with the changes from the books so far, with one big Perrin-shaped exception that I'll get into later. What I'm less thrilled about is the mostly unlikable characters, the grim-and-gritty vibe, and the need to shock and depress audiences constantly. It feels like they took notes of all the talking points people had about Game of Thrones and made sure to work them in. And it shows.
[Spoilers below for Game of Thrones, the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time, and some mild spoilers for the first book, but don't worry, I won't give away who the Dragon Reborn is.]
There's a lot of overlap between the two series, and not just in aesthetic and tone. There are shots and sequences that feel like they were lifted wholesale from one show and plopped into the other. There's the top-down shot of butchered animals arranged in geometric shapes. There's the arts-and-crafts title sequence. There's the one big-name actor in the cast playing a character who isn't going to [REDACTED]. Hell, when Thom Merrilin makes his first appearance as a gleeman, it's to sing this universe's equivalent of The Rains of Castamere. Beyond even that, these television shows have a lot of their fundamental DNA in common. They're both based on immensely popular fantasy series that were started in the 90s and whose creators were unable to finish them. They both upend medieval fantasy tropes and "chosen one" narratives. They both have heroes who bond with wolves.
You definitely can see the logic here. Game of Thrones was a tremendous hit--until it wasn't--that not only made a sh'ton of money for HBO, it basically funded the launch of their god-awful streaming service. But even beyond that, it really dominated the culture for the better part of a decade. And let's be clear, this is the envisioned endgame for Wheel of Time. Nobody is going to sign up for Prime just to watch this series. Prime Video is a nice-to-have bonus on a shipping service. But if Amazon Prime become kingmakers, that gives them cultural cachet that can be leveraged to do who-knows-what. Movie theaters? Premium streaming service? Merch merch merch? There's a lot you can parlay success into if Wheel of Time becomes a darling. As a plan, it makes sense.
There are a couple of problems with it, though...
The Wheel of Time is Fundamentally Different From A Song of Ice and Fire
The plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (the basis for the show Game of Thrones) mostly revolves around political intrigue. Yes, there's an evil magical existential crisis going on as well, but it's very much backgrounded. Our lead character who provides and entry point into the story is Ned Stark, a man who isn't learning about magic but rather about life at court. The magic in these stories is very squishy and loosely-defined, meanwhile the politics and battle strategies are played as realistically as possible. As medieval fantasies go, this series is much more interested in medievalism than in the fantastical. This carries directly into the show (all except the realistic battle strategies). Our main players are crafty and world-weary. The credits are specifically formulated to introduce settings to the viewer and give them a sense of the geography and scale of the world. It's about places and people and wars, with zombies and dragons being a secondary concern.
The Wheel of Time book series has these priorities reversed. This is a story that is primarily about good magic fighting evil magic. Sure, there's some political intrigue stuff, but it's largely backgrounded. The court politics are very squishy and loosely-defined, but the magic system has clearly established rules and mysteries to it. In fact, it's not particularly medieval, just set in a nebulous mostly-agrarian time. The main players are doe-eyed innocents--even the woman regarded as a "Wisdom" in her village is notably young for the job. And indeed, that innocence is something that the books posit as being worth fighting for. Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene set out to save the Two Rivers in much the same way Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin set out to save the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
The show, however, departs from this substantially, and in doing so it fundamentally alters the characters in order to make them world-weary and grim. In the show, Mat is no longer a mischievous scamp, he's an impoverished gambling addict dealing with negligent parents. Rand is no longer a shy optimist, he's now a heartbroken cynic. Perrin is no longer a gentle giant, he's now dealing with the trauma of having accidentally brutally killed his wife and don't worry we're coming back to this point soon!!! Nynaeve is no longer the hot-tempered schoolmarm, she's now embittered, defensive, and xenophobic. As for Egwene... the biggest change is that in the books she just wasn't in love with Rand all that much, but in the show she very definitely is but can't be with him because something something higher calling. Even Moraine and Lan are more combative than their book counterparts.
And this does not enrich the story. To give an example, by the end of The Eye of the World (WoT book 1), Nynaeve and Lan have fallen in love, and the tension between their love for each other and their duties to others will be a major point of contention. We all know how romance arcs work, so you would expect their meeting at sword point to take one of two forms: either a conventional meet-cute, or they irrationally hate each other. Instead we got... neither. There's a lot of bluster and posturing and tough talk and even acts of attempted violence. But there's no emotion there. They're acting like stock characters in a grim-and-gritty story, rather than a couple at the beginning of a romantic journey. Even Thom Merrilin's introduction as a man who has the word "glee" in his title, was utterly joyless. When you consider how bleak the story is going to get if they ever make it to A Memory of Light, it'd be nice if there were some moments of joy to hold onto early on. Even Game of Thrones had a lot of early moments of joy. We just tend to overlook them because...
Y'all Are Remembering Game of Thrones Wrong
When people talk about what made Game of Thrones great, they talk about the big shocking moments of violence like the Red Wedding or Ned Stark's death. They talk about how there are no heroes in the show because everyone is crooked. They talk about how the show used gratuitous sex to deliver exposition. All of this is basically wrong.
Let's talk about sex. Yes, the show used sex a lot, but hardly ever for exposition. It's generally there to inform character or incite conflict. Re-watch the pilot some time. There's a lot of sex in it, but is any of it purely expository?
So what about heroes? This show is famous for its characters' moral complexity and the lack of good guys, but are we forgetting about the Starks? They're the good guys. They're admirable people who behave righteously. Ned and Jon are both killed because they tried to protect the innocent. Robb and Catelyn both died because they trusted the wrong people. In fact, Jon is probably the most heroic figure throughout. He's freaking incorruptible. He's so incorruptible, in fact, that George R. R. Martin figured it would be easier to justify killing and resurrecting him than having him break his vow and just leave the Night's Watch!
Finally, let's talk about shock. Watching Talisa Stark get stabbed to death in her pregnant belly during the Red Wedding was a shocking moment, but that's not what made it effective. It was effective because we'd spent a season and a half of prestige television watching hers and Robb's budding romance. We were invested in the characters. They were about to take the fight to the Lannisters and the rug got pulled right out from underneath them and us. Game of Thrones worked hard to earn that moment, and it paid off. But the point is: it was earned. By contrast, what's probably the biggest shock of the entire series fell flat. At the moment Dany had succeeded in taking King's Landing and reclaiming the Iron Throne for the Targaryens, instead of celebrating, she goes on a murderous dragony rampage. And nobody bought it, because it was completely unearned.
Which brings me back to Perrin. In the books, he is not married, and his relationship status becomes a pretty important plot element over the course of the series. So when I saw his wife, I knew immediately she was going to get fridged. I was not expecting it to be at Perrin's hand. Or to be lingered on quite so viscerally. Was it shocking? Absolutely. Was it effective? That's hard to say. I certainly didn't feel her loss as a character--that's how fridging works. But really, what was the point? Just to motivate Perrin to make him more grim? To let readers know that this ain't your father's Wheel of Time? Or just to thumb their nose at Game of Thrones? (Pregnant murder party? We aren't gonna wait 'til season 3, we're doing it in the first episode!) And what's going to be the cost for the future of the narrative. Perrin's going to have to make some choices coming up about love and protecting women, and I don't see how this moment does anything other than undermine them.
Also, why are we fridging women in the year of our lord 2021? This show's casting is very progressive and it's treatment of the One Power is pretty feminist. It's certainly leaning into the more feminist elements of it from the books. So how did this make it in? And on a related note...
The World Has Changed Since 2011
You could not make Game of Thrones in 2021, not without substantial revisions. Works of art are a product of the environments that produce them. It made sense to launch a bleak drama about crumbling political systems in 2011 because, because ten years ago the world felt very stable. Since then we've had Brexit, Trump, Modi, Erdoğan, the rise of populism, climate refugees, and something about a pandemic. The world feels a lot more bleak now. Unsurprisingly, a lot of recent fiction has been trending more towards hope and optimism. In that light, The Wheel of Time is actually well-positioned, because it's thematically a story about finding light in the darkness. It's about remaining hopeful against impossible odds. So why would anyone want to ditch that just to make things more similar to Game of Thrones? That's a terrible idea.
Also, it must be said: Nobody cares about Game of Thrones anymore! The final two seasons poisoned the well so badly that there is exactly zero buzz about the forthcoming prequel series House of the Dragon. I bet you even forgot that was happening. But prestige television producers seem to want to go back to that well, so here we are.
Despite this entire rant, I'm actually optimistic about what a Wheel of Time series could be like. Nothing the show has done is irredeemable. But I do think they're off to a rocky start. Hopefully they can find what readers connected to in the book and deliver that to television audiences. Otherwise, this is going to be yet another epic fantasy story that doesn't get finished.