Any time a revered genre property gets an on-screen make-over, fans will line up to love or hate it – these days, long before it ever actually hits a screen. With its diverse casting choices, overtly queer and polyamorous characters and key plot changes, The Wheel of Time has been divisive since pre-production. But at the halfway mark, how is it actually shaping up?
I encountered The Wheel of Time when I hit my teens: four chunky paperbacks with slightly lurid but oddly compelling artwork that I devoured. I haunted bookshops waiting for the next volume in paperback; by university I was splashing out on hardbacks. It is fair to say I was an avid fan.
But by the time I hit 20, I was growing frustrated by the glacial pacing and Jordan’s constant introduction of new characters and subplots. The repetitive habits and caricatured interactions became grating. When Jordan died, I didn’t buy the volumes written by Brandon Sanderson, I borrowed them from the library – and I was so dissatisfied by them that I never actually read the final book.
Some fantasy fan, me.
In spite of this lapse of fannish loyalty, my heart skipped a beat when i heard The Wheel of Time was coming to the small screen. My inner fourteen-year-old was beside herself. As I started to see casting announcements, my middle-aged outer self grew increasingly excited that the show runners might – I’ll say it – improve on the source material.
It is four days since I watched episode five and friends, I have been dying to jump back into the show ever since.
The trick of a good dramatisation is to condense an unwieldy narrative without losing its spirit. And – in spite of some major rearranging of the furniture (just how are they going to introduce Min and Elayne having cut Baerlon and Caemlyn?) – The Wheel of Time is off to a cracking start.
Rafe Judkins and team have done what no book editor ever did: take a sharp knife to the hundreds of pages and start ruthlessly cutting. The first things to hit the floor – thankfully – are the braid-tugging and spanking. The casting has also done away with the sexual dimorphism that pitched most non-Aiel women (including all 3 of the main female characters in the first book) as petite brunettes towered over by tall, muscle-bound men, and firmly embraced a refreshing diversity.
If the Two Rivers still feels rather like the Shire, that’s on Jordan. He adopted the fantasy tradition of good country folk setting out to save a world they barely know, primarily motivated by the immediate need to protect their home. If it feels like it’s all travelling to get to a setpiece – four of five episodes have been on the road – that, too, is entirely faithful to the book. Crucially, the miles haven’t felt overlong. The characters and their friendships have sparked into life from gentle teasing over a pint to a spontaneous sing-along. These are good
hobbitfolk, and – as they’ve already illustrated by their actions – the sort you can trust to do the right thing (well, mostly. We’ll get to Mat).
Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai – introduced early in all their glory – are as fiercely arrogant and unapologetically impressive as they should be, and the anti-magic Whitecloaks as fanatically creepy as I imagined. When the pacifist Tuatha’an – long-time favourites – stand up to them in proudly non-violent resistance, I melted.
Where the show falters is in some of the material that has been inserted. Perrin – as you may have heard from the howling on the internet – briefly gained a wife for an ugly narrative shortcut. Apparently Judkins wanted the audience ‘to get to know who Perrin is from episode one’; apparently he’s also the sort of bloke who feels violence against women is justified to explain a man’s reluctance to use violence. What the fuck were you thinking, Rafe. What. The. Actual. Fuck. While it didn’t make me switch off – the rest is so well done I decided to extend him a second chance – it has damaged my trust in him as a showrunner.
I have fewer qualms about the decision to show Mat’s protective side early on. Mat is still undeniably a scoundrel, but the show builds in empathy fast to offset the very difficult arc Mat is about to embark on. Mat isn’t particularly likeable in the first book; here, he’s my favourite (I’m gutted to hear the role has been recast for season two).
SPOILERS RELATING TO THE DRAGON REBORN (mouse over to read)
While I love that a soul is not bound to reincarnate in the same gender – anyone of a certain age could be the Dragon Reborn, male or female – I don’t feel that the show has considered the implications. Why didn’t Moiraine’s search begin amongst the novices and Accepted at the White Tower – and if it did, why do none of her sisters know what she’s up to?
Perhaps this will be addressed this week, now we’re at the White Tower and about to meet the formidable Siuan Sanche (YESSSSS). Speaking of which – I could be watching The Wheel of Time instead of writing about it. And it speaks volumes that – in spite of Perringate – I really, really want to. Hells, I’m even considering a reread…
THE WHEEL OF TIME is on Amazon Prime, with new episodes released each Friday.