Excitement and Dread: Looking Ahead to The Wheel of Time TV Series

Good morning, Tor.com!

I say, with especial maddening cheer to my WOT peeps nursing post-JordanCon hangovers, heh. Because with the news last week that Sony Pictures has named a showrunner, one Rafe Judkins, for the long-awaited TV adaptation of The Wheel of Time series, WOT fans have had a lot to celebrate. (Not that any of you scurvy ne’er-do-wells needed an excuse, I’m sure.)

Concurrently, TPTB at Tor.com have asked if I, as one of the resident Wheel of Time opinion-havers round these parts, wouldn’t mind sharing my thoughts and/or girlish hopes and dreams re: a WOT TV series actually coming to fruition. And as I am generally perfectly happy to share my thoughts on things whether I’ve been asked to or not, I said Why I Would Love To, and here we are.

First, you should know that I have already done a Wheel of Time casting post, so if you would like to fight some more about that topic, please take a gander so that you may be properly outraged. Whee!

As to my thoughts on the overall enterprise of adapting The Wheel of Time into a TV series, I think that, like most WOT fans, I am both thrilled and apprehensive at the prospect. There are a million ways it could be awesome, and equally as many ways in which it could be awful, and we just don’t know which one we’re going to get.

I will say that the length of time it has taken for WOT to get to the screen has proved a definite advantage in a lot of ways, though.

For one, this is a great time to be an epic fantasy series on television. This is due, not entirely but in very great part, to one particular series on HBO which may or may not rhyme with Shame of Cones. Fantasy in visual media started gaining mainstream cachet in the aughts with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it’s really only been in the last few years that it’s come into its own, especially on television—which, by the way, is itself experiencing something of a renaissance lately, with the last vestiges of the old attitude that TV is inherently inferior to movies finally fading away in the wake of truly quality series popping up left and right.

This is especially great for WOT, because unlike the LOTR books, which were juuuust barely containable in film trilogy form, the Wheel of Time is utterly unsuited for that format, and pretty much has to be a television series. And now that television is awesome, WOT thus can now (if done right) enjoy the prestige of cinema right along with the leg room of a TV series. It’s the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

Not to mention, one of the bigger concerns formerly plaguing the idea of a WOT TV adaptation—namely, the highly probable cheesitude of the special effects—is largely allayed. By now CGI has progressed to the point where even relatively low-budget productions can produce quality special effects if they feel like it. So as long as the show doesn’t do anything stupid like insist on inexplicable wind tunnels to indicate that people are channeling, there’s an excellent chance that the magical/supernatural goings-on of WOT could be near cheese-free.

(Seriously, Mr. Judkins, please please please don’t do wind tunnels. Or violin strings, or constipation faces, or voguing, or any other lame visual or audio cues to indicate channeling is happening because you think we can’t infer things. We’re not stupid; please don’t treat us like we are.)

That said, it is definitely a very big problem that channeling flows are supposed to be invisible to the characters, even those who are channelers. (As far as I can tell, channelers can sense flows, but not visually.) This is not that big a deal if, say, an Aes Sedai wants to lift a teapot with Air and the only thing we see is the teapot floating up in front of her, because as I said, we are capable of inferring things. But a lot of the channeling in WOT (especially the duels and battles, of which there are of course a ton) is really rather dependent on the interaction of different flows, sometimes in situations where they wouldn’t have any readily visible (or audible) effect.

[ETA: Okay, so about two million people have pointed out that in fact there are multiple instances of channelers specifically saying that they can see flows in the series, so I was just flat wrong here, and I am sorry. My brain farts, they are room-clearing sometimes. That said, I don’t think that that noticeably lessens the problems of visually depicting channeling in any kind of coherent way, so I will leave the rest of my commentary as is. Mea culpa.]

The scene I’m thinking about specifically here (though this is far from the only example) is Moghedien and Nynaeve’s duel in the Panarch’s Palace in The Shadow Rising:

Before thought [Nynaeve] struck out, weaving a hammer-hard flow of Air to smash that face. In an instant the glow of saidar surrounded the other women, her features changed—somehow more regal now, prouder, Moghedien’s face remembered; and startled as well, surprised that she had not approached unsuspected—and Nynaeve’s flow was sliced razor clean. She staggered under the whiplash recoil, like a physical blow, and the Forsaken struck with a complex weave of Spirit streaked by Water and Air. Nynaeve had no idea what it was meant to do; frantically she tried to cut it as she had seen the other woman do, with a keen-edged weave of Spirit. For a heartbeat she felt love, devotion, worship for the magnificent woman who would deign to allow her to…

The intricate weave parted, and Moghedien missed a step. A tinge remained in Nynaeve’s mind, like a fresh memory of wanting to obey, to grovel and please, what had happened at their first meeting all over again; it heated her rage. The knife-sharp shield that Egwene had used to still Amico Nagoyin sprang into being, more weapon than shield, lashed at Moghedien—and was blocked, woven Spirit straining against woven Spirit, just short of severing Moghedien from the Source forever. Again the Forsaken’s counterblow came, slashing like an axe, intended to cut Nynaeve off in the same way. Forever. Desperately Nynaeve blocked it.

You see what I’m saying, I hope. I really really want to see this scene on screen, but I have no idea how they’re going to accomplish it.

What that probably indicates more than anything, though, is that adapting the Wheel of Time to a visual medium simply cannot be a one-to-one function. I suspect the show will likely make the decision that flows are visible to channeling characters (possibly to all the characters, though I hope they don’t do that), and thus to the audience as well. I also suspect that some of the more esoteric channeling events in the series will undergo at least some simplification and streamlining. I don’t really like either of these ideas, but again, I suspect that they are unavoidable.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong, and Judkins and Co. will come up with some brilliant way to convey these things without resorting to a lot of CGI swooshes. Or maybe they’ll do a lot of CGI swooshes, but find a way to make them awesome instead of silly-looking. I can but hope.

The show’s crew has more than the conundrum of visually depicting channeling to contend with, as well. The sprawling scope and plotlines and cast that is the hallmark of WOT will be a logistical nightmare to compress, but compress it the show almost certainly must. And the choices they make in that compression are going to be what makes or breaks the show, I think. The news announcement says that our own Harriet McDougal will be retained as a consulting producer on the show, and I devoutly hope that they actually, you know, consult with her on what can and cannot be cut/condensed/altered.

So, there are a lot of possible problems, that’s for sure. The potential for disaster is definitely there. But at the end of the day, even acknowledging all that, I am excited.

I am excited to see things finally made flesh, so to speak, that I have only seen in my head or in static art for over two decades. There’s so many things I want to see, just in the first book, The Eye of the World. I want to see that first Myrddraal on the empty road to Emond’s Field, and see how the wind blows but its cloak doesn’t move. I want to see Shadar Logoth and Mashadar and the infamous dagger. I want to see Perrin’s eyes turn gold and see him talk to wolves. I want to meet Loial. I want to see Rand fall inside the palace wall in Caemlyn and come face to face with his destiny. And that’s just for starters.

I don’t expect all of it to be perfect, or even good. I cringe at the dread that none of it will be good. But I have hope that enough of it will be good that I can enjoy it. But no matter what happens, I look forward to sharing the experience with all of my WOT peeps. Because you know we all, every last one of us, will be there with bells on.

Leigh Butler is a writer, blogger and critic, who feels humor and weirding of language is the best way to examine the impact of sociocultural issues on popular SF works (and vice versa). She has been a regular columnist for Tor.com since 2009, where she has conducted or is conducting three series: the now-retired Wheel of Time Reread, the on-hiatus A Read of Ice and Fire, and the very much active Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia. She lives in New Orleans, and therefore advises you to let your good times roll, y’all.

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