The much anticipated arrival of Amazon’s The Wheel of Time series, based on Robert Jordan’s fourteen novel epic, is only days away now, and hype is strong both for long-time fans of the books and those who have never read them. With Amazon hoping for the next Game of Thrones-style hit and fans of epic fantasy eager to see what kinds of larger-than-life scenery, set, and story may be awaiting them, everyone’s wondering how well the series will live up to a pile of expectations almost as high as Dragonmount.
As a fan of the books myself (you can check out my ongoing read of the series here), I’m pleased to say that the first three episodes of The Wheel of Time are, in fact, excellent. They bring much of what I love to the screen and, dare I say it, make a few improvements along the way. And if you didn’t get that Dragonmount reference, never fear, the series does an excellent job of immersing new viewers into the world, striking that balance between giving you the information you need to understand the quest without much info-dumping or long voice over explanations.
I mean, there is a voice over, but it works well, and is pleasantly reminiscent of Galadriel’s voice over in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. (More on that later.)
I am so pleased with the decision made to drop the first three episodes simultaneously and then go to a weekly format. Although I am a huge marathon-watcher myself, a series loses a lot when you plow through a whole season in just a few days. This is especially true if it’s a fantasy series, with an entirely new, rich world to experience along the way. The Wheel of Time is a complex story with intricate world building and a huge cast of characters, and weekly episodes allow time to connect with the material and ponder what you’ve just watched. There’s a lot of mystery in The Wheel of Time as well, and it’s often more fun to try to figure out the answers yourself rather than being immediately handed a new episode.
So I’m really pleased that at the amount of care and respect given to a series I love so much. Dropping three episodes in a row was also a great idea, because you can get really immersed in the story in just the first sitting. (You don’t have to watch all three at once, but be honest, you’re going to.) And even though I already knew the story, it took me the first two episodes to get my feet under me and to connect with the actors’ versions of the characters rather than the ones in my head. My partner, whose only knowledge of The Wheel of Time comes from listening to me talk about it, needed it even more. By the end of episode three we were both mad there wasn’t more!
Yes, I know what I said before in praise of weekly episodes. I am not above being hypocritical.
What is it they say about a great dessert? That you should be left wishing there was just one more bite? Well, that is definitely how I felt when the credits rolled on episode three.
Now, the first thing one looks for in fantasy on the big or small screen is the landscape. This was true even before Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, but that trilogy really changed the level to which all other fantasy aspires. And The Wheel of Time does not disappoint in this arena—far from it. Most of the series was filmed in Prague, and there is no shortage of sweeping mountain vistas, ethereal woodlands, and bluer-than-blue mountain streams to delight viewers’ eyes. All the hallmarks of the traveling quest are there, visually speaking, with panning shots that show just how far our heroes have to travel, how big their world, and the stakes, really are.
I also loved the costumes. The promotional images have been a pretty big hit around the internet, but I have seen some folks complaining that they look too new, modern, or artificial. And I’ll admit that I noticed it myself when looking at the pictures. But it’s much less noticeable while you’re actually watching the show. Mostly the clothes move well, and the lighting complements everything. (Yes, there’s an occasional sweater that looks like I could find it at Old Navy or ASOS, but I didn’t find it distracting.) And the way that the lines and colors of some of the clothing felt more modern than one would expect actually made the series feel more fantastical to me. My eye is used to gritty realism, and this was new and different. It set it apart from other series, and made the actors almost seem to leap off the screen. It made my brain happy.
The casting on this show is excellent. Moiraine and Lan are the standout characters in the first three episodes (and speaking of costumes, I must give a special shout out to Moiraine’s, which feels as intrinsic and natural to her as anything I ever saw a hero wear), and I cannot praise Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney enough. But every actor, including those in smaller roles, seems very well placed, and the show does a really good job of making everyone you meet feel like a real, three dimensional person. That’s no easy feat.
I do have a few complaints. The biggest is that there is a change made to Perrin’s backstory that I think cheapens his journey. Granted, much of Perrin’s struggle in The Wheel of Time, especially for the first five books of the series, is a very internal, cerebral one, which is more challenging to show on film than in text. However, it is the one alteration so far that feels very Hollywood; worse, it’s an overused (and sexist) trope that’s often employed as a quick shorthand to start a hero’s journey.
I was also surprised when I wasn’t drawn in by the character of Thom Merrilin. We meet him at a different point in the show than we do in the books, which is fine, but I found that the character seemed rather flat and overly-serious. Thom does have a very serious side, but fans of the book know that he is also a lot of fun. He’s dramatic and poetic and flashy to the point of flamboyance. Mostly this change worries me because I know that the majority of fantasy shows these days (and books for that matter) tend to neglect the fun side of things, to focus only on the dour. I don’t want The Wheel of Time to lose the jokes, and the joy that infuses the characters even though they are struggling against terrible dark forces and unfavorable odds. The character of Mat Cauthon also suffers some from this problem, and I hope that the show will course correct a little as it goes on.
That being said, the show also makes some great changes. Some of the outdated gender tropes have been tweaked and updated very well. A few alterations to the books’ course of events that were made to expedite the story also improve it immensely (Jordan did tend to get bogged down at times). And in a few places the show seems to make commentary on the world that, frankly, Jordan should have thought to make himself. That’s the best advantage of adapting a novel to film or television; more pairs of eyes and clever minds working on the story.
Those new to The Wheel of Time will note how much of the early episodes remind them of watching The Fellowship of the Ring. This is intentional, as the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World, pays a great deal of homage to Tolkien’s work. I felt that the show struck a very good balance with its visual references, although it did perplex my partner a few times. Existing fans who share my particular love of Nynaeve, Lan, and Moiraine will be especially thrilled, I think.
The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time drop on November 19th. I can’t wait for you all to see it.