The Wheel of Time is Amazon’s second-biggest TV bet ever. “I want my Game of Thrones,” CEO Jeff Bezos is reported to have said. And The Wheel of Time, along with Amazon’s eye-wateringly expensive Lord of the Rings show coming in September 2022, are the results. It’s a big adaptation of even bigger fantasy novels, an attempt to beat HBO’s blockbuster hit at its own game and give Amazon a prestige genre series of its own.
But for all the money and effort that’s gone into the show, Amazon hasn’t made a Game of Thrones successor, try as it might. The Wheel of Time is an interesting attempt at adapting Robert Jordan’s behemoth of a book series, but it’s also dragged down both by its unwieldy source material and its efforts to twist itself into a second coming of Game of Thrones.
To understand the difficulty of what Amazon and showrunner Rafe Judkins are attempting, you need to understand the sheer scale of the source material, which spans 14 novels and a prequel. The original books weigh in at over 10,000 pages (over twice as long as the completed A Song of Ice and Fire books) and were published over a span of 30 years by two authors (with Brandon Sanderson stepping in to finish the saga after Jordan’s death in 2007). There are no fewer than 2,782 named characters mentioned over the course of the series, 148 of which are point of view characters at one point or another.
What distinguishes the initially generic Wheel of Time from other Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasies is its setting. Thousands of years before the show begins, magic was corrupted, tainting the source of power such that any man who tried to use it would go mad. Women, on the other hand, were still spared that disaster, leading to a group of powerful magic-wielders known as the Aes Sedai, who hold considerable sway — both sorcerous and politically. The world of the Wheel of Time is a cyclical one, though, where people are reborn in each age. That includes the Dragon, the person who caused magic to be tainted in the first place and who is destined to either destroy the world again or save it.
The Wheel of Time does its best to ease viewers into all that, paring down some of the more esoteric names and concepts and spreading out the minute details of how the world and its magic works over time. Amazon is also promising animated shorts that will be available alongside the show to help explain some of the backstory and lore (although those weren’t made available ahead of the premiere).
The show starts off leaning heavily on cookie-cutter fantasy tropes, though. One of the Aes Sedai, Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), is searching to try and find the prophesied Dragon Reborn to usher them onto their path of destiny. She, along with her Warder (a warrior ally who travels with and protects an Aes Sedai), Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), follows the trail to the Two Rivers, a town far in the mountains and recruits five young individuals who might fulfill the prophecy. There’s Rand (Josha Stradowski), a shepherd boy; Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), a blacksmith; Mat (Barney Harris), a gambling thief; Egwene (Madeleine Madden), the innkeeper’s daughter; and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), the village’s healer — any of whom could be the Dragon Reborn. I did mention that there were a lot of characters.
Judkins does make some key changes to update the series. The cast is aged up and far more diverse than Jordan’s iteration of his protagonists. Egwene and Nynaeve are given bigger roles, in particular, whereas Rand, Perrin, and Mat tend to take up most of the spotlight in the books.
Other changes are less thoughtful. One male character, for example, is paired up with a spouse that’s created from whole cloth for the series solely for the purpose of fridging her in the first episode so that he can have something to be sad about over the course of the season. And the first season over-commits to making the central mystery of the series the basic question of which of the five main characters is going to be the prophesied Dragon Reborn, capable of wielding massive power and challenging the Dark One. It feels like an odd choice, given that it’s a fairly easy-to-guess answer, unless the show plans to diverge in far greater ways than it has in the six episodes that I got to see.
The series also focuses more on Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine as the protagonist for the show, fleshing out her role in the story and her screen time. That’s not a bad thing, given that Pike is both one of the most recognizable members of the cast and one of the best parts of the show. But it does stand out, much in the same way as making Dumbledore the main character in the first Harry Potter film.
The show does generally look good, with sweeping shots of the lovely Czech landscapes, impressive costumes, and expensive-looking sets. The depiction of the primary form of magic (“channeling”), where characters are meant to be drawing in power from the world around them and weaving it into blasts of fire or bursts of air, is more hit or miss. Some scenes manage to portray it as powerful and compelling magic, while others consist of characters just standing around while white wisps of smoke fly around them.
The Game of Thrones influence is problematically strong, though, with extra sex, blood, and gore added in. It’s enough to be jarring, although nothing here quite reaches the often-gratuitous levels of its HBO predecessor. The Wheel of Time is also a much grimmer show than its source material, having excised nearly all the levity and humor in an effort to be more mature, to its detriment.
And that’s a big part of The Wheel of Time’s problem. It spends too much time trying to be Game of Thrones, even as it tells a very different kind of story. Game of Thrones reveled in its darker world, characters, and the machinations to try and seize power. The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, doesn’t have the games, and it doesn’t have the throne. There are few, if any, grey areas; the big bad of the world is literally “The Dark One,” served by his army of bestial, unthinking Trollocs (think orcs, crossed variously with wolves, bears, and boars) who literally eat people.
When The Wheel of Time does fire on all cylinders, it’s proof that it might actually be possible to fit the book into a coherent TV show. And Amazon is definitely confident that it’ll be able to find some success; the company has already renewed the show for a second season, out of a planned eight that Judkins has envisioned. A story this big definitely needs some time to get going — and at the very least, Amazon seems to be giving Wheel of Time that much.
The first three episodes of the Wheel of Time debut on Amazon Prime Video on November 19th.