The Dark One is awakening, and the only one who can stop him is the prophesied Dragon Reborn. But how is Moiraine Sedai (Rosamund Pike) supposed to find the Dragon – especially when the Dragon could be a man? While her Aes Sedai sisters are hunting down men who can channel magic (and risk being driven to madness), Moiraine and her warder Lan (Daniel Henney) set off to discover who can save the world from breaking. Her quest leads her to the quaint village of Two Rivers, but she’s not the only one who is drawn to the mountains. Could one of the five Two Rivers vicenarians who join her quest be the Dragon?
There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time, but seeing Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series on a TV screen is a monumental beginning (there was, of course, the cringe-inducing pilot episode that aired one time on FXX at 1:30am, but I think we should all agree that doesn’t count). Jordan’s world building and characters were as intricate as any tapestry, but the dense, 14-volume story was enough to scare away even the most ambitious of producers. The series notoriously has 2,782 named characters – imagine asking a casting director to do that job! So, merely seeing showrunner Rafe Judkins’s product on screen, thanks to Amazon Studios, is a huge achievement. But how does it translate from book to screen?
As with any page-to-screen adaptation, we’ll inevitably see comparisons. One obvious comparison is to stories within the genre, especially Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Wheel of Time (2021) is much more LOTR than GOT, and sometimes, the similarities are borderline too familiar. From the voiceover narration that introduces us to the conflict facing the world, to the various creatures who act as foils in the hero’s journey narrative, there might be some viewers who write this off as “been there, done that.” And, while I think there are enough distinct aspects of Wheel of Time to make that attitude the exception more than the rule, it is curious to see this show living on the same streaming platform that will eventually host an updated take on Lord of the Rings.
The more obvious comparison is to the source material. As someone who is currently reading the series, I certainly felt like I had significant world-knowledge advantages from the moment the show started. I’m sure it’s easier for people who have read the books to adapt to ideas like the Dragon Reborn, the Aes Sedai, and all the other high fantasy trappings that make up the world. Going into this series without much prior knowledge could make it difficult to acclimate to the series, but I feel the showmakers recognized that pitfall and use that knowledge gap for newcomers as a way to add an aura of mystery that whets the appetite rather than frustrates.
Additionally, there are some pretty significant changes from the book (which is always to be expected). These changes range from welcome to questionable. First, the core cast of Rand (Josha Stradowski), Mat (Barney Harris), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) are all in their early 20s rather than teens. That decision robs the viewer of the experience of growing up with the characters as they toil their way through the world in a comparable way to watching the diminutive Hobbits take on the task of destroying the One Ring. But it also allows the show to take a consistently darker and more mature tone than the books from the get-go.
Second, because the characters are older when their journey starts, there are some background points of the characters that add depth and leave room for greater character development as the series progresses. Perrin starts the show married, and while there’s certainly credence to the “refrigerator” trope criticism, I feel the nature of how this tragedy unfolds complicates future relationships and revelations that Perrin might experience. Mat is very much the carefree hooligan we know and love from the books, but his difficult family background adds a compelling layer to his character.
Third, there’s the point where the Dragon Reborn can be a man or a woman in the show instead of only being a man in the books. While that appears to be an easy appeal to equality for the sexes, it seemed pretty revolutionary in the early ’90s for a high fantasy story to introduce us to a matriarchal society where women wielded magic and men were driven insane if they tried. The fact that the Dragon had to be a man added to the tension since so many characters had to choose between the status quo or teetering on the edge of destruction with a man who could slip into insanity at any given moment. Regardless, all signs seem to point toward the Dragon being the same character from the books, and I like that the creators of the show went for the identity of the Dragon to be a big reveal rather than a given fact.
With all of that said, those critiques simply come from knowing the books. I’m not sure anyone who dives into the show before reading the books will realize any of those plot points are missing. And none of those changes render the show unwatchable.
In fact, the show is quite watchable, much to my relief. For one thing, the landscapes are absolutely incredible. The sweeping shots of the mountains and crystal-clear rivers had me in absolute awe, and I think the location scouts and the cinematographers should take all credit for me now itching to book tickets to Prague for a hiking trip. The cast captures the characters with absolute perfection. Pike conjures the even-keeled harshness of Moiraine. Stradowski, who very much reminds me of Hayden Christensen, channels Rand and his complexities. Madden effectively portrays Egwene as empathetic but decisive. Rutherford forges Perrin with requisite animalism deeply buried in a gentle-giant demeanor. Harris nearly steals the show as the haunted harlequin Mat, even if he is portraying the character for only this season (he has been replaced by Dónal Finn in Season 2, which is already filming). Henney is the picture of the brooding yet loyal Lan. And Robins masterfully tugs her braids and smooths her skirts as temperamental Nynaeve. And that’s just the cast we meet in the first episode!
As a treat for those who have been long-awaiting this show, Amazon dropped the first three episodes of the season on Friday, November 19. Subsequent episodes are scheduled to release every Friday, with the finale on Christmas Eve. And if the premiere trio is any indication, each episode will build on the other to effectively deepen our characters and their plight.
Robert Jordan’s sprawling fantasy tale Wheel of Time is finally getting the adaptation it deserves, and Amazon is weaving a series that lives up to the source. Fans of Game of Thrones can take comfort in knowing that they can start a new fantasy series that already has an ending, and fans of Lord of the Rings can embark on a journey that is both familiar and fresh. Solid acting and gorgeous settings make The Wheel of Time worth your time.
Wheel of Time: Season 1
Adapting a Mammoth Epic Onto TV Screens10.0/10
Inevitable Changes from the Source Material8.0/10
Similarities Within the Genre7.0/10
- Starring: Rosamund Pike, Daniel Henney, Josha Stradowski, Barney Harris, Marcus Rutherford, Madeleine Madden, Zoë Robins
- Showrunner: Rafe Judkins
- Executive Producers: Rafe Judkins, Rick Selvage, Larry Mondragon, Ted Field, Mike Weber, Darren Lemke
- Studios: Amazon Studios, Sony Pictures Television