Tomorrow amazon’s Wheel of Time adaptation drops. TV reviewing isn’t my normal wheelhouse, but a guy died trying to finish something I loved as a kid, and if I have to step up to defend his vision, so be it.
I haven’t seen the show yet (it’s not out yet) so this is speculative, and I’m not planning to see it, so I’ll never need to correct this. I did see 5 seconds of a trailer, and Tar Valon looks like the Taj Mahal, rather than the Guggenheim. From that I’ve drawn all the conclusions which follow.
Spoilers: this is a review so there are spoilers. Wendy Doniger justified spoilers once with ‘show me the kid who reads the London Review of Books and hasn’t read Harry Potter’ and I kind of feel that way about my blog.
- First episode
- The nature of evil
- The magic system
- Warrior cults
- Layered cultures
- Sex, love, rock & roll
- Conclusions, if any
Bel Tine is multiple holidays simultaneously in a region that’s experiencing multiple seasons simultaneously. amazon made it just a spring holiday. It would be hard to imagine them also missing the fact that spring has not come, especially because what they paid for was a clone of a property with the tagline ‘winter is coming’, but they will find a way to screw that up too.
Fixing the seasons is as much the common thread of the series as anything. The holidays being messed up is subtler, but it’s a detail that whispers in your ear as the book goes on and tells you what kind of universe you’re in.
Dragging Tam through the woods, and the experience of getting to town, has a lot of setup, which they skip and focus on the fight in town instead because it has more explosions. The travel parts will be set in lush old growth forests like Game of Thrones, but this is a countryside that is decaying, hard, experiencing the end of time. A better choice would be the sparse hills and smoky villages of Bergman’s Seventh Seal.
They’ll pay insufficient attention to bad crop yields in the first episode. This blunts the impact of later palace settings like Tear and Caemlyn, where the wealthy are eating well in the middle of an agricultural collapse.
The nature of evil
At first blush this universe has a powerful, organized supernatural opponent who is responsible for everything bad. It would be easy to fixate on that and amazon will. In actual fact the first evil person we meet is Padan Fain, who is never exactly aligned with the shadow. The first evil place we visit is Shadar Logoth, which is evil because bad people lived there, not because of the weakening seals.
The intentional blurring of cosmic evil and petty human corruption creates uncertainty about the nature of reality and what’s going on. But showrunners with million dollar episode budgets don’t like uncertainty.
The Forsaken: at first they’re tales to frighten children, then a sort of demonology, and eventually powerful adversaries with specific military objectives. But they’re also a link to the past, a way into the mechanics of reincarnation and history. They possess well-intentioned arguments for joining the shadow, or at least for why they joined the shadow, and in a world where evil grants actual power that’s a scary kind of temptation. I think amazon ignores all this, doesn’t even make them scary, just casts someone unlikable as Lanfear and calls it a day.
The goodness of the good guys is also subtle. It’s tempting with these things to lean on a ‘god is on our side, obviously’ argument for what justifies the use of force against the baddies. But the creator, while getting talked about sometimes, is not a person that ever shows up, is not visibly opposed to the forces of darkness, and doesn’t tell anyone what to do.
Also, the people who are into him the most are the Whitecloaks, who unambiguously suck. They provide I suppose a useful form of security, but with the same drawbacks as the Taliban. It will be interesting to see how amazon threads the needle of ‘they’re on god’s side, and we’re on god’s side, but’. It would be cheap to make them darkfriends from day 1.
Why does this matter for the show: ironing out the moral uncertainty will be a disaster. Oversimplifying people’s reasons for tagging along with Moiraine removes the layer of politics that makes this series more than Joseph Campbell fan-fiction.
amazon will present prophecy as commandments bearing absolute moral force which, let’s face it, is a successful way to manage a large workforce. But the pinnacle of moral reasoning for most characters in this world is ‘not wind up in trolloc cookpots’. Their ethics are fully ontological – they’re based on observed truth. amazon will replace this with deontological ethics and drain the work of its moral force.
Some characters have sources of prophecy and instruction, but none are ‘good’ or even clear. Moiraine and Mat overuse the twisted gateway, Mat has his partial memories, Elayne I think uses the twisted ring to find the bowl of winds. Elaida sees the future once in a while but it’s awful and useless. Trolloc prophecies are basically graffiti.
‘The wheel weaves as the wheel wills’ is an expression of fatalism, but the adaptation will make it a prayer. (But they’ll ignore the actual prayers, see Tinkers section below). The main belief all the people have is that the world has ended before, and is about to end again. On TV, this will take a backseat to god-given faith and instruction.
They either leave Min out or make her a source of divine commands and assurance. But she doesn’t provide information in the books. At best she can tell you ‘this is destiny, don’t resist’. She can also do a sonogram I guess.
Min is basically cinderella mixed with some greek person. The mix, and her access to information about the plot, is Jordan trying to tell you something about the nature of the universe. If Min weren’t in the story she’d be a horn hero. But amazon will go the CW route and make her a love interest with minor plot value as religious functionary.
amazon simplified an intentionally grey moral spectrum down to ‘believe and you’re on the team’. That turns the quest into a process of conversion, and the characters into missionaries.
The magic system
They’re going to make it chi, or energy in your body. It’s going to be like airbender (not dissing it, it’s a good show) crossed with kung fu panda.
They’ll elide everything that’s personal and plot-related about the distinct abilities other maybe than the elements, which they’ll over-invest in (they can safely clone airbender; they know from server logs people watch that show a ton). They’ll ignore the internal mental spaces that you have to access and control to learn this skill. This is a disaster because the internal spaces are core philosophy for the series, and plot-relevant later on; stuff happens in them.
They won’t commit to the power leveling. Moiraine isn’t as strong as the new generation; everything she’s capable of should be kind of small and shitty. amazon would have done better to save the effects budget. Instead they’ll invest in spectacle in the first few episodes and make it hard to top later.
It seems like Logain will show his face? Which means there’s an opportunity to drill into stilling / gentling – an opportunity they ignore. Stilling is central to the politics of the Aes Sedai, the fear of it gets as much play as any other idea in the series, it’s the least weird of Jordan’s torture fantasies, and its strange mechanism is a world detail. It’s relevant to the progress of 3 important characters. But they’ll treat it as an afterthought.
Perrin isn’t a werewolf, but he will play one on TV. He’s going to have teeth and nails in addition to eyes. His book struggle is the loss of self and the call to violence. It takes place in internal landscapes, and through forms of communication that replace language with vision. Hard to translate, but even harder if you rely on latex practical effects to tell the story. Jack Nicholson insisted on light makeup for his werewolf role.
More internal spaces they’ll ignore: linking and the warder bond. They’ll introduce Lan, do an ‘explain your powers’ scene about being a warder, and that’s it. They’ll gloss over the element of mind control here, which should inform our reaction to compulsion later, and is relevant to Nynaeve.
Speaking of the warder bond: Lan is the first warder we meet and also kind of the ultimate warder. His psychopathic coldness and immunity to fatigue and fear set up other characters and cultures where pain is part of the job description. amazon will tone this down in an attempt to make it less pathological. IMO this ruins Rand’s journey, and makes it hard for us to sympathize with the Aiel later. It also defangs moments where Lan opens up.
One of my favorite books ever is Religious Mysticism and the Art of War by James Aho. I found it 5 footnotes deep in my college library and took copious, insane notes from it, ultimately turning them into three fourths of a now-abandoned novel.
The Wheel of Time is in a sense that novel. It drips with the history, literature and psychology of battle. Jordan was obsessed with war. He collected weapons. He claimed these books were based mostly on War + Peace. Understating Lan’s coldness and violence betrays that tone and squanders the power of the setting. Beck Bennett nailed the thousand-yard stare in the SNL sketch about dead poet’s society. The guy who plays Lan needs to copy it, but won’t.
War is also a key setting; count how many scenes take place in detailed military encampments, in pickets, in tents. Amazon will stick to fancy buildings and quaint hobbity inns.
As they neglect the interior spaces of the magic system, so will they neglect the interior spaces of weapons training – the tricks Tam taught Rand for archery, which Lan then hones for swordcraft. The commonality of the void says that skill at arms and magic power come, in a sense, from the same place. Lose that and you lose the idea that infantry and wizards are equal comrades in a destined battle, that moral fortitude is honed through risk and conflict.
The Aes Sedai are also in a sense a warrior society; political yes, but also willing to fight. amazon underplays the constant violence of their existence; they keep in the red vs blue and coup stuff, but lose the fact that this is everyday life or death struggle between the sisters. The Aubrey Plaza nuns movie will have done a better job of conveying the civil war and shifting alliances of monastic life.
The horn heroes are not really a warrior society (they come from many cultures). But the hunters for the horn are. Watch amazon focus more on the horn than the hunters. If they blow the horn it will be a a weta crowd effect, which, fuck weta crowd effects unless you’re using them to model livestock erosion on catalina. There’s a reason none of the summoned heroes get real speaking roles over 10 thousand pages.
The horn is a comment on the reincarnation system and the nature of reality in this universe, but Birgitte, who is no longer a horn hero, and the hunters for the horn, including Faile, and their quest, and the pageantry in Tear and Illian, get more page space because they’re dynamic and changeable, because they represent a faith built on mystery rather than certainty. Indiana Jones knew you have to leave the grail in the temple, and the quest is more important than the destination. But amazon, like Sir Galahad the Chaste, will fetishize the thing itself and lose this thread.
Everything in the series is two things at once. The different nations and cultures are many things at once. Amazon will discover at best one of them, often zero.
For the Aiel, amazon will pick a desert culture, probably the Touaregs, and ignore the other influences. That’s a shame because the Aiel, abandoned people living in an abandoned place, give the series its post-apocalyptic chops. They also form the core of the moral code for a lot of the non-Aiel, particularly Rand, Elayne, Egwene. amazon will focus on the ‘from god’ morality and completely neglect this one forged in adversity, in part because they’re uncomfortable with the glorification of pain.
Shienar. They’ll find a fortress city to copy but it will be the wrong one. They’ll keep the harsh outer stones, but lose the warrior-poet mentality and the fancy castle interior aspects that Jordan stole intentionally from a range of cultures born to war.
The Tinkers are supposed to be colorful, angry and sad. They mimic various real world cultures who wandered far from home; they are very definitely refugees. They’re shrinking as their children leave the faith. amazon misses this, which spoils a facet of another in-world culture who has a relationship to the tinkers.
Instead amazon goes straight CW on the Tinker section, makes it a love triangle between Egwene and Aram, doesn’t give veteran Elyas a voice to express the push-pull between pacifists and those who have fought on their behalf. Amazon leaves out their dogs, their fear of the world, the importance of the ritual greeting and parting formulas. Keep these in and you land an emotional hit on everyone from whose culture these lines are drawn.
The Whitecloaks have three very specific real-world references but amazon misses all of them and makes them I don’t know Templars or something. And not even a woke portrayal of Templars, where you acknowledge their decadence and their fiscal relationship to the state.
The old tongue is already cringey in print and will be worse out loud. If I were running this I’d assign a real earth language to each word, and get a native speaker to coach the pronunciation of it, but that’s just me. Guessing they’ll instead go with ‘australians speaking american’ pronunciation per Peter Jackson and Kenneth Branagh.
The Ogier they portray as friendly giants. In the books they’re walking encyclopedias, sad to tears about the loss of memory of the human world. I wonder about their visual presentation; following the hair and features as described in print gets you to a weird but authentic place. I hope bezos keeps their affinity for trees. If he doesn’t this adaptation is officially a tire fire.
Bayle Domon, collector extraordinaire who thinks deep thoughts about found artifacts and also is a lens into price inflation, isn’t featured at all.
Sex, love, rock & roll
The Wheel of Time isn’t a romance novel until like book 4 at which point it embraces the genre with all its conventions, and goes a little heavy on the S&M. (And Jordan started to run out of steam after book 4 so you could stop it there, or shortly after, following his original plan for the series).
The polygamy and the marriage customs will be hard to ignore on screen. The focus on gender as a setting point is also tricky given how hard another fantasy series has had to work running interference for its author.
Equally tricky is the lack of sex in the first 2 or so books, which is trouble if you’re selling to the CW crowd and you believe the CW formula. You could make Else Grinwell a main character, tagging along and getting into hijinks with her dad close behind to get mad? I wouldn’t hate this tbh.
Also, music – Thom gives the kids his instruments and they wander all around performing for food. Peter Jackson left out the songs I think? (I saw parts of the first one but a long time ago). There’s a cringey and wonderful fan album called ‘an evening in rivendell’ where someone set a few of them to music. All the Wheel of Time songs are like ‘they requested momma stole my bucket, but they know it here as dead dying dead, and the lyrics made him blush’. There are also the war songs, like wash the spears, which I hope they find a way to keep.
Dreams carry a lot of the load of the setting. They’re a component of the magic system. They host visitations and reveal things. The world of dreams has rules which are relevant in the fights, but amazon will fail to set them up.
The kids’ Baalzamon dreams are easy to get right because you just copy nightmare on elm street, shot for shot. (It’s fairly clear that’s what Jordan did). amazon will fuck this up and dress him like Lestrade from that Anne Rice book.
It feels weird to be in the dream world, suspicious. amazon will mess this up. I haven’t seen Drop Dead Fred since I was a kid but I imagine you could copy the drugged-up part of that and you’d do fine. (Cast Phoebe Cates as Lanfear or Moghedien while you’re at it, that would be weeeeird for people who grew up in the 80s and incredibly cool). The person-to-person dreams happen in a neat internal landscape and they will neglect this, as they neglect all the internal mental landscapes.
The series takes place in a world of echoes and decaying walls. The dream world is one of the places where those qualities are conveyed directly, along with the portal stones and the waygates. They’ll flub it, it will just be candy, like the ‘what dreams may come’ trailer where everything is paint.
The world of dreams is also a forgotten thing being rediscovered, like the one power itself, like technology and history. And it’s correlated sometimes but not always with the one power, which is an important detail. They won’t adequately distinguish between waking-world magic and the ability to use dreams; they’ll just be like ‘go find a teacher Egwene’.
Her block is a major psych issue. They’ll keep the plot structure of getting rid of it, but miss the frustration, the fact that she’s damaged. It’s supposed to mar her power and reduce her social status. It makes her less than Egwene despite being stronger. It’s easy to transform her emotional issues into a gag, and it is a gag in the book, but it’s also the only real emotional problem that isn’t polygamy-themed, and passes the Bechdel test (for a while).
Her relationship to surrender is a real thing that people deal with as they grow up and learn to sublimate their ego into a larger group. amazon will, unfortunately, establish her strength of will in the first episode and lean on that rather than breaking her down.
Conclusions, if any
I did see amazon’s good omens adaptation, another book I loved as a kid. More accurately, I saw the first 15 seconds of it and turned it off in a panic. I didn’t want the narrator to rewrite my tone-memory of ‘the earth is a libra’.
Adaptations are hard because they betray our imagination. They alter the tone, they lower the density of ideas, they zoom out details and sometimes drop the wrong ones.
TV is expensive and high-risk; someone managing a million dollar per episode TV show that has to make money over 4 years has less leeway to take risks that a nearly-retired author in his den full of swords and VHS tapes in 1981.
Bradley Cooper is going full Jodorowsky on Hyperion, another great 80s-90s book, and another thing with a lot of details that sum to a whole, and which will be hard to compress into a script. Good luck to him. If it were me I would first adapt Phases of Gravity, which is great, only matters to adults, is in many ways the same book.
I guess the new DUNC (which I also won’t see) is doing well? That’s an adaptation. And Dune the novel is basically an adaptation, and the Wheel of Time is in some ways an adaptation of Dune.
That’s to say that adaptations aren’t all bad. But this one is of something I deeply love, so it will be. Enjoy.