The Reading Room
Adaptation as Dilution: A Review of Amazon’s Wheel of Time show
The adaptation of The Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime is probably one of the best examples of the current media trend of adaptation, and its reception by fans of the original book series is equally indicative of the negatives and positives that generally accompany this trend.
The Wheel of Time, a fantasy book series inspired by Arthurian mythology and the Norse myths recorded by Snorre Sturlason, is a unique and much loved fantasy epic, begun at a time when most fantasy books were still imitating Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Unlike these series though, Robert Jordan dissected several of the elements that made Tolkien’s works so successful, such as his evocative use of myth and historical narrative, and incorporated these basic elements with his own unique twists to make his works wholly his own and entirely deserving of the praise his audience has given them.
Amazon’s tv series ostensibly chose to adapt this particular fantasy series because of Jordan’s twists–a focus on the dynamic between men and women, the strengths and weaknesses of both, the necessity of teamwork and compromise, and a strong Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist theological and mythological influences. Yet the series dilutes and corrupts these things--the very elements which make the series beloved and unique, rendering the work into yet another generic Tolkien copycat.
The original books, for instance, incorporate the theme of gender dynamics into the world’s cosmology so thoroughly that men and women are unable to draw upon the same source for their magical powers. This has serious repercussions and consequences in the books because the prophesied Chosen One of the series, the Dragon Reborn, must be a man, yet the Dark One (named at one point as Shai’tan, so quite literally the devil) corrupted the male half of the Source so that any man who uses magic will eventually go mad. Robert Jordan fully draws out the implications of this worldbuilding in the books. Yet this show obscures or even does away with this absolutely vital worldbuilding for the sake of “adaptation,” choosing instead for the sake of artificial television drama to make the gender of the next Dragon Reborn a mystery until near the climax of the season. This is but one of many examples where the showrunners decided that for the sake of television writing conventions and their own writing abilities they must make changes that at first glance seem relatively minor, if foolish, but which further thought reveals to be destructive of Jordan's original view of the larger world and narrative. Other examples where Hollywood writing chooses to override the original narrative include three death fake-outs of main characters in the season finale, a few love triangles, and an entire episode of made up and mostly irrelevant material in a show which is already struggling to condense the events of the first book into a single season of television.
That is not to say that the show is wholly bad. While it is true that they made so many changes and odd decisions throughout the show that I as an avid book-lover was terrified practically every minute that they were going to kill off the male half of the cast as a way of strengthening the female half, they ultimately ended the season staying closer to the original story than I expected. More than that, the show’s fourth episode is absolutely phenomenal and follows the spirit of Jordan’s works quite closely.
Jordan had a penchant for creating endearing side characters, and the show replicates this with Logain, a male magic-user with a strong Messiah-complex who the show suggests may be the Dragon Reborn. The show gives this character a brilliant introduction in the cold open to the episode, depicting him as equal parts threatening, compassionate, and tortured, ultimately imparting just enough information about his character to spark the audience’s imagination and curiosity during his more subdued role for the rest of the episode. It is a brilliant bit of writing that tragically shows just what an opportunity for a great series this show missed. There really were several opportunities for the show to adapt and change things to make a better story. Many book fans agree that there are parts of the first book in the series that could definitely have been written better, particularly the conclusion.
There were, then, opportunities for the writers to display their own abilities and not just defer to the original author at all times, yet these opportunities for original writing were unfortunately discarded in favor of imposing television conventions upon the whole story. And that seems to be just about the perfect microcosm of the current trends and problems with adaptations in general.