Wheel of Time: Adaptation, magic, and characters


From left to right, the character are: Perrin, Egwene, Lan, Moiraine, Nynaeve, Rand, and Mat.

While attempting to write a plot summary for the first season of The Wheel of Time, I was reminded of a James Scott Bell quote: “A writing teacher once told me that the most successful movies and books were simple plots about complex characters…You should be able to articulate your premise in a couple of lines.” Wheel of Time is not a show (or book) that follows this idea, which became obvious to me given that my previous drafts featured anywhere from 3-5 paragraphs of summary. As it turns out, writing several summary paragraphs is just as boring as it is to read, so I’ve attempted to excise all of the unnecessary details and simply link an article for those who want an in-depth look. 

In 3 sentences, this is the plot of the first season of Wheel of Time: Magic wielding Aes Sedai, Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), and her warder, Lan (Daniel Henney), are drawn to the town of Two Rivers where they meet five young adults: Rand (Joshua Stradowski), Nynaeve (Zoe Robbins), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Egwene (Madeline Madden), and Mat (Barney Harris). While the Two Rivers is of little importance, Moiraine recognizes that the five are important, and one of them will be the Dragon Reborn- the chosen one who will defeat the Dark One and save the world. After the Two Rivers is attacked by the Dark One’s army, the five, along with Moiraine and Lan, flee the town and begin a journey to save the world. (Obviously the path is not easy, and magical hijinks ensue, but that’s not important here.)

On the surface, the TV show and the original “Wheel of Time” books- written by Robert Jordan- are similar, but you don’t have to watch much to realize the show isn’t ‘based’ on Jordan’s work (as proclaimed in the gorgeous title sequence) so much as it’s inspired by it. The names are unchanged, but the character histories, motivations, and general plot elements find themselves completely remade with mixed success. Even with the talent of the cast, the show is still hurt by its strange pacing and bad character development (and Covid-19, but that’s a side note for later).

Now, Wheel of Time was always at a disadvantage. It’s impossible to adapt a fantasy series onto screen in a way all (or even a majority) of book fans will like. From the beginning, Wheel of Time was fighting to prove both its quality as its own series, as well as warring with the expectation of fans viewing it. It’s a double-edged sword: over-devotion to source material denies the reality that text and screen are different mediums that require different choices; however, choosing to make lots of changes makes the audience wonder why the books were adapted in the first place: “Why Wheel of Time if you intend to change it?” Precedence indicates that fantasy on screen will come from books (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Witcher, A Discovery of Witches, His Dark Materials etc.) and this is because of risk. Making and producing wholly new fantasy stories is a financial risk in ways adaptations aren’t. Adaptation ensures a pre-existing audience who are already invested. A cold release of a high fantasy series is a large ask of an audience: It requires them to engage with the story, remember the lore, and remember the complicated history of the story world. It also requires that a creative team make up all of these things and be able to communicate it through dialogue (ideally, without expo-dumping). It’s more convenient to allow a book to set this groundwork, and then use the visual version to expand or cut out the unnecessary slog.

 Wheel of Time chooses to cut out some of the drag, and updates some, but mostly makes lateral changes. Its attempts to give female characters more to do makes the male character appear incompetent (the whole Nynaeve tracking Moiraine debacle being a prime example), and it never decides what, if anything, it’s making commentary on. It wavers between creating its own in-universe problems and recreating those from our world, specifically, the roles of women. Nearly all of the female characters engage in some dialogue about the options presented to them. For Egwene, this takes the form of the realization that she will either be able to serve as Wisdom for the Two Rivers (pre-leaving) or having a domestic life with Rand. Nynaeve talks about her future with Liandrin- a member of the Aes Sedai- who encourages her to join the faction of the Aes Sedai that don’t have male warders, citing the lack of control women have within their world. Even more present, the persecution of the Aes Sedai by White Cloaks (a magic-hating organization) draws parallels to various historical witch hunts, but it doesn’t end up saying anything. Rather than reflect our world, the show could have used magic as an allegory for all prejudice and allowed it to be a more haunting, subtle show of how power dynamics shape all worlds-real and fictional.

Spoilers in this paragraph: The finale episode is the epitome of this problem. Rand, having discovered in episode 7 that he is the Dragon Reborn (to the shock of exactly no one), is engaged in a ‘fight’ (mental test) against The Man- whom he presumes to be the Dark One. Rand must decide whether he is going to use his magic for good or evil, and to tempt him to chose ‘the dark,’ his adversary presents him with his ultimate fantasy: Living in a town that is or is like the Two Rivers, and happily married to Egwene with a child. The Dark One promises that if Rand chooses ‘the dark’, this fantasy can be made real. Rand interacts with his dream, slowly becoming aware that something is wrong. He realizes that what he’s seeing is only his fantasy, and not the life Egwene would chose for herself. Rand picks ‘the light’ as he sees he cannot chose other people’s futures- especially those he loves. In isolation, this works, but Rand had already grappled with and come to this conclusion earlier. On screen, we see him tell Egwene to pursue her dreams of learning to channel magic, knowing he cannot go with her.  Further, if this is Rand’s moment of great development, it implies he’s never acknowledged Egwene was her own person before. It reduces his arc from a small town boy realizing the world is larger than him to a boy who’s shocked other people are people too. Rather than Rand acknowledging Egwene’s autonomy, the show could have allowed him to see his other friends within his fantasy. Having him come to the conclusion that, while bad things have happened since leaving the Two Rivers, this idea of a ‘simpler time’ is false. He starts to see that the people they have become since leaving are more aware and capable than the ones who left. This can be cemented by Rand’s acknowledgement that he can’t go back to the mindset of the boy he was when he left, and the only way forward is his future- not his past.

Rand is far from the only character who’s arc is handled badly. The addition of Mat’s younger sisters is a cheap move at best, and actively contradicts his character at worst. Potential spoiler-Perrin is the one let down the most by the writing, and let’s leave it at: Nonviolence doesn’t need to be justified, and fridging is never a good narrative choice-Potential spoiler ends.

In terms of character moments that worked for me, I loved minor spoiler- the unabashed way the show put Moiraine in a same-sex relationship with Siuan- minor spoiler ends. The biggest positive, however, was Nynaeve, who was my favorite from the beginning. It’s clear that active effort was put in to elevate her from the book version of herself, and, despite the occasional misstep, they succeed in doing this. Nynaeve is a wonderful blend of self-reliance, bravery, frustration, and insecurity. We get to see direct draws between her lowest moments and her response to difficulty. Her status as an orphan makes her self-reliant, and she feels safer when in control of her situation. She assumes leadership roles (like her mentor-mentee relationship with Egwene) and is constantly learning more to help prepare herself for the future. Nynaeve refuses to be sidelined as well, always finding ways to take action and never doubting her own capabilities. The moment I will forever return to when thinking of her sheer excellence is actually from the first episode, in which Nynaeve responds to a creature roaring at her with a battle cry of her own.

The strength of Nynaeve’s character is indicative of the actor’s ability. When the script provides, all of the main cast use it effectively, providing deeply emotional scenes, or landing jokes. These moments of quality give necessary insight and development into the characters, it allows the audience to build attachment, regardless of how you like them throughout the entire season. 

The bad news for all of us that enjoyed Mat is that he’s getting a new actor next season. There was a gap in filming between the last two episodes and the other six because of health-related concerns. It was during this break that Harris exited the show, which is why Mat isn’t really in the finale (so technically the writers didn’t forget about him). Harris was convincing as Mat, so here’s hoping that Dónal Finn, the actor taking up the mantle next season, is also able to embody the character.

This cast has undeniable talent, and if next season can meet them there in terms of storytelling and writing, Wheel of Time will be able to make the jump from average to good. Having seen this season, there’s also hope that audience expectations will adjust and Wheel of Time will be allowed to exist on its own merits, separate from its source material. It will never be perfect, but it will have time to smooth out the bumps and develop its story-telling style, as well as its own identity as an adaptation/reimagining. And who knows, maybe networks will start taking risks on made-for-screen fantasy.

6/10 would cheer for Nynaeve again

Further breakdown:

Writing Quality: 6/10                   Enjoyability: 6/10

Pace: 6/10                                       Visual elements: 7/10

Plot development: 6/10                Insightfulness: 5/10 

Characters: 7/10