I watched the first three episodes of the Wheel of Time, which is an adaptation of one of my favorite book series. Is the internet ready for my hot take?
First off, let me acknowledge that a lot of time and work went into creating this show. That is true for any show, but it is particularly true for a big budget epic fantasy with an international audience. They spent that budget. Efforts were made. It is easy to be an armchair critic. But…
I am a writer who went to pro fiction boot camps and film school, and my inner critic never shuts off. I wish someone would hand me that budget to create my own series, because yes, I thought they made a few mediocre and poor decisions.
Without giving away spoilers? Here’s my take.
Their writing team forgot that rule number one is to make heroes likable. It’s a simple guideline, but it’s easy to overlook when you’re juggling ten thousand other concerns. The film adaptation of my favorite series made the main heroes kind of … meh. They’re not admirable. They don’t do anything that would cause a viewer to root for them. To the contrary, a few of the heroes seem like pouting ingrates. A few of them make stupid decisions without any explanation given on screen, such as shouting in a situation where bad guys might hear and then attack them. That sort of behavior is not going to win over viewers.
The show also takes itself very, very seriously. Too seriously. Every song is mournful. There are no moments of levity between tense scenes. There is no wit, no jokes, not much fun. The books had a tone of playfulness and sense-of-wonder and adventure. The show would have done well to break up the tension with a few moments of kindness or fun moments (not only emo moments) between characters.
Even the scenes where crowds are laughing come across as false, like advertisements for a Renaissance Faire. It’s like the cliche of “women laughing while eating salad.” If the background bystanders in every tavern are having an apparently uproarious time, it doesn’t seem believable.
HBO’s Game of Thrones had its own problems, but one thing they got right was the artistry. GoT went above and beyond with costume design, sets, and musical score. I don’t see that in Amazon Prime’s Wheel of Time. The costumes, sets, and music are okay. They work for the show. But they’re not outstanding on the same level of GoT, despite having a similar budget.
The WoT characters look like they went shopping at only the best outlets for faux woolens. Instead of living in a remote medieval-style village, they look like tourists who enjoyed a spa day and who are now hanging out at a high end Renaissance festival.
I don’t have a problem with the show’s pacing. I see reviews complaining about that, but I think it’s a factor of other problems that can look like pacing issues. They are sticking to the books in a loose way, and that’s fine.
On to my specific problems, solutions, and thoughts about each hero.
I get why the TV writing team chose to make Perrin axe his pregnant wife by accident. They’re setting up his central character conflict, which is whether he should use the axe (be a violent warlord) or forge a hammer (be a gentle blacksmith). The goal is to make Perrin afraid of his own violence. It’s a good idea to set that up as soon as possible with his character.
But they could set it up in a way that makes Perrin look heroic rather than dangerously and stupidly reckless.
For instance: Have him go into berserker mode while killing Trollocs, using up all of his finely forged weapons and then seizing crude implements to continue the slaughter. Have someone he loves (his wife or his mother) look at him with absolute disgust. Show how that look cuts him and makes him ashamed. Show that loved one flinch away from him. Then show his guilt and shame.
There are several problems with setting up his conflict by making him a wife-killer.
1) Wife slaying is not a good look for a hero.
2) Perrin’s wife on the show seems way more competent than him in every way. She’s a better blacksmith, and she’s better at killing Trollocs. In contrast to that, Perrin comes across as a loser: a dangerous, reckless person who should not be trusted with weapons.
3) The show undermines his Axe vs. Hammer inner conflict in the second episode, when Mat gives Perrin his dagger. Clearly, the writing team thought that was a clever way to set up Mat’s need for a new dagger. But when Perrin accepts a weapon of violence which was forged by his dead wife, that implies that he is already accepting of the violence within himself. It also signals that he has emotionally moved on from “oops, I murdered by wife by accident.” It doesn’t make him look good.
Rand starts to become likable in the third episode. He steps up by taking responsibility for himself and Mat both. That is a glimmer of heroism right there. Yay! Finally.
It’s canceled a bit due to his apparent helplessness against an aggressive female innkeeper. He’s terrified of her. He can bust through an iron door, but he can’t face a woman who stole his sword?
And he acts not-so-bright in the beginning of this episode, shouting for Egwene where Trollocs might hear him. That sort of thing makes viewers lose respect for a character. And Rand isn’t doing anything smart to counterbalance his brainless moments.
Unfortunately, Rand is quite unlikable in the first two episodes. The show gives no reason for his bitter distrust of Moiraine, after she literally saved Rand’s father from death. Rand shows zero gratitude for that. To the contrary, he accuses Moiraine of being manipulative and possibly evil.
And his character is all about pouting after being friend-zoned. Rand and Egwene have zero chemistry on screen. They are a crying emo mess, and Rand doesn’t come off as respectful and kind. He comes across more like a stalker than a friend.
I totally get why the show’s writing team chose to establish Mat’s kindness right away, rather than wait two full seasons for Mat to get healed from that ruby dagger. His character doesn’t become a fan favorite until Book 3 of the book series. Until then, he’s an adolescent prankster who turns bitter and nasty due to an enchanted dagger. So the show went for the quickest and easiest way to set Mat up as a hero: Have him selflessly protect his impoverished little sisters from his terrible parents. Voila! Now he is an instant hero.
It was just too quick and easy. To a jaded viewer, it comes across as a cheap way to work in some character dev.
Like Rand, Mat comes across as not-too-bright several times, particularly when he goes off exploring by himself in Aridhol (ep02). Not a good look for a hero. That kind of behavior needs explanation, or else it just looks stupid.
Of all the heroes on the show, Egwene comes across as the best one so far, and that is only in contrast to the rest of them. She hasn’t done anything egregiously wrong. She isn’t reckless with an axe, no bad life choices, no pouting or blaming the wrong person for her situation. But she is bland. She hasn’t done anything heroic or kind, either.
I like how protective of her people she is. That comes across, and the actress has enough fiery passion to sell it. But she has a moment in ep01 where she freezes in the battle, and it makes her look cowardly. The show could have handled that better. Her hatred of Moiraine also seems irrational, and could use more of an explanation.
They gave Thom a theme song. Or a guitar chord, anyway. That seems hokey, and it contrasts weirdly with the tone of the show, which is otherwise somber and taking itself ultra seriously.
Moiraine and Lan
No comment for now. I think they’re doing all right. Lan looks very Samurai, and I think the show would have done better to give Borderlanders more unique fantasy costuming. But I would say the same for all of the costuming on the show.
Where did all the Trollocs go after the heroes escaped from Aridhol? In the books, Mashadar (the creepy black stuff that turned that horse into dust) killed the Trollocs who had been driven inside to grab the heroes. If they had done that on screen, it would have emphasized how badly the Dark One wants the Dragon Reborn. What a missed opportunity. Instead, the viewer is left to surmise that Trollocs aren’t such a big threat, since apparently they just randomly give up when the plot calls for it.
At the end of ep01, Moiraine flat-out tells the heroes, “The Dragon has been reborn. And it’s one of you.” This would have been a great opportunity for character development plus exposition. “The Dragon has been reborn.” Then have the characters react, like “Blood and bloody ashes!” (or “WTF!”) and “Do you mean the guy who broke the world 3,000 years ago? That Dragon?” Reactions such as these would show what our heroes know of the world lore, as well as how seriously they take it. Then Moiraine could say, “Yes. That Dragon. And I believe it’s one of you.” That way, it ratchets up unspoken tension between the characters. It’s more dramatic. But the opportunity was missed.
Overall, the show feels very scripted. The world seems to be conveniently full of adventurers and significant people who are fated to teach our heroes what the Whitecloaks are, what a Gleeman is, and what an Aiel is. I’m sure that is a byproduct of promising a short TV season. The solution would have been to make the first season ten episodes instead of eight. Oh, and to prioritize a few scenes meant to lighten the mood and seem fun and spontaneous.
I will continue watching, of course. One can learn a lot about cinema and storytelling from watching adaptations, whether they are good or bad!
To be clear, I don’t think this one is abysmal. It’s functional. It could be better, it could have been worse. Three stars. Maybe the characters will gain some interpersonal chemistry or fun moments in later episodes.
November 20, 2021 at 12:21 pm
You make a lot of good points. I want to be clear that I don’t (necessarily) think I could have done a better job. I think THEY could have done a better job. They have a whole writers’ room and supposedly had Robert Jordan’s old staff on the set to make sure they were doing a good job. All that oversight and no one says “Wait a minute…do you really think she needs to destroy the inn to save the village?”
November 20, 2021 at 9:11 pm
I read that Brandon Sanderson advised them to… well, I am keeping spoilers out of the comments here. But he advised them NOT to do what they did to Perrin’s character.
It’s a learning experience, for me, to see this adaptation. I think they put immense focus into shoving as much of Book 1 into Season 1 as possible. The writing team clearly did put a lot of care and energy into that. They got the story quite far in three episodes.
But they did it at the expense of developing likable characters.
It’s tough to watch, since this series has such astronomical potential to be a blockbuster, and they fumbled. If I ever gain enough cred as an author to teach a class, I may use this as an example of how easy it is to accidentally turn likable protagonists into unlikable, bland protagonists who are hard to root for.