Amazon’s ‘Wheel of Time’ adaptation, lush and a little self-serious
With a cast of characters in the thousands, Asian-inspired mythologies, lush landscapes, and some cool magic, The Wheel of Time series was a ripe offering for the world’s forlorn Game of Thrones fans. After a hilariously, disastrously failed 2015 adaptation attempt starring Billy Zane, the wounded franchise found a safe haven at Amazon. They’ve gone full ham on The Wheel, pouring a reported $10 million per episode into their spin on the beloved fantasy series that spans fourteen core novels, a prequel, and two companion tomes.
In the isolated village of Two Rivers, the citizens are cash poor but community rich, content in that cliché fantasy novel sort of way. The sleepy town takes notice when the quietly powerful Moiraine Sedai (Rosamund Pike) rides into town with Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), her magically bound manservant-slash-bodyguard. Apparently, a decades-old prophecy alerted Moiraine and her mystical sect of sisters that a powerful figure known as the Dragon Reborn walks the earth-type planet once more. She’s made it her mission to find him. Or her, because it’s 2021, and we don’t want to assume the chosen one’s gender. As it happens, there are four possible Dragons in this tiny vale, and Moiraine needs to check them out.
She barely squeezes in a semi-gratuitous hot bath a savage army of Trollocs, a bunch of ugly CGI-meets-costume-shop troll/orc monsters, besieges the town. Chaos ensues as the hapless villagers panic. All seems lost until Moiraine takes center stage, wielding her powers to ignite, crush, and generally eviscerate the attackers. Though the good guys win the battle, more enemies are on the way, and they’ll keep coming, because they’re after the Dragon Reborn too, and their presence proves it’s definitely one of the villagers. Is it lovesick woodsman Rand (Josha Stradowski), hardscrabble rapscallion Mat (Barney Harris), healer-in-training Egwene (Madeleine Madden), or widowered blacksmith Perrin (Marcus Rutherford)? Only time will tell.
At times, The Wheel of Time comes across as a movie based on a musical based on a movie, in the worst way.
Though the source material is copious, and Amazon is already shooting the second season, The Wheel of Time frontloads story information at an unnecessarily brisk pace over the first several episodes as though time runs short. Moiraine functions more as an expositional tool than a character, as she explains the way the universe works, the magical terms inherent to this world, and the overarching story and setup to the naïve villagers, who are themselves as deep as paper.
George RR Martin was an early reader of The Wheel of Time, and the series’ Daes Da’mar, or Game of Houses, inspired him to write A Song of Ice and Fire. Because Game of Thrones made it onto the screen first, comparison is inevitable, and at times, The Wheel of Time comes across as a movie based on a musical based on a movie, in the worst way. For instance, Moiraine’s tub scene features a tentative male butt shot that feels like an awkward pander. It’s a small-scale example of the show’s larger problem, in that it fails to offer us vivid characters, short handing their development in favor of a series of often repetitive events. Everyone says everything very seriously so we know shit is serious, and while this veers into funny, it’s not actually very fun.
Having said that, The Wheel of Time has appeal. The gorgeous scenery offers up loads of expansive, luscious travel porn. Author Robert Jordan’s widow and series successor Brandon Sanderson consulted on the show, and though everyone is Ren Fairishly clean, they also somehow look exactly right for their roles. The costumes look Sherpa soft, and the horses shine. Surprisingly, some of the information download comes in the form of diegetic music, and that sweet touch adds humanity and depth to the story. These bits of detail create an immersive experience, and given time to unfurl, this world could certainly grow into its own. As the books might say, it’s not the beginning, but a beginning, and a start well worth a watch.