The Wheel of Time, Amazon’s first major attempt at a big-budget fantasy TV show, may not be as well known as Peter Jackson’s iconic Lord of the Rings film trilogy or HBO’s acclaimed (and then critically panned) Game of Thrones. Yet Robert Jordan's books have sold 90 million copies worldwide since January, 1990 – the same number as Game of Thrones, no less. The series clearly holds its own.
For a book series as loved as The Wheel of Time, a TV adaptation brings a wealth of expectation from its fanbase. And for the show’s creator and cast, doing justice to Jordan’s expansive, complex works didn’t only bring pressure from outside forces: It also brought it from within.
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“The pressure is tremendous,” Rafe Judkins, The Wheel of Time’s showrunner and longtime fan of the novels, tells TechRadar. “I’m a big book nerd and I’ve seen what happens when book series are adapted beautifully or terribly. That pressure really weighs heavily on you; I really feel it on myself. But, if we can bring the heart of the series to life, I think audiences will connect with what we set out to achieve.”
Ahead of the show’s November 19 release on Amazon Prime Video, TechRadar sat down with Judkins and its cast to learn more about their take on Jordan’s seminal works. We discovered what creative liberties were taken with the source material, if any important plot points were left on the cutting room floor, and why it's vital to live up to fans' expectations.
Weaving an epic tale
Set in an unnamed world, The Wheel of Time follows the adventures of Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a powerful sorceress and member of the Aes Sedai, an all-female organization of magic wielders.
When the Dark One threatens to engulf the world once more, Moiraine and her Warder guardian Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) set out to find the Dragon Reborn, a prophesied champion who can potentially stop the Dark One’s plan.
After the duo locates and rescues five potential candidates – Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins), Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) – from the Dark One’s forces, Moiraine leads them on a globetrotting journey to work out who is the reincarnated Dragon. Not only that, but she must also determine if the Dragon Reborn will save the world – or join the Dark One and destroy life as they know it.
Like other book-to-TV adaptations, such as Hulu’s recently canceled take on Y: The Last Man, numerous studios have tried to create a live-action version of The Wheel of Time. It wasn’t until April 2017, when Sony Pictures Television became involved, that this aspiration became a reality.
Judkins, though, saw the potential for a Wheel of Time TV show much earlier. A dedicated fan ever since he read the books as a child, Judkins has repeatedly affirmed that the TV format, and not a movie trilogy, is the only way to do justice to the novels. He was also fully aware of what made The Wheel of Time such an engaging and relatable tale – and how he would utilize its biggest strength to hook audiences from the get-go.
“It was really important for me to find a way to emotionally connect viewers to these characters from the very first episode,” he says. “You want audiences to care about what happens next to these characters, and I think that’s what’s kept people’s interest through Jordan’s 14 novels. We were constantly asking ourselves ‘are we telling their stories from the books?’ or ‘can audiences follow these individuals emotionally through their journey?’. If we can get that across, we’ve done our job.”
A change in approach
As simple as The Wheel of Time’s synopsis sounds, the tale in the novels is anything but. Jordan’s story is a vast and convoluted one to follow, with numerous locations, almost 3000 named characters, a unique spin on magic users, and many other high fantasy elements across a total of 11,308 pages.
Tackling such an elaborate story, Judkins says, meant that alterations to the source material were necessary, even if some diehard fans won’t be enamored with the final product. That included a combination of narratives from the series’ first two books, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, as well as changing the order of when certain events take place.
“A lot of the changes we made were to the characters’ backstories in episode one,” he reveals. “And we altered them to help our audience understand these people from the beginning. We’re creating this for a TV audience; some viewers haven’t read the books, and we don’t have them for three seasons to see if they like the show. So we need them to come away from the premiere with a core understanding of who these people are.”
Finding a balance between each character’s portrayal in the books, and the alterations made to those individuals for Amazon’s adaptation, was also challenging for the show’s cast.
“At first, my source was really descript,” Stradowski, who plays Rand, explains. “But then I read the books and they added to my understanding of who he is. As an actor, it’s a gift having so much rich material. I’m currently on book 11, and I’m still curious about, and amazed by, Rand’s journey.”
“It was important to me to bring my individual experience to Egwene,” Madden adds. “As a character that people hold so close to their hearts, you want to embody that character to the best of your ability. We were very fortunate to have this incredible series to fall back on, as well as Rafe’s knowledge of the source material. But we were also reassured that part of these characters was already within us and that we should bring that forward in our portrayals.”
For Judkins, there were regrettable decisions to leave certain parts of Jordan’s works out of proceedings. As he tells us, one particularly important location had to be dropped for his adaptation simply because of how TV shows are made.
“I love the Caemlyn sequence in book one,” he shares. “But we couldn't do it for casting reasons. You know, Robert Jordan does such a good job of setting up a character who you meet once, and then they really pay off later on in the books. But that isn’t conducive for TV, because you can’t cast an actor who’ll come and work for you for two days in 2019, and then you won’t need until 2023 when their character reappears. I’m happy with how we altered that particular narrative, but I was sad to see Caemlyn go.”
Myths that aren’t long forgotten
While there was an acceptance that some story alterations were unavoidable, Judkins and his team were acutely aware that other parts of The Wheel of Time had to be adapted directly from the source material.
That includes the tight-knit, psychic bond between an Aes Sedai and her Warder companion. In the novels, such individuals are bound by Saidar, the female half of the One Power (the world’s source of magic). This ‘weave’ gives Warders the ability to go without food, drink and rest for longer than normal, as well as allowing them to withstand wounds that kill ordinary men. Aes Sedai, meanwhile, gain a guardian who will protect them from threats whenever they summon the One Power.
For Pike and Henney, who play Moiraine and Lan respectively, it was vital that this integral part of Jordan’s world – one where such relationships are platonic in nature – was portrayed as authentically as possible.
“That [relationship] is very powerful thematically,” Pike says. “There’s no pressure of romantic love, but the love between them is strong nonetheless. And that unconditional loyalty is a very beautiful thing. We had great fun thinking about how small we could make our communication and have the audience pick up on it as we follow these characters’ journeys.”
“Before this show, Rosamund and I had only met once in passing at an event,” Henney recalls. “When we joined the cast, we set up a FaceTime call that was only supposed to be a 20-minute introduction, but it ended up lasting three hours. That made me think ‘Okay, this is going to be something special’. And then the scripts gave us room to play more; for battle sequences, we had to synchronize our moves. Even the bathtub scene in episode one – that’s a powerful scene. It shows what’s quite literally happening under the surface. It was special to build that together and I hope that it shows.”
The Trollocs, terrifyingly giant creatures that are part-human and part-animal and make up the bulk of the Dark One’s army, were another important aspect to get right. With an immeasurable amount of Trolloc fanart online, Judkins and company could have simply used this artwork as inspiration for their iterations. As Judkins explains, though, both the fanart and original descriptions in Jordan’s novels were equally influential in the Trollocs’ final designs.
“We started with quotes from the books of what they looked like,” Judkins reveals. “And then we sent them to lots of concept artists to see how they’d bring them to life. We combined those with other fanart to see what was consistent across different images, and what was unique about people’s various interpretations.
"Each Trolloc is unique – they’re this blend of humans and animals and birds, such as boars and eagles. So we spent a lot of extra money to ensure that even non-book readers can recognize them. And, based on what animal they were inspired by, we gave them movements that you’d associate with that animal. We paid attention to those little details to help lean away from stuff viewers will have seen before.”
There’s a lot riding on The Wheel of Time, not least from a financial perspective. According to reports, including a lengthy GQ piece on the show’s production, The Wheel of Time season 1 – comprising eight episodes – cost $80 million to make. It’s unclear if this figure includes post-production work, potential reshoots, and more.
With a Lord of the Rings prequel series set to land on Prime Video in September 2022, The Wheel of Time is also seen as a primer for audience interest in big-budget, fantasy-led Amazon productions. Add on the expectations of the dedicated fanbase, and the pressure is certainly on The Wheel of Time to be a success, even though it’s already been renewed for a second season.
For the show’s young cast, dealing with that expectation comes with the territory of portraying characters in a popular book series.
“I believe that pressure kills creativity,” Stradowski says. “I try to immerse myself in the books and the scripts, and that certainly helps. But I’m also very aware of Rand’s journey, his potential in the novels and the love that the fans have for this character. So I definitely feel that pressure on occasion.”
“I feel an immense amount of pressure to do justice to this series,” Madden adds. “It’s one that many people have grown up with, so I think it’s a good sign to be anxious and nervous about something as big as this. I have a real connection with Egwene, and I think people will connect with her and the show overall.”
Those are viewpoints shared by experienced actors like Pike and Henney, too. The duo has long been involved in The Wheel of Time’s production and, while both actors know how much Jordan’s novels mean to the fans, each has gained a new appreciation for just how cherished they are. It’s this ardent backing from The Wheel of Time’s fanbase that Pike and Henney believe will make the show a big success.
“I see the fandom as an ally in our quest to make this successful,” Pike says. “I’ve just completed the monumental task of doing an audio recording of the first novel, which has given me a greater understanding of how brilliant this world is, and the breadth of Robert Jordan’s imagination. That’s why I feel that this show can’t afford to fail – the books only get better and better, so it would be a tragedy if it failed.”
“It must have been a few months ago,” Henney adds. “I think one of the first teasers for Lan had just come out, and somebody sent me a link to people responding to this clip and just embracing my portrayal. They were very excited about everything in this four-second clip. That’s when I thought to myself ‘Okay, these guys have got my back’. We’re going to go through this together as a team, and that’s a special thing to be part of.”
The Wheel of Time’s first three episodes launch exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, November 19. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly after that.
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