The Wheel of Time Still Has A Long, Long Way To Go For TV

Spencer Ellsworth
Jun 23 · 5 min read

Great news for the long-suffering fans of The Wheel of Time! Rosamund Pike has been cast as Moiraine, the enigmatic female Gandalf of the series. And the showrunners have decided to use Moiraine’s story as the “in” for viewers, rather than the white-bread boy Rand al’Thor.

If you didn’t get hooked on The Wheel of Time in the early 90s, you may not get it. The series is dated now, but was everything to every fantasy fan in 1992.

Despite Tolkienesque nods, it presented a thus-far-unimagined fantasy concept: only women could use magic. Any men who did so, in Robert Jordan’s world, would become insane.

But in order to restore balance to the world, a particular man — Rand al’Thor — had to use magic, racing the clock against his insanity.

After a few great books and a few, well, readable ones, the series fell off into an endless slog, writer Robert Jordan tragically passed of a degenerative heart disease, and finally it wrapped up in three pretty-good substitute-drafted books by workhorse Brandon Sanderson.

Of course a major studio snapped it up in the wake of Game of Thrones’s success.

But it’s 2019 now. Game of Thrones is of a piece with Rome, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood & The Sopranos — sprawling literary epics of antiheroes and politics, admired precisely because they hacked apart old TV cliches. (They made new TV cliches in the process, but that’s another article.)

That’s not The Wheel of Time.

The 90s Are Not The 2020s

Remember when I said it’s dated?

Don’t get me wrong. I looooooove the series, often more than it deserves. But even if they follow Moiraine rather than Rand, Jordan’s first few books, with farmboys and an innkeeper’s daughter on their quest to stop the Dark One, are more like The Shannara Chronicles than Westeros. Very D&D, Tolkien-lite, what-your-grandma-thinks-fantasy-is. And right now, Shannara Chronicles sits square in that dusty box of forgotten fantasy TV. Reviews were mixed, ratings were middling, and the old “cheesy fantasy tropes” complaint rang loud.

In the 1980s, Jordan was writing fantasy for a market that clearly wanted Tolkien pastiches, so he started on an empty road, with a menacing black rider. There’s much more there — the Gandalf, Radagast and Saruman figures of the series are all genderflipped, Jordan used magic to put a skewed view on misandry and misogyny, and the series shows remarkable depth in historical and social parallels. There are layers of alien cultures, especially among the Aiel and Seanchan.

The show needs to hit with that first, and that’ll be tough, given the story structure.

The Brandon Sanderson books deal with the fascinating questions of how to ally humankind against the Dark One. The Seanchan Empire, built on a perniciously magical slavery, is evil as, and more intractable than, the Darkfriends. The Seanchan question inspired Sanderson to write a new fan-favorite sequence in the second-to-last book, showing that even the nigh-invincible Aiel couldn’t win against the Seanchan.

If that sort of “lesser of two evils” thinking could come into the series earlier, it would show the books’ staying power.

That’s good news given the current approach, since Moiraine and the Aes Sedai always sacrifice goodness in favor of expedience. But how much of Rand’s story can be changed before the estate, or the fans, revolt? The series’ plot was always about Rand growing into his role as Dragon Reborn, which means that even if we start with Moiraine, we need to see a lot of Books 1 & 2 right up-front.

It’s Too Long

Fifteen books! All with lengths comparable to George RR Martin’s novels (Martin’s third and fifth books surpass the word count of even the longest Jordan novels, but not by much).

This in a world where successful TV dramas run from five to seven seasons. Assuming one book per season, Breaking Bad would be over and done by the time a WoT series would get through the events of The Fires of Heaven.

So where to cut? Most fans could live without the much-reviled kidnapping of Faile, but what about Queen Tylin, or the Bowl of the Winds, or even Rand’s polyamorous romance? In the books, Rand and his farmgirl friend Egwene start as a sort of couple, before they grow apart. I can imagine a producer insisting that Rand and Egwene remain a couple, one torn apart by their dual loyalties and fates.

That doesn’t even sound bad. It sounds like the inspiration for a pretty good fantasy series, but it’s not the WoT we know.

It’s Not Even A Little Bit Queer

Brandon Sanderson made some efforts to repair the absence of queer characters in the series, but a TV series would have to go a lot farther for 2019 audiences, a world where gay, romantic & sexual minorities have achieved greater visibility. Lesbian relationships in the White Tower are depicted as a quirk of teenagerhood that most women grow out of. If Moiraine and Siuan’s youthful relationship were brought forward into adulthood, it would still only be one tiny piece of the world.

If we follow the idea that Rand’s romance might get rewritten, would fans be willing to see a romance between Elayne and Aviendha in its stead?

To some degree, even good representation won’t address root problems. The up-and-coming generation is more willing than ever to question the classic gender binary that saidin and saidar are based on. Jordan never wrote any transgendered characters. (Aran’gar, a man forcibly transported into a woman’s body, doesn’t count.) Can a trans man or woman touch the corresponding part of the One Power to their identified gender if it’s different than what they were assigned at birth? What about non-binary people? It’s troubling that the only genderfluid power is the True Power, which comes from the Dark One.

Time… (Hey!) Will Tell

The series, if done right, may hit in just the right place for the 2020s. Game of Thrones was a bleak, dark series that ended on a main character’s betrayal. The Wheel of Time, from the beginning to the end, flirts with true darkness, but always reasserts the value of hope, and always brings out the nobility in its characters.

Fantasy fans are a little sick of grimdark, one would think.

Ultimately, Jordan’s series, like any long work, has significant weaknesses and significant strengths. Let’s hope the showrunners are able to, like Game of Thrones did in its early seasons, trim the excesses of the books while leaving in strong bones of the story.

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Spencer Ellsworth

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Guy with opinions! Author of A RED PEACE from Tor, and THE GREAT FAERIE STRIKE from Broken Eye Books. Space bugs and faerie unions; check em out.

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