With the recently failed pilot of the “we just did this to keep the film rights” Wheel of Time TV series, I see a lot of my Facebook and Twitter friends – many of whom I met through a Wheel of Time fan site – talking about what they would like to see in a well-executed WoT television series. So with the question of how to make a good Wheel of Time series on every nerd’s mind, let me sum up my opinion on the matter in one word.
Okay, maybe you want something a little more detailed than that. The problem with the Wheel of Time from the perspective of a television series is that authors enjoy a freedom that screen-writers do not: the freedom to vary the pace of their books. Novelists can – and Robert Jordan (the author of WoT) did – decide to write very slow, uneventful stories and still retain their readers’ attention. This is because novels allow you to spend a great deal of time inside a character’s mind. Visual media do not allow for that kind of interaction. In film we must judge a character strictly by what he or she does; that means something must always be happening, the plot constantly moving forward. Now, as an aside, I happen to think some novelists could learn a thing or two from screenwriters. I happen to believe that defining a character by his or her actions is preferable to defining a character by his or her thoughts. And the optimum solution for a book is a mix of the two. However, WoT definitely took the path of defining a character by his thoughts, which means that many books are incredibly uneventful. Let’s break it down to the basic points.
1) The Plot
I think the problem is that since Game of Thrones is such a wildly popular adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, TV execs now believe that huge epic fantasy stories are the perfect cash crop. This is not always the case. A few years before Game of Thrones, HBO made a similar attempt to adapt the Sword of Truth series into Legend of the Seeker, and that failed miserably. One thing that makes Game of Thrones more accessible where series like Wheel of Time and Sword of Truth are not is the fact that George R.R. Martin doesn’t do a whole lot of publishing. Here are all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire.
And here are all the books in the Wheel of Time.
Five vs fourteen. Yes, I’m aware that that A Song of Ice and Fire is not complete and that George R.R. Martin estimates two more books before he’s finished, but the fact remains that Game of Thrones has far less ground to cover than a Wheel of Time series would have. So, looking at a series of fourteen novels, the next inevitable question is how exactly would we adapt that for TV?
One thing to consider is that the entire Wheel of Time series, from start to finish, takes place in the span of about two and a half years. The main characters begin the story in their late teens, and many of them have not yet celebrated their twentieth birthday when the final book draws to a conclusion. So, keeping in mind that actors age, how would we go about structuring a Wheel of Time series? A season for each book would result in fourteen years of television, and a young actor who took on his or her role at the age of eighteen would be thirty-two by the time the series was finished. What’s more, fourteen years is completely unreasonable for a television series; almost no series lasts that long. We would have to condense the story into something more manageable.
And here we encounter our second problem. Unlike a Song of Ice and Fire – which is written in such a way that the place where one book ends and the next begins is rather arbitrary – most of the Wheel of Time books are designed to be self-contained stories detailing each step in the hero’s journey. These individual books link together to form a larger story, but the first six all have natural starting and stopping points. They follow a traditional story structure of introduction, rising action, climax and conclusion. So how are you going to adapt this for the small screen?
Suppose you decide to make the first season WoT the TV Show about the events that take place in the first two novels of the series. If you remain true to the story as Robert Jordan told it, you will have an introduction, a rising action, a climax, a cool down, more rising action, a second climax and a conclusion in the space of one season. Now some people think that could work because there is such a thing as a mid-season cliffhanger. But that means the second half of the season would have a radical shift in theme and tone when compared to the first. Heroes tried that and failed miserably.
2) The Bloat.
Robert Jordan himself has a radical shift in theme, tone and pacing when you reach the midpoint of his series. As I said, the first six books have a basic self-contained story structure. Book seven, on the other hand, is a radical departure from what came before. Based on his glowing reviews of A Song of Ice and Fire, I honestly think that Robert Jordan decided to experiment with George R.R. Martin’s style. (Books have no real definitive beginning or end).
Now, you might think this makes things easier because Game of Thrones was so successful, and the lack of traditional story structure gave the screen writers more freedom to experiment. However, I must repeat what I said at the beginning of this post. Most of what Jordan writes in those books does not translate well to a visual medium.
The seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth books of Wheel of Time are incredibly uneventful. Entire chapters are dedicated to nothing but a single character sitting on horseback and thinking about the political situation of his nation and the growing tensions with their neighbours to the east. One chapter – and I’m not making this up – features three pages that describe nothing but a single character going up a set of stairs. Yes, the character in question is thinking about things, but a character’s internal monologue is not something you can depict in a visual medium.
The character’s journey up the set of stairs is part of a larger tour of a huge tower, from the basement all the way to the top, where the queen lives. We get a lot of description of tapestries, floor tiles – Jordan loves talking about floor tiles – and dresses worn by the women who live in that tower, but not a lot of action. This won’t work on TV. The three paragraphs that Jordan uses to describe an elaborate blue dress can be accomplished with a single pan of the camera. So when the screen-writers get to the seventh book of the series, they’re going to have very little material to work with, and they’re going to have to start making things up.
3) Wheel of Time fans are rabid.
Yes, I know I just offended at least half my readers. Many of us met on a Wheel of Time discussion site. Sorry, guys, I hate to tell you this, but Wheel of Time fans are worse than Trekkies when it comes to cataloging every tiny detail of their favourite series, and they will pounce on any writer who makes the tiniest mistake. Remember ten seconds ago, when I said that the screen-writers were going to have to start making things up? Wheel of Time fans won’t stand for that.
We already saw this when a new author was asked to come in and finish the late Robert Jordan’s work. To this day, Brandon Sanderson gets flack for writing that a fourth-tier character named Bain was a member of the Taarad Aiel when in fact she was part of the Goshien Aiel. People who have never read the Wheel of Time are looking at that sentence and saying “what the fuck?” To them, I say “Exactly.” Jordan was a writer who loved minute detail. His biggest fans are people who appreciate that, and if you get something wrong… Oh boy, will there be hell to pay.
By the way, fellow WoT fans. That thing about the Taarad Aiel vs the Goshien Aiel? I just made that up. I’m aware that Brandon Sanderson got little tiny details wrong, but I don’t know specifically what he got wrong, because I never read through each book in this series with a magnifying glass. I was never that interested in minute details; so when Sanderson made mistakes, I simply didn’t notice them. I had to make up an example to illustrate what I’m talking about. I tell you this because I know that some of you, upon reading my example, would immediately start combing through the books and looking for the place where Sanderson claimed that Bain was of the Taarad Aiel. Others would point out that Bain is not actually a member of the Goshien Aiel and inform me of her actual tribe. (The correct word is clan, but people who don’t read WoT will have a better understanding of the situation if I use the word tribe). And I point that out, because I know WoT fans will correct me and tell me I should have used the word “clan.”
See what I mean by rabid?
And just so that we’re clear, there’s nothing wrong with being so intensely immersed in a story that you know all the little details. This is not nerd-shaming on my part. I’m a little rabid about Buffy. My only point here is that the producers of a Wheel of Time TV series are facing a community that will not tolerate any deviation from Robert Jordan’s vision while simultaneously embarking on a project that will require them to deviate from Robert Jordan’s vision. I guarantee you there is going to be an enormous amount of hate flung at anyone who tries to make a WoT TV series. Which is why… for those who just want a TL:DR version of this post, I say…
Don’t make a Wheel of Time TV series.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
It’s had some great reviews!