Nov. 18, 2021

WoTCast #1: Pondering Before the Premiere

WoTCast #1: Pondering Before the Premiere

If you’re reading this, I’m making a few assumptions about you: You’re a massive Wheel of Time fan, you’ve been waiting, probably a long time, for the series to be adapted into a TV show, and you’re almost jumping out of your skin for Friday, November 19th to get here.

I’m right there with you, my friend.

Before I share with you what I’ve been pondering as we head towards the premiere, a few quick housekeeping line items:

** If you’re not familiar with The Baker’s Dozen, the content I share -- podcasts and blogs -- are broken into thirteen segments. Which is a gentle way of saying that if you don’t like the current point I’m making, wait or skip ahead, because I’ll be switching gears in just a moment.

** If you’d like to support what I’m doing, subscribe to the podcast!

** And, finally, a sincere thank you for checking out my blog. Now, onward to Randland! 

1) My perspective

Captain Obvious time: There are different levels of fervent fandom. Some people have read the entire Wheel of Time book series repeatedly, often circling back, not unlike the wheel itself, with each new book release. Others have read the series once, vaguely recall the major moments, and are interested in seeing what a show adaptation might be like. And others will be introduced to Robert Jordan’s storyworld for the first time this Friday.

So where do I fit in?

As so often happens, I’m right in the middle: I’ve read the entire run of books once, and, because the series is upon us (thank you, Amazon), I am currently in the midst of a second read through (at the moment, I’m nearing the end of The Shadow Rising). Do I lose some fantasy street cred because I haven’t worn out the copies of the novels on my bookshelves? Probably. I’m okay with that, though. I told myself I’d make my way through all fourteen volumes when The Wheel of Time was headed towards the screen, so that’s what I’m doing. I have to say, I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s like reuniting with old friends. Who have magical powers, brood a lot, and tug their braids. 

The way I’m looking at the novels is different now, though. When I started reading them back in the mid-90’s, I was just getting started in Hollywood. Since then, I’ve been a screenwriter and creative executive. I’ve been a development editor for novelists. Even now, almost three decades later, I consult on TV, film, and video game projects, original IPs and adaptations. Along the way, I also got a Masters in English lit, trading scripts for novels and plays and have spent a decade and a half teaching English to smart kids at private schools. Bottom line: I’ve dedicated my life to stories… because I care about them.

And I REALLY care about the Wheel of Time. I want to see it adapted well. Robert Jordan and his brain children deserve that.

That’s my perspective: a knowledgeable fan who adapts and analyzes stories for a living. Hopefully, that’s someone worth listening to.

2) Spoiling is unavoidable -- sort of

When I would teach John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I would warn my students not to spoil the ending of the novel for anyone. To do so, I told them, was cruel; why would you want to steal a moment of surprise or excitement, a moment of genuine emotion, from someone else? To do so says a lot about the person who spoils.I told them that the punishment for violating this mandate was severe: The student would be brought into the English department office, where we would spoil the big reveals from every story we could think of. Psycho. The Usual Suspects. The Sixth Sense. The list went on and on. Steal joy from others, we steal joy from you. (For the record, I would never have done this; I don’t have it in me. Thankfully, I never had a student run around spoiling awesome endings. I don’t know what I would have done.)

That said, I fear that talking about the Wheel of Time show will inevitably lead to spoilers… sort of. Here’s what I mean: Am I going to talk about what happens at The Last Battle? Heck, no. But even that question is semi-spoilery, because it confirms that there will be a Last Battle, that our heroes, or at least some of them, will get there. And even THAT statement is spoilery! Do some characters die along the way? Or did I say that to make it sound like some of them don’t when in fact they do because I’m trying to undo the damage of maybe over-hinting at events to come?

You see the problem? By emphasizing a character or plot point in discussions of the novel and/or show kinda-sorta spoils that these things are important, that they’ll pay off later. The show itself is going to be doing that, too: for example, building up Logain’s character in the trailers, and presumably in the first season, clearly telegraphs that he’s got an important role to play in the journey ahead, and, while there were hints of this in the novels, it certainly wasn’t this overt.

Anyway, my point is this: I’m going to do everything I can to avoid giving anything away because I believe in the sanctity of the individual experience of story. But you WILL be able to read between the lines when I focus on certain elements of the show and raise questions about the choices made during the adaptation process. The only way to avoid that is to go into the series not knowing anything about the books, and that’s just not me. 

*****

Okay, with all that as backdrop, here are the things I’m thinking about as we head towards the premiere…

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3) It’s all Brandon Sanderson’s fault

The Wheel of Time’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the end is known. On the one hand, we can be sure that we won’t find ourselves in a Game of Thrones situation where the later seasons can be generously described as vomit-inducing fan fiction. On the other hand, following a show when you know where it’s going is decidedly less fun. Speculation is one thing when you’re talking excitedly about what might happen… it’s another thing altogether to focus on what version of a completed narrative that the producers are able to give us. Fanbases get more worked up about the questions of who, what, and why (character, plot, and motivation) when they haven’t been on the rollercoaster before. The rise is less compelling, the thrill diminished, when that intrigue is lost and you’re focusing more on how the transition from page to script to screen was made. This is especially true when the show will have over 60 hours to tell the tale; that’s a long time to play the “are they faithful/are they not” game. So it goes with TV adaptations of stories that have an end written already, however. 

4) GoT vs. WoT 

Setting aside for a moment that Wheel of Time isn’t a direct parallel to Game of Thrones -- it inhabits a different part of the sprawling map of fantasy subgenres -- it has been, and will continue to be, compared to the global HBO hit.

I’m going to say something now which, when I look back after Wheel of Time has finished it’s run, I hope makes me sound like a moron of epic proportions: Wheel of Time will not match Game of Thrones’ popularity. In fact, it won’t even be close.

Game of Thrones benefited from a specific set of circumstances: the early seasons were not only based on Martin’s novels, but Martin himself served as a producer, consultant, and writer; as the seasons progressed and the show started to gather an ever-expanding fanbase, the showrunners caught up to the source material; and the final seasons headed into previously unknown territory, answering key questions and bringing the story to AN ending if not the definitive one (but, given GRRM’s output, probably the only one). As a result, an entire ecosystem built up around the speculation game: how were Benioff and Weiss going to conclude one of the definitive fantasy series ever written? The answer: with hot, steaming garbage. But it made for interesting conversation along the way.

It goes without saying, but The Wheel of Time arrives in the post GoT world without any of those circumstances: Robert Jordan left us in 2007 and the book series is complete. Without the element of the unknown, I don’t see any way WoT captures the zeitgeist.

Here’s the thing, though: That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the biggest show on television. At least, I hope it doesn’t have to be for Bezos to keep paying the bills. 

5) The worst case scenario

The one thing that does worry me? That WoT will become the inverse of GoT. To explain:

The final Game of Thrones books haven’t been written, but the show made it all the way to the end. 

The final Wheel of Time books HAVE been written…

… but what if the show struggles? What if Amazon decides they don’t want to spend $80-$100 million a season for eight seasons? What if they pull the plug part way through?

The good news: The show has been greenlit through Season 3, so they must be happy with the look and feel of Seasons 1&2. And once you hit Season 3, are you really going to stop there? Perhaps they accelerate the story and get to the end in five or six seasons if only to satisfy whatever international deals they have in place. That would most likely result in an unsatisfying CliffsNotes version of the story… but at least we’d get to The Final Battle.

Okay, I need to stop talking about this. The show hasn’t even premiered, and here I am talking about it being canceled halfway through. Let’s just see what we have starting on Friday and go from there. 

6) Adaptation is an accordion

If you look at everything the show has to cover, there’s no way to avoid it: Season 1, particularly the early episodes, will be dense with exposition and world building. They’re going to have to condense everything. Characters will be merged. Plot points will be cut. The producers will keep only what they need because they can’t keep everything they want. The narrative accordion squeeze is inexorable. 

Simultaneously, in some parts of the story, the accordion will have to expand to explain: there’s no time for a slow build, so we’re going to spend more time with the Aes Sedai and characters like Logain so that we have sources of conflict. In the absence of novelistic internal monologuing, we’ll have to see scenes not in the novel to understand the relationships between the characters (I’m thinking specifically of the love scene between Rand and Egwene from the trailer). And we’ll need to be introduced to The Forsaken, if not The Dark One himself. Which is why there have been reports that the writers are drawing on material from the first three books in the series to explore in Season 1. 

So brace yourself, folks. The journey from novel to show often leads to some discordant accordion music. But understand, choices like these are almost always made with the best of intentions. I, for one, am interested to see what they’ve done. Will they have Peter Jackson’s batting average (he absolutely crushed the Lord of the Rings adaptation process)? Almost undoubtedly no. But I have faith that they can keep what needs keeping.

7) Some folks will never read the books

Here’s a troubling statistic for you: More than half of Americans read fewer than four books a year. (As a recovering English teacher, this number hurts my heart.)

Even people who fall in love with this show will never read a single volume. That reality is why the producers and writers will make a lot of choices with the uninformed viewing audience in mind. Book readers aren’t going to like all of the changes, additions, and omissions, but if they’re patient and empathetic, they will understand them. (That’s a large part of what this podcast and blog will be about in the weeks ahead: decisions, what they mean, how they help and how they hurt.)

Example: All of the recent fan outrage over the show making “Who is the Dragon?” a mystery. Why not weave that in? Why not have viewers play the guessing game? It gets them invested. It makes them care. Most importantly, it keeps them watching as all the world building is happening, as all the exposition gets dumped. 

By the way, I’ll be shocked if the reveal of the Dragon Reborn’s identity lasts more than five episodes. They can’t wait any longer than that to allow the audience to place the characters into their narrative roles: we want to know who our central protagonist is and who is in a supporting role -- every character will have an arc, but only one gets to be at the center of it all. And if you watch the trailer, specifically the part where there’s a reference to standing up to The Dark One, they give it away. 

My point: if you’re passionate enough about The Wheel of Time to be listening to this, you have to know going in that the show isn’t just for you (and in substantive ways really isn’t for you at all). Harsh, but true. Amazon wants everybody, and they already know you’ll be watching.

8) Does everything have to be a controversy?

Look, I get it: in Jordan’s vision of The Two Rivers, an isolated agrarian society, there wouldn’t be a lot of genetic diversity. But we’re in a cultural moment that is creating seismic shifts in our society. The producers can’t ignore that, nor should they. Looked at through that lens, the casting choices aren’t just defensible, they’re laudable. 

In the end, all I personally care about is if the cast members can act.

With that said, let’s just move on.

9) Actually, before we move on… 

I’ve got mixed feelings about Robert Jordan and gender. Yes, he created a lot of very strong female characters, and they may well be the most interesting and fully fleshed out protagonists and antagonists in the entire series. But he also had those same characters falling in love left and right, often with minimal investment in the emotional arcs, and the magic system is rigidly binary (a product of the times in which Jordan was writing, no doubt).

Even though I lean to the “prefers faithful adaptations” end of the spectrum, I’m intrigued to see what the producers and writers do with gender over the course of the series. Certainly, there will be adjustments to Jordan’s vision given where we are now with regards to gender politics; I’m really curious to see just how far they’ll be willing to push it. Although, to be fair, Jordan himself introduced ways that could open doors to some creativity around gender fluidity (I’ll avoid specifics for now), so whatever the producers choose to do, they’ll likely build it on Jordan’s foundation.  

10) A clash of visions

When I had my students read “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin (a brilliant short story), I’d ask them to close their eyes and envision the room the protagonist sits in. What did the window look like? Describe the chair: color, material, design. What sort of room is this? Are the walls painted or covered with wallpaper? In the end, they’d have a fully realized description of the scene, and then we’d go back and look at the details the text gave us. Turns out, they did a LOT of work as readers, filling in the gaps; most of what they wrote down was nowhere to be found in Chopin’s story. 

Everyone who has read the Wheel of Time novels has a version of the story that has played out in the theater of the mind; that’s the beauty of reading (sorry, it can be difficult to turn off the book-loving English teacher part of me). Inevitably, though, this leads to some genuine excitement when what we see on our TV screen resembles what we have in our heads… and some palpable disappointment when it doesn’t. On Friday, all of us will be experiencing some high highs and low lows as our vision clashes with Amazon’s. 

If past is prologue, though (and it always is), then this won’t last very long. Before you know it, we’ll accept, perhaps even embrace, what we’re seeing each week, even if our own take on the material would be different. In the end, what we’re getting is one version of the tale; if we wait until legend fades to myth and even myth is long forgotten, perhaps then we’ll get an adaptation better to our liking.

11) Faith in Rafe

Because of my love for Survivor and my involvement in the entertainment industry, I’ve followed Rafe Judkin’s career over the years with great interest. My son and I were quite fond of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Rafe’s work there makes me cautiously optimistic about WoT. I’m sure he’s assembled a strong writing team, and he wouldn’t be entrusted with $80 million a season if he wasn’t a capable showrunner. 

That said, I do worry that Rafe will follow the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rubric: quippy expositional dialogue interrupted by fighting sequences that are used to resolve almost all conflict. Early reports about the first six episodes haven’t done anything to calm those fears; it sounds like there is an emphasis on spectacle with long blocks of unsubtle speechifying serving as narrative connective tissue. Here’s hoping that Rafe was forced into shaping the early part of the story this way because of the need to hook an audience and have the world building make sense.

12) In Joseph Campbell we trust

Wheel of Time is many things, but first and foremost, it is a prototypical hero’s journey. Does this sound familiar to you?

A hero of humble origins (but with mysterious and prophesied parentage) must reluctantly head out on a quest to develop the skills needed to face off against ultimate evil. Along the way, the hero meets some allies, encounters enemies, and faces a series of tests. They meet a mentor (sometimes multiple), who very often dies, because the hero has to learn how to succeed on their own. After experiencing real or metaphorical death, the hero is ready to play a pivotal role in the battle of light vs. dark.

Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Katniss Everdeen. They’re all the same. Hero’s Journeys all. And so it is with The Wheel of Time.

When I start to worry about where WoT will go as a show, I remind myself to keep the archetypal story in mind: whatever Rafe and his team may change, the heart of the story can’t and won’t diverge from the hero’s journey. Or, better said, if they do mess with the formula (which isn’t a formula, really, it’s just one big metaphor for life), they’ll end up making the same catastrophic mistakes as Game of Thrones (the resolution of the hero’s journey in GoT  is one of the biggest unforced errors in the history of screenwriting). Which is to say that if Rafe doesn’t adhere to the mythic foundations of Jordan’s vision, the whole structure will collapse… and I think he’s far too sharp to make that mistake.

13) Premiere predictions

Given that WoT is a hero’s journey, there are some givens that we’re dealing with in this three-episode opening. 

We’ll get introduced to the hero’s Ordinary World: We’ll spend some time in Emond’s Field getting a sense for who our protagonists are, what they have to lose, what their lives are like before everything gets turned upside down. Given how many of them there are, this is going to take a while. We need that time, though, to help us get a sense for how the characters will react when the road gets rough. 

The Call to Adventure: As we’ve seen in the trailer, Moiraine (hello, mentor character!) arrives in Emond’s Field and informs Egwene, Mat, Nynaeve, Perrin and Rand that one of them is the Dragon Reborn. They will need to leave everyone and everything they’ve ever known if they’re going to save the world.

The Refusal of the Call: Our heroes don’t want to be heroes… they’re going to resist what Moiraine is asking of them. That is, until myrddraal and trollocs show up and force the issue. 

Crossing the Threshold: There will come a time and a place (it’s pretty clear in the first book) where the hero/heroes commit to the quest and cross a boundary of some sort that makes it clear that they’re not in Kansas anymore (I use that reference intentionally; The Wizard of Oz is a hero’s journey). 

That, to me, is the shape of these first three episodes. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but there’s going to be a ton of world building thrown in between scenes in Emond’s Field. We need to get a sense for the other forces in play, specifically the Aes Sedai. We’ll also get critical information about the magic system, for example, the difference between what Moiraine does and the power wielded by Logain (who, as mentioned before, has a larger role here than in the early novels). We’ll also need some indication of the greater threats: Fades and trollocs are foot soldiers, so who controls them? Who will be the face of evil? And will we get any early glimpses of The Dark One? 

There’s so much ground to cover… it must have been a glorious challenge to figure out just how to shape all of season one. So many choices, all with repercussions. But in the end, a great story to tell, and only a certain amount of time to tell it. Hard, but fun.

As I said before, I’m cautiously optimistic. And thrilled that The Wheel of Time is finally making it to my TV screen. I can’t wait to find out how they did -- can you?