Cultural Doggie Bag: Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I was a big fan of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books back in my youth. I can even remember imagining which actors would be best in which roles if there was ever a live-action adaptation. So when Amazon announced that it was doing precisely that, I was… well, as much dreading it as looking forward to it. Woke adaptations by people who hate source material are the order of the day. There were more than a few indications that that was precisely what Amazon was going to give us.

Even so, I could hardly refuse to check out a few episodes out of morbid curiosity, and I have watched through episode 6 at this point. So how did it turn out so far? Is it the pile of woke trash I expected?

Here’s what you need to know about Amazon’s Wheel of Time:

It’s not really an adaptation.

This is the first and most important thing to understand. The divergences between the show and the books are such that it falls squarely in the “inspired by” category. It’s roughly as faithful as any Hollywood production that’s “based on a true story.” It may borrow characters, concepts, and events from Robert Jordan’s books in order to tell its story, but it’s definitely telling its own story.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me being a purist. I’ll freely admit that if I were trying to adapt the Wheel of Time for television, I would axe at least 5 books worth of material–probably more. The series is too big and too bulky to simply transcribe it to the screen. A successful adaptation would have to change a lot.

But that’s simply not what Amazon has done with it.

If you look at it as an adaptation, you will hate this show. Likewise, if you can’t get over the fact that a true adaptation is what you really wanted but they refused to give you, then you will hate this show for not being what you wanted.

It’s not a story about the Dragon Reborn.

It’s a story about the Aes Sedai. That’s clearly what the showrunners found interesting about Jordan’s books. Nearly all of the major changes to the storyline serve the purpose of allowing the show to explore the world of the White Tower and the Aes Sedai much earlier than the books do.

And to do that, they’ve more-or-less eschewed the wider world that Jordan created. The show mentions people and places from the books, but only in passing. In fact, if you haven’t read the books, then I suspect you’ll experience the wider world as nothing more than a collection of meaningless fantasy names.

Naturally, that would make saving this abstract world a rather meaningless affair. The books are about the Dragon Reborn simultaneously destroying and saving the world. In the show, the Dragon is more of a prop or a mcguffin than anything else. The story centers on the Aes Sedai, and the main characters from the books that get the most attention are Moiraine, Egwene, Nynaeve, and Lan–the ones most connected to the White Tower. Mat, Perrin, and especially Rand are relatively sidelined.

It’s not so much woke as “millennialized.”

Before it came out, I was very worried that Amazon was going full SJW with this project. But while there are elements of this, I don’t think it’s the best explanation for what we’ve been given.

Yes, it has been forcibly diversified. I’ve written before about the folly of making the isolated backwater town of Emond’s Field (where even people from the next village over are considered outsiders) as racially diverse as New York City.  Likewise, in the most recent episode I’ve seen, they gayed up Moiraine & Siuan. (Note to nit-pickers: Yes there’s an Aes Sedai in New Spring who suggests that Moiraine & Siuan were “pillow friends” as Novices. But 1) Moiraine’s reaction is to be offended, and her internal monologue neither confirms nor denies, but merely relegates any such relationship to the past; 2) The books had a lot of situational homosexuality among the all-female Novices just as there is among prisoners–including the dissolution of those relationships when they become full Aes Sedai; and 3) Moiraine and Siuan both had exclusively male love interests as adults.)

Nevertheless, it’s not exactly preachy like genuinely woke shows are. I think the better explanation for this and other changes in the series is that they’re reimagining it according to the sensibilities of millennials is general, rather than those of SJW’s in particular. The senseless diversity is just one hallmark of this, but others are there as well.

The series is, for example, suffuse with the ridiculous emotionalism of people who never got over high school. You have violent overreactions like Rand actually drawing his sword on Moiraine & Lan when he thinks they might gentle Mat. You also have Nynaeve who is abrasive and aggressive in both mediums, but has traded constantly tugging her braid with constantly grabbing her knife. Lan, who is supposed to be over-the-top stoic, screams in grief at another Warder’s funeral. And the vaunted serenity of Aes Sedai in the books is mostly absent. Moiraine is so overtly emotional during her arranged exile by Siuan that she might as well be screaming “WE JUST F*CKED LAST NIGHT!” to the entire Hall of the Tower. That was supposed to be a secret.

Speaking of which, chastity is naturally nowhere to be seen, as is typical of modern entertainment. To be sure, the books could be somewhat licentious and did not promote sexual morality. Nevertheless, they did present a somewhat realistic world in which such ethics actually existed–especially among the Emond’s Fielders, as befits a small rural town. Perrin, Egwene, and Nyneave all deliberately waited for marriage (even if Brandon Sanderson kind of poked fun of them for it when he took over authorship after Robert Jordan’s death.) Sexual morality was overtly present in Rand’s thought processes, even if he never tried particularly hard. Mat was the only one to eschew it completely, as befits his character.

But in the first episode of the show, Egwene’s parents deliberately give Rand and their daughter privacy so they can boink at their inn. Even in a show about sorceresses, monsters, and magic, continence apparently remains too fantastical to actually exist.

The show also streamlines away any complexity that might require patience or mental effort on the part of the viewer. It’s made for the cripplingly short attention spans of young millennials.

Sometimes it’s just silly, like when Egwene sees the Amyrlin Seat and asks, “isn’t it confusing that the throne and the person sitting on it have the same name?” Not if your IQ is above room temperature, no. Other times it forces explanations where none are required. For example, Perrin can’t just be broody and Mat can’t just be roguish but good-hearted. No, the former needs to have accidentally killed his wife while the latter needs to have deadbeat parents in order to explain why they have personalities.

But, of course, the biggest victims of the streamlining are the plot and the world-building. For example, why is everyone suddenly dropping everything to go to the Eye of the World? In the books, it was because of multiple threads methodically laid down throughout many different preceding events in the story. In the TV show, it’s literally because Siuan happened to mention that she had a dream about it during pillow-talk with Moiraine. That’s it.

As I already mentioned, there’s no way to put even half of Wheel of Time’s background information into this new medium without it becoming the Exposition Show. It has to be streamlined. But rather than embracing an appropriately slow pace like that of the latest Dune movie in order to absorb the details of a living world, the show chooses to rush obliviously by from one mostly-disconnected scenario to the next.

And yet, it still manages to find time to inject novel nonsense like Nynaeve cleaning the sacred pool of Emond’s Field (whatever the hell that is.) Lan comes across a bunch of animal corpses in the shape of the Dragon’s Fang, but it has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than to provide an excuse to have yet another “ascending camera looking down at a circle” shot. The show even invents a ter’angreal that apparently allows Siuan and Moiraine to Travel. The introduction of Travelling was a huge game-changer in the books; but in the show, the two of them just use it to hook up. There is attention to detail in the sense that all sorts of little details from the books have been liberally sprinkled throughout. But there’s no attention to making these details truly integrate with one-another.

When I take all these factors together, I don’t conclude that it’s woke. I conclude that it was made for and by a generation that never quite managed to grow up. And just to be clear, I’m a millennial myself by most accounts. I may not have a high opinion of my generation (though our failure to meet the insane challenges inflicted by the Boomers is understandable), but my purpose is not to mock other millennials. I merely find it to be the best explanation for the tone of the show.

But there is one last point I need to address…

I look forward to watching it.

You’re probably surprised to read that after everything else I just related about the series. Well, I’m rather surprised to find myself writing it, but it’s true.

As I said, I did not have high hopes for the series, and I still don’t. I loathed the first episode, and the second was a disappointment (How do you manage to suck the drama and tension out of Shadar Logoth? By rushing through both the build-up and payoff, as it turns out.) Nevertheless, I keep finding myself looking forward to the next episode. It’s not because I’m hate-watching it or watching it ironically or anything. So why?

Part of it is simply because it’s visually stunning. You can tell Amazon dropped a whole lot of money into this series. The costumes, sets, and landscapes are all gorgeous. That is hands-down the series’ greatest advantage. As a fan of the books, I do genuinely enjoy seeing discrete elements of them visualized on screen–even if the whole is kind of a mess.

Another part is that I have nostalgia for talking about the series. I read most of Wheel of Time during adolescence at the dawn of the internet. Being both a nerd and an introvert, I naturally had fun discussing past books and theorizing about future ones with other fans online. Now, I find myself doing it again on this blog. It’s not something that’s going to last. As a husband and father, my life is too full to engage in any kind of fandom. Nevertheless, there is a certain nostalgic charm to dabbling in it like this from time to time.

But I think the other element is simply being able to see a Wheel of Time-ish story that’s new and unknown. In other words, seeing characters and places from the books in a story where I don’t already know what’s going to happen to them. The books had always been rather predictable–all the foreshadowing baked into the world-building made sure of that. This show, however, is too streamlined to bother with that sort of thing. And it’s so divergent that I’m not even sure whether Rand is going to be the Dragon Reborn.

In a way, the TV show’s failure to flesh out the characters and the world becomes something of an advantage in this respect. Being an empty shell means that mentally, I just fill in the gaps with the characters and backgrounds from the books anyway. That illusion isn’t the sort of thing that will last for long, but for now, it’s sort of like the gang is back together and on a different adventure.

Now, that’s not exactly high praise. And the possibility of enjoying it on those grounds lands at a peculiar intersection between 1) having been a fan of the books and 2) having made peace with the show’s severe departure from those same books. As intersections go, I suspect that’s not a particularly busy one. It’s not so much an interesting show as it is interesting to me. Others may enjoy it on different grounds, but I highly doubt Amazon’s Wheel of Time will turn out to be a hit.

But for now, I’ll continue to watch it. It’s definitely not the adaptation I wanted. And if I had actually gone in with high expectations, I suspect I’d simply hate it. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t found enjoyment despite it all.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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