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When you’ve read a 14-volume fantasy series in which the individual books tend to be more than 1,000 pages apiece, it’s a commitment that leaves the dedication to a George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien, or most scribes with or without “R.R.” in their appellation, in the dust. Based on my reading of a tiny part of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time franchise, I may not fully understand the devotion of his fans, but I admire it.
It isn’t just that fans of The Wheel of Time have consumed all the books and companion texts and waited for any sort of filmed adaptation at all. If you were to construct a Wheel of Time theme park, there’d be a lot of money in that, and it wouldn’t even have to be especially ambitious. All you’d have to do is give the merest hint of the fictional world’s appeal and fans would come to enjoy lackluster rides, pose for pictures with characters and wander through overly synthetic sets over and over.
The Wheel of Time
Airdate: Friday, Nov. 19
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Josha Stradowski, Marcus Rutherford, Zoë Robins, Barney Harris, Madeleine Madden, Daniel Henney
Creator: Rafe Judkins, from the books by Robert Jordan
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride isn’t the same as reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows or watching the animated movie. Disneyland’s costumed Cinderella isn’t even giving an Oscar-worthy performance as Cinderella. All that matters is that the ersatz equivalents come close enough to the thing that you love to extend the pleasure that the real thing brings you.
Amazon’s The Wheel of Time television series isn’t like visiting a Wheel of Time theme park, but it’s definitely like watching somebody else film their visit to a Wheel of Time theme park on an iPhone. It’s not the real thing, and you’re not really there, and, in and of itself, it’s almost shockingly devoid of artistry or narrative momentum. But its adjacency to a thing that lots of people love is likely to prove sufficient for many of them.
The thing that is distinctive about The Wheel of Time, as best as I can explain it, is the degree of its world-building. Any basic summary that I could give you would probably make it sound like the most generic fantasy thing ever, to which a fan would say, “Sure, but that’s just the beginning!” Both reactions would be appropriate.
We begin in the remote backwater region of the Two Rivers on the eve of a harvest festival. The isolated residents are shocked by the arrival of Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), part of a powerful cabal of magic-wielding female warrior-healer-counselors known as Aes Sedai, accompanied by her “Warder,” a devoted warrior named Lan (Daniel Henney). Moiraine and Lan have been on an extended quest for the reincarnation of the Dragon, a prophesied figure with the ability to either heal the world or tear it apart.
Nobody knows who the Dragon is, but Moiraine suspects it could be one of a quartet of Two Rivers residents — Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris). Or maybe it’s the town’s unusually young “Wisdom” — a cross between a doctor and a spiritual leader — Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins).
When the Two Rivers is attacked by human-animal hybrid monsters called trollocs, Moiraine and Lan determine that they need to protect the maybe-Dragons, which she can do only by taking them on a long journey to the Aes Sedai headquarters. What follows is a lot of horseback riding across wide-open Eastern European vistas, a lot of exhibitions of magic that are mostly CGI squiggles, and much whispering about various Chosen Ones and special powers and mysterious parentages and whatnot. On the basis of the first few episodes — I’ve seen six — you might view the show as an extension of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, and you might mean that as a positive or a negative.
The book series is vast, and series creator (and Survivor: Guatemala contestant) Rafe Judkins doesn’t have a smooth path to adaptation. Nor would anybody. The first book takes its time to begin moving anywhere, preferring an initial focus on building a few characters and their quiet, sheltered world before sending them on the road. Judkins is in much more of a rush, and it’s only one episode before the characters, who barely have names, much less personalities, are galloping away. What follows is a monotonous and fairly predictable series of jaunts from one town to the next, from one encounter with threatening strangers to the next, from one contrived separation of the group’s members to the next. I never felt like I was watching an unfolding story, but I absolutely felt like I was watching the whiteboard in a writers room, more the pushing of note cards toward a destination than an adventure.
The characters have been aged up from the books so that they’re now 20-something, in some cases even married, rather than being at the earliest point in a coming-of-age story. The advantage here is that they’re somewhat more formed in their identities and the characters can have sex, if that happens to interest you or them. Oddly, though, the opportunity to form those identities more fully has mostly been wasted, and the casting of older, more seasoned thespians rather than teens hasn’t resulted in a more mature and capable ensemble cast. The younger parts are played by relatively unknown actors who would have been perfectly at home in a CW drama and convey little more than one-note attractiveness. Of the group, Madden has the strongest screen presence and Harris is the only one evincing any personality, but with his role already recast for the second season, it’s hard to care.
The older actors are more compelling. If Judkins has latched on to any aspect of Jordan’s world as unique, it’s the specific one-to-one relationship between an Aes Sedai and her Warder, which falls somewhere between a “work husband” situation and the beyond-sexual imprinting process wherein Jacob fell in love with the vampire baby in the Twilight series. Pike, Sophie Okonedo and Kate Fleetwood sell the particularities of the Aes Sedai/Warder bond, and even some of the political hierarchy within the Aes Sedai, even as the scenes that convey these details are pretty much all talk and no action.
But that’s OK, because action is something The Wheel of Time does poorly. This goes beyond the failure to unveil a single memorable set piece in six episodes. The series’ directors struggle with basic genre elements. Characters spend a lot of time on horses, but the scenes on horseback have all the realism of you filming your toddler ridding a mechanical pony in front of a supermarket. The editing and stunt work in a scene featuring a wolf attack made me literally laugh out loud and rewind my screener several times to revel in the blatant cheesiness of a moment I’m confident was not meant to play as silly. The basic makeup on creatures like the trollocs isn’t bad — close-ups are limited, and their appearances are restricted to nighttime scenes — though Loial (Hammed Animashaun), a towering character described as an “Ogier,” looks like something I’d expect from a Kiwi-set syndicated franchise from the ’90s.
The feeling that The Wheel of Time is aiming for Xena-level production values extends to the mediocre costumes and to the re-creations of assorted towns and villages, which made me think of the theme park analogy in the first place, or at least a really expensive Renaissance fair. Everything is synthetic and lit in the least flattering way possible. Whether the characters are going through a bustling cosmopolitan city or an abandoned ghost town, no location in the series looks like it has ever been occupied by a human. But at least the producers were able to keep the churro carts and pin vendors off-camera.
There’s a line in the first of Jordan’s books that I underlined. Moiraine is explaining the underpinnings of Aes Sedai philosophy to Egwene and says, “The One Power comes from The Source, the driving force of Creation, the force the Creator made to turn The Wheel of Time.” It isn’t a quote that’s reproduced exactly in the Amazon series, but nearly every line of dialogue has a comparable nebulousness. Fans will accept this as a framework atop which nuance will eventually be applied, and skeptics will find it dangerously close to a parody of the genre at its most formulaic. Even having read enough to know better, the Wheel of Time TV adaptation consistently brought out the skeptic in me.
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