Almost certainly first on the list for some kind of adaptation is Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series of novels. The Wheel of Time is currently the dominant force in the epic fantasy subgenre. The thirteen novels (fifteen, including the guidebook and prequel) have sold approximately 50 million copies to date in more than two dozen countries, and the series will be attracting a substantial amount of publicity next year when the fourteenth and final novel, A Memory of Light, finally hits the shelves. Given the series' immense sales clout and popularity, some kind of adaptation has been on the cards for a while. About ten years ago, Robert Jordan sold an option to NBC, who were considering making a mini-series of The Eye of the World. Nothing came of this project after those pushing it at NBC departed. A Japanese animation studio contacted Robert Jordan with a proposal to adapt the first three books as a series of movies, but they only wanted to do the first three and change the ending of the third book to the ending of the entire series. Jordan turned down this proposal.
In the mid-2000s, Red Eagle Entertainment bought the rights from Robert Jordan to develop film, computer game and comic adaptations of The Wheel of Time. In August 2008 they entered into a partnership with Universal Pictures to develop a two-hour movie based on The Eye of the World. Three years on, there appears to have been no movement on this project, and it's unclear how much longer Universal's option has left before it expires. Whilst the success of Game of Thrones may inspire Universal to take another look at the project, I think it's more likely that we will see the project re-envisaged for television.
In a series of articles I'm going to be looking at the practicalities of bringing The Wheel of Time to the screen, considering its vast scope, huge cast and immense visual effects requirements. To start with, let's ask the most basic question of all.
Should This Even Be Attempted?
There is a strong opinion amongst a subset of Wheel of Time fans that no adaptation should even be attempted. This is a series of fourteen very large books, totalling 11,000 pages in paperback when all is said and done, featuring a cast of almost 2,000 named characters sprawling across dozens of major and minor storylines. The books are what they are. Why should they be brought to the screen?
The easy answer to this is that it's going to happen. At some point, whether it's next week or twenty years from now, there's going to be an adaptation of The Wheel of Time on screen. The books have sold too many copies and there is too much potential money in a successful adaptation for it to simply be left alone. As a result, it's better (I think) to be taking this as read and considering how it may be best achieved rather than simply hoping it won't happen.
In addition, working out how on earth you'd tackle this project makes for an interesting thought-experiment.
TV or Movie?
This is the next question and one that has driven a great deal of discussion over the years. The question results in a paradox which can be summed up concisely:
The Wheel of Time is too expensive to be a TV series. It needs to be a film.Basically, the books have too many huge battles, too much magic use, too many sets, too much location work and too many non-human creatures to be viable as a TV series. Only a series of movies capable of assigning hundreds of millions of dollars to two hour-blocks at a time can give the Wheel the visual look it needs.
The Wheel of Time is too long to be a film. It needs to be a TV series.
At the same time, the books are too long with too many characters, too many storylines and too many subplots to be easily adapted as a series of films. To fit a 700-page novel (let alone the 1,000-page ones in the middle of the series) into two hours is impossible, which will result in epic cuts, with major characters and storylines having to be weeded out (great for Crossroads of Twilight, less so for The Eye of the World). Having fourteen films in the first place is also hopelessly unrealistic and impractical, splitting books across multiple films (an option apparently considered by Red Eagle) far moreso.
For me, the equation is a simple one to solve. The practical concerns about effects and budget are serious ones and should not be underestimated. However, the books don't exactly have a major battle sequence every five pages (and not one of the battles in the books so far rivals the battles that Game of Thrones will be depicting soon enough), whilst shows from Legend of the Seeker and Merlin through Heroes, BSG, Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have handled extensive special effects requirements on extremely modest budgets before. In short, the practical concerns can be handled or worked-around on TV. There is no way to address or work-around the cutting of major storylines and characters in a film adaptation.
Of course, some fans and critics would be happy to see a chainsaw taken to immense length and the vast cast of characters of the books, and certainly even a TV adaptation will have to be ruthless with some aspects of the story. But to work as a film or series of films, The Wheel of Time would have to lose major elements: the Seanchan and probably the Shaido would have to go for a start, along with many of the interim obstacles Rand faces on his quest to unite the world for the Last Battle. Most dangerously, the cutting would reduce Rand's story to its bare bones: a humble guy from a bucolic countryside who, with the help of his plucky friends and a wise mentor figure (albeit an attractive woman rather than an old guy) evades black-cloaked creatures and eventually goes to a volcano to confront the bad guy. Yeah, people might think they've seen that story before.
My conclusion is that if an adaptation must proceed, it must attempt to be faithful to at least the spirit (if not the letter) of the storyline set out in the books. Taking this hugely popular story and immediately ditching 90% of it makes no sense, so the movie option has to be dismissed (as Robert Jordan himself said many years ago). So now we can consider a TV show and all the immense impracticalities and challenges of that daunting prospect.
Next time I'll ponder how you shrink 11,000 pages of dense plotting into a workable outline for a TV series without destroying the story or scaring off viewers. This will include questions about the length and structure of the overall series, the length of individual seasons (can we tell the story of The Eye of the World in five or six hours, or does it need ten?) and what impact that will have on what needs to be cut and what can be kept intact.