Friday, 29 April 2016

The Wheel of Television: Parts 1 and 2

Following the news that a Wheel of Time TV series is now officially in development with a major studio, here are the first two parts of my blog series The Wheel of Television: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen from 2011. It's worth checking the original posts for the interesting commentary from readers: Part 1 and Part 2.

Part 1: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen
Originally published: 17 May 2011

In Hollywood success breeds imitation. A decade ago Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy made almost $3 billion at the box office. Over the last four years, a series of Discworld TV mini-series have been very successful in the UK, and last month HBO's Game of Thrones launched to rave reviews and strong ratings, being renewed for a second season almost immediately. It's likely that we will see a whole new eruption of fantasy projects in the next few years as Hollywood tries to cash in on the next big thing.

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.
The Wheel of Time is too long to be a film. It needs to be a TV series.
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.

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.

Part 2: Structure and Season Length
Originally published: 4 March 2012

In Part 1 (which you can find here) I argued that a screen adaptation of The Wheel of Time would work much better as a TV series than a series of films, the option currently being pursued by Red Eagle Entertainment and rights-holders Universal Studios. As discussed in that article, the story would have to be substantially gutted to work even as six 2-3 hour films, and much of the story from the books would be lost. My conclusion was that a TV series would be the only viable way for the books to be adapted to the screen.

Cable or network?
Once the conclusion is reached that the story must be adapted to television, the next question is whether a deal should be pursued with one of the big, universally-available TV networks in the USA (such as ABC or NBC), or with one of the smaller, but usually more flexible, cable networks. If we assume that HBO would not be interested because of their commitment to Game of Thrones, that leaves stations such as Starz, AMC and Showtime as possible contenders. The smaller cable stations, like SyFy, would almost certainly lack the resources to tackle the project with adequate funding.

This question is important for practical reasons. Most notably, the networks usually have longer seasons than cable. If this was the sole issue, in fact, it would be a no-brainer to go with a network. With 20-24 episodes per season, it would be easy to cover two or maybe even three books a season, easily enough to tell the whole story. This would even include the duller moments later on, though I would still argue in favour of condensing events in the third quarter of the series to maybe half the length of narrative they currently span, if not less, to improve pacing.

Of course, there are drawbacks to being on a network. The biggest are money and how much of a chance the series would be given to prove itself before cancellation. Networks are notoriously trigger-happy on cancelling shows early, even when prior evidence shows this to be a self-defeating practice. For example, Seinfeld was almost cancelled at birth due to low ratings, but given another chance and went on to become one of the biggest American TV shows of all time. This tendency increases exponentially the more money is poured into a project. The head of ABC was fired for profligacy after greenlighting Lost's pilot with an astonishing $15 million budget, even though it rewarded that investment by going on to become the biggest thing on TV for a couple of years. A Wheel of Time TV show would require more than the standard $2 million-per-episode budget common to network genre projects (Game of Thrones's budget is more like $6 million per episode, for comparison's sake), which would make it much more likely to be dropped should ratings not match expectations almost immediately.

That said, networks have become more willing to give shows a chance in the last few years. Fox gave both Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles two seasons each to prove themselves before cancelling them, apparently learning from the short-termism that led to the premature cancellation of Firefly several years earlier (later shown to be a mistake after impressive DVD box set sales). They've also shown a willingness to invest more money if the show is a success: Lost's budget (after the generously-budgeted pilot) reached $5 million per episode by the final season, whilst Heroes enjoyed $4 million per episode until its final season, when the budget was slashed in the face of sharply dropping ratings. Still, the greater risk of immediate cancellation makes the networks an uneasy choice to pursue.

On cable, the issues are different. First off, the success of Thrones on HBO means that the other big cable networks will almost certainly be receptive to having a fantasy TV project of their own, especially one where the books are (or were, before Game of Thrones started on TV, anyway) even more popular with an even larger fanbase and an even greater name awareness. Also, whilst the other cable companies don't have HBO's impressive financial resources, they can usually muster up larger budgets than most of the standard networks. Shows like The Tudors (on Showtime), The Walking Dead (on AMC) and Spartacus (on Starz) enjoy significantly more resources than most network shows, whilst not quite being in HBO's league.

The trade-off for more money is shorter seasons. 8-12 episodes per season is normal on a cable network, and 16 episodes (for Season 3 of The Walking Dead or Season 4 of Oz) is the absolute maximum, usually only possible after the show has been a proven success. This is a major limitation in adapting The Wheel of Time for a cable network. If we assume 12 episodes (probably the maximum realistic figure for the first season, at least), that means either hoping the series goes for 10+ seasons (highly implausible) or condensing the story down, which, if not handled right, could takes us back to the movie problem of the project not being worthwhile in the first place.

Length of the seasons
So the question becomes, how much time is necessary to tell the Wheel of Time story on TV? How many episodes should each book cover? Looking at Game of Thrones on HBO, the 800-page first novel had to have a noticeable number of minor plots (mostly flashbacks) and characters shaved off to fit into ten episodes. If for Wheel we accept that we have to cover a minimum of two books per season (meaning a seven season show) and, on cable, only twelve episodes per season will be available, that gives us the prospect of fitting each Wheel of Time novel into just six hour-long episodes.

This initially looks dubious, until several things are factored in. First off, six hours is still twice the absolute maximum length of a potential Eye of the World movie, and more likely closer to three times. So it's still the better option from a time perspective. In addition, Robert Jordan's natural verbosity and tendency towards detailed descriptions means that fitting 800 pages into six hours is actually more straightforward than it appears. The Eye of the World is marginally longer than A Game of Thrones (306,000 words to 298,000) but a plot summary of the former is much more straightforward. The plot is more linear with considerably fewer characters overall, and certainly far fewer 'main' characters (at least at this point). Unlike Thrones, the narrative doesn't need to cover three distinct and major storylines (and several smaller ones) unfolding thousands of miles apart. There is a section mid-book where the characters divide into three groups and reconvene a few chapters later on, but this is still less problematic than the issues faced by Thrones in its first season. The Great Hunt, which would form the remainder of a first season, would be slightly more challenging (due to the characters being apart for a much larger part of the book), especially from a budgetary standpoint given the action that takes place at sea, but time-wise it could fit into six episodes even more easily than the first book (it's somewhat shorter, to start with).

In short, although it would still be something of a squeeze, it should still be possible to fit The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt into twelve episodes. Given the superior budgets available on cable, and the greater likelihood of the show at least making it to a full season before cancellation is a danger, this leads me to conclude that pursuing an adaptation on one of the bigger US cable channels is the logical way to proceed, despite the tighter time constraints.

With HBO unlikely to want to have a show competing with Thrones on their own network, one of these three is the most logical choice to make a Wheel of Time series.

Next time (and hopefully not a year down the line!): shaping the entire story into a TV series and how future seasons would face the challenge of adapting both the longer books in the series and also handling the 'slower' books later on.

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