Friday, 29 April 2016

The Wheel of Television: Parts 3 and 4

Following the news that a Wheel of Time TV series is now officially in development with a major studio, here are the third and fourth parts of my blog series The Wheel of Television: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen. It's worth checking the original posts for the interesting commentary from readers: Part 3 and Part 4.

Part 3: Shaping the Story
Originally published: 25 March 2012

 In the first two parts of this article series, I argued that the current plans by Red Eagle Entertainment and Universal to turn The Wheel of Time into a series of movies were impractical and unrealistic, and that adapting the books into an ongoing television series was more logical. This especially makes more sense in the wake of the success of fantasy TV projects such as Sky's Discworld TV movies and of course HBO's Game of Thrones. I concluded that getting the series made by one of the three big remaining cable channels (Starz, AMC or Showtime) was essential to give the project the right combination of high production values and a decent amount of time to adapt the complex storyline.

Story into Seasons
In the second article I suggested that it would be possible to adapt The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt (the first two books in the series) into one 12-episode television season. On paid cable, lacking advertisement breaks, this mean just under six hours to adapt each book to the screen (or three times as much time as a possible film adaptation). Whilst tight, this would be doable without too many storylines or characters cut. Later seasons could be more problematic (particularly adapting the 1,900 pages of the fifth and sixth books, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos, into just twelve hours) though the hope is that the series would be such a success that later seasons could expand to maybe 16 episodes each (as AMC has recently done with the third season of The Walking Dead).

At the same time, the later books in the series - particularly the eighth through eleventh - have some pacing problems and issues that the TV adaptation would do well to avoid by compressing the more stationary parts of the story into a shorter space of time, and perhaps moving things around.

Overall, I envisage the following structure as being potentially successful (note: SPOILERS for people who have not read the books):

Season 1: The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt
This season introduces the principal storylines and characters. Thematically it is Rand's story of self-discovery as he uncovers the truth of his birth and his destiny and initially tries to reject it. Season finale: the battle between Rand and Ba'alzamon at Falme and the destruction of the Seanchan expeditionary force by the Heroes of the Horn of Valere.

Season 2: The Dragon Reborn and The Shadow Rising
This season sees Rand investigate the truth of his background and what he is fated to do. He decides to seize the reigns and take control of his own destiny and recruit his own allies. Season finale: Rand uniting the Aiel clans at Alcair Dal.

Season 3: The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos
The turning-point of the series as Rand (and, to a lesser extent, his friends) become famous and major players in the affairs of governments as the continent falls into warfare and chaos. Season finale: the Battle of Dumai's Wells, naturally.

Season 4: A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart
Rand consolidates his gains and alliances, confronts the resurgent Seanchan and, ultimately, challenges the Dark Ones taint on saidin. Season finale: the Cleansing.

Season 5: Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm
Rand's journey into the heart of darkness and, ultimately, out of the other side. Season finale: Rand's epiphany atop Dragonmount and Egwene reunifying the Aes Sedai in the face of the Seanchan threat.

Season 6: Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light
Rand finally confronts the Dark One. Season/series finale: the Last Battle.

Of course, if the first two or three seasons are successful it might be possible to extend the series to seven seasons and cover two books per season, which would be easier in many ways. However, the slowing of the pace in the latter books as the story expands to cover ever more storylines and minor characters and the moving away of the focus from Rand and the other core characters is something that I feel on TV should be avoided. Post-Dumai's Wells, I also feel the story should start accelerating and moving decisively towards the ending.

With this structure, it should be possible to get the entire story of The Wheel of Time done in six years and 70-80 episodes. The majority of storylines and characters from the books would appear on-screen and the adaptation would be relatively faithful, and certainly far moreso than in a series of film adaptations.

Next time: the challenges of showing the One Power, Trollocs, Ogier and massive armies on a TV budget.

Part 4: Practicalities
First published: 2 June 2013

In the first three parts of this article series, I argued that the current plans by Red Eagle Entertainment and Universal to turn The Wheel of Time into a series of movies were impractical and unrealistic, and that adapting the books into an ongoing television series was more feasible. This especially makes more sense in the wake of the success of fantasy TV projects such as Sky's Discworld TV movies, the BBC's recently-concluded Merlin and of course HBO's Game of Thrones. I concluded that getting the series made by one of the three big remaining cable channels (Starz, AMC or Showtime) was essential to give the project the right combination of high production values and a decent amount of time to adapt the complex storyline before going on to address the issue of how you structure the series from a top-down approach. In this part I address several major technical and practical issues standing in the way of adapting the books to television.

Sets and Locations
If there is one major cost saving that TV shows have over movies, it's sets. A film with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars can afford to construct a specific set for each and every scene, and use a different location in every other shot. TV shows spread their costs more widely by the use of regular, recurring sets. Think of the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek, the throne room in Game of Thrones or the school library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can spend a fair bit of money on an impressive set and then spread that cost over dozens of episodes.

With Wheel of Time, there is one rather huge problem: there is no single standing set that could be constructed and re-used a lot in the first season (if you recall, in the hypothetical plan we are discussing the first season would adapt the first two books, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt). The first two books are constantly on the move, taking the characters from the Two Rivers to Baerlon to Shadar Logoth to Whitebridge to Caemlyn to Shienar, and thence to Tar Valon, Cairhien and Falme. Later in the series we would get standing sets and regularly-appearing locations, such as the Royal Palace in Caemlyn and the White Tower in Tar Valon (which would debut in the first season, but would not be revisited until later), but it's a while before such places recur regularly.

This is fairly headache-inducing, although compensated for to some extent by how much of the first two books takes place outdoors. This brings its own headaches in terms of the expense and practical issues of location filming (dealing with the weather and so on), but at least is better than having to build dozens and dozens of different sets and then discard them. A surprising number of locations in the first two books are in fact pubs of different description (the Winespring Inn in Emond's Field, the Queen's Blessing, the inn in Cairhien that Rand, Hurin and Loial stay in etc). A standing 'pub set' could be built, possibly in modules, with walls and partitions that can be switched around. Combined with redressing and the use of different camera angles, this can turn one set into several different locations. The same principal can be applied to shops, houses and even palaces (the Royal Palace of Caemlyn could pull double-duty as Fal Dara, for example, if you dropped in a few partitions and redressed things).

For location filming, Wheel of Time does have some problems with how much of it is set in large cities (especially later on, when scenes unfold near-simultaneously in Caemlyn, Cairhien and Ebou Dar). Caemlyn, for example, would likely have to be a real medieval-looking city, possibly in Europe, just as both Mdina in Malta and Dubrovnik in Croatia have stood in for King's Landing on Game of Thrones. Given the weird and otherwordly nature of Shadar Logoth, on the other hand, it might be possible to get away with realising that city through small set-pieces and CGI backdrops (CGI is of course a powerful and useful tool but we are not at the stage yet where full CGI sets and locations are believable or affordable on such a scale).

As for where the series should be filmed, there are quite a few options. Eastern Europe is both affordable and would have the right look for most of the main continent. The Republic of Ireland (probably not Northern Ireland, since a lot of the more interesting locations have already been used by GoT) would also be an attractive option. Morocco or the American West (heavily CGI-enhanced) could also be viable options for the Aiel Waste.

Costuming is probably the least-challenging aspect of the production, thanks to both Robert Jordan's clear descriptions in the books and the availability of costumes and costumer designers familiar with the appropriate period.

"Awesome. I want 100,000 of them for the next shot."

Wheel of Time features a large number of non-human creatures, including the friendly Ogier and the hostile Shadowspawn: Trollocs, Myrddraal, Draghkar and so on. Some of these creatures appear infrequently enough that they can be rendered in CGI: the Green Man immediately comes to mind. Draghkar and Darkhounds also appear infrequently enough that this should be viable. Trollocs and Ogier are more difficult to achieve. Loial is a fairly major character with a lot of screentime. Rendering him in CGI would require a Gollum-level performance and technology to achieve satisfactorily, neither of which may be available on a TV budget and time schedule. On the other hand, prosthetics/animatronics large enough to depict the Ogier as described in the books may be stiff and unconvincing. This is something that would require screentesting to find the best solution.

It should be possible to depict Trollocs by just using large extras with prosthetics. A mix-and-match of prosthetics could be made available to blend the different animal parts together to make each Trolloc unique (or as unique as possible), rather like how the creatures themselves are created in the books. CGI would be used for scenes with large numbers of Trollocs (which is most of them) to render more of them in the background.

"More lightning bolts!"
"Not too many, they cost $10,000 a time!"

The One Power
The One Power is one of the most detailed magic systems ever created, with a lot of complex rules on how it works, how it's detected and what the different types of the Power can do. Depicting the One Power on screen risks looking cheesy - people sticking their hands out and firebolts roaring off - and depicting people glowing when they embrace the Source could be confusing (as only those able to use the Power can sense it when others are using it).

The best way to handle this is as it is in the books, with 'our' characters initially unable to see or sense the Power itself, only its effects (i.e. someone pointing and the ground exploding or mist appearing). As our core characters become more acquainted with the Power, then we can start to see POV shots from them, showing the glow of the Power (I'm thinking a subtle haloing effect rather than people blazing with the light of a thousand suns). We'll only see this if we have a POV character in the scene who can sense the Power, otherwise they'll just see the effects.

A related issue is how to handle the issue of Aes Sedai ageing. As book-readers know, Aes Sedai gain an 'ageless' appearance as they get older, so that it becomes impossible to tell whether a woman is in her 20s or 40s (and that appearance may be only a reflection of their true age, as Aes Sedai can live for several centuries). Such an effect would be prohibitively expensive to achieve with CGI - 'de-aging' Moiraine alone in her every appearance in the series would cost a fortune, not to mention the problem being exasperated when a dozen Aes Sedai appear in the same scene - so this would have to be a practical make-up effect. If unconvincing or too odd-looking, this may have to be an element from the books that is dropped or perhaps changed to something less notable.

There are obviously a lot more complexities and practicalities that would have to be addressed to make these books into a TV show, but these were a few thoughts on how you'd achieve some basic questions.

This may be the last entry in this blog series, though I may do one more focused on how you'd write and structure the first episode, to put some of these ideas into practice.


Jeffrey R. Hawboldt said...

As good as Wheel of Time was in the classic fantasy stemmed by Tolkien, with the advent of 'newer' fantasy such as A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of thrones, I can't see Wheel of Time working or being successful or interesting.

Of course, i could be mistaken. It all depends on how it's handled.

What I'm getting at, is that Tolkien 'changed' / 'evolved' fantasy with The Lord of the Rings [and his awesome worldbuilding as seen in The Silmarillion and unfinished Tales]. Fantasy has evolved a few times since, thanks to such authors as Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson have changed fantasy since.

Authors such as Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks modeled their fantasy after Tolkien's.

Charles Clark said...

I am excited to hear this news, although there are a couple of things I want to point out. First off about portraying the one and true power on tv. I could see this working when the one power is used as a weapon and healing and for the cleansing of saidin and some other things probably. When it comes to other things such as wards etc. it would probably be more complicated.

The second thing I want to emphasize and this is directed to Harriet and TWOT tv producer is this. Whenever the tv series is produced I am pretty sure it is going to be based on the central storyline of books 1-14 in TWOT series. BUT if the tv series is going to be something different than what is mentioned above or an entirely new story, then let us know about this in advance. Again I strongly emphasize this point. The main reason I say this is look at TWOT companion. I have this book and though I have not read it yet I am planning on and look forward to reading it soon. What I am trying to say is that when news of this book was announced I think a lot of people-myself included- were expecting TWOT companion to be a reference book somewhat similar to The World of RJ The Wheel of Time book. Instead the companion is like a mega glossary so to speak. For the third time again let us know if the tv series is going to be something new other than the central storyline of TWOT books.

I know it is going to be a number of years before we see the tv series, though for now i am somewhat confident the adaptation will be done right. I hope anyways. Wishing everyone the best and a cool summer.