Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Some Wheel of Time News

There's been some interesting developments regarding Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in the last few days.

First off, Brandon Sanderson was at Worldcon this last weekend in Denver, Colorado, and there indicated he's roughly between one-quarter and one-third finished on his work on the final novel, A Memory of Light. He said the book will be longer than first thought, possibly as much as 600,000 words, and the chances of it being split in half are growing. That length is roughly what Tad Williams wrote for his final Memory, Sorrow and Thorn novel, To Green Angel Tower, so we may see a similar situation, with the hardcover coming out in one volume and the paperback being split in half. However, that's just a guess on my part. Sanderson said if the book is split in half the two halves should be published as close together as possible. More here from Worldcon and here from Brandon's own blog. Based on Sanderson's comments about Tor's deadline, we can expect A Memory of Light to be published, in whatever form, at the end of 2009.

Secondly, the big SF&F news roaring around the Internet today was that The Wheel of Time movie option has been picked up by Universal, apparently with the intent of making a single movie based on the first book, The Eye of the World, and see where it goes from there. The news has attracted mixed opinions. Robert Jordan himself was against a movie adaption, and said he'd only be happy with a TV adaption that would have time to incorporate most of the storylines and characters. In fact he rejected several movie offers for this reason and only agreed to a proposal for a sequence of TV mini-series based on each novel from NBC back in 2000, although this proposal never made it out of development hell and the rights lapsed. Some of Jordan's comments on this are noted here. The second major cause for concern is that Red Eagle, a rights development company that picked up the Wheel of Time resale rights several years ago and was involved in the unfinished New Spring comic adaption fiasco, is heavily involved in this project. In the last blog entry before his death, Jordan blasted Red Eagle and made it clear he no longer wanted to be involved with them, or for them to be involved in any Wheel of Time work.
Among other things they forgot an old dictum of LBJ back when he was just a Congressman from Texas, when he famously, or infamously, said “Don’t spit in the soup. boys. We all have to eat.” Worse, Red Eagle though they could tell me they spit in the soup, or pee in it, if they wanted to and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them. You can’t apologize your way out of that with me, not that they tried. There isn’t enough money in the world to buy your way out of it with me. Not that they tried that either. So they get no further help from me. Once they are completely out of the picture, we’ll see what happens.
Whilst the reactions of most fans has been cautiously positive, there seem to be concerns over Red Eagle's continued involvement in defiance of Robert Jordan's wishes, and the adaption of the books into a series of films rather than a television series, again over the author's wishes.

My thoughts on the difficulties involved in adapting the series for film, as originally posted here:

So the Wheel of Time has sold 44 million copies (he's catching up with Terry Pratchett, slowly but surely). That's A Lot. Obviously a TV or movie adaption would be popular and make a lot of green, so some producers want a piece of the action.

However, you then hit a problem. This is a series of 12-13 novels which will cross 10,000 pages before it's done. The books vary from 700-1,000 pages in length. As a rule of the thumb, a 2-3-hour movie can be based on a book of about 300 pages without losing any material at all. So for a faithful adaption you're looking at 2-3 movies per book. Obviously that's not going to happen.

So now you're looking at cutting the material. A lot. You're looking at maybe 30% of the printed story making it to the screen even if you make 12-13 movies. And you're not going to make 12-13 movies, you're going to make 8, tops, as Harry Potter has shown that's about the maximum you can push it. So now you're looking at 15% of the story making it to the screen. And if you decide to go for a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy, that's 7% of the entire storyline on screen (compared to the LotR trilogy getting about 85% of the book on the screen). That's going to tick off a lot of fans. In fact, if you're going to do that, you may as well not bother.

So you start looking at it as a TV adaption. Say five 22-episode seasons. Season 1 is Books 1-2, Season 2 is Books 3-4, Season 3 is Books 5-6, Season 4 is Books 7-9, Season 5 is Books 10-12 (seriously, you can do a lot of Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book, in 30 minutes, maximum). That gives you some excellent cliffhanger endings and gets more or less the complete story out in a reasonable timeframe (we may have to skip some bath scenes in order to spend more times with Mat scything down Seanchan troops with cannons, but that's probably a cross we can bear).

There is a slight problem there though: the budget won't be very big. $2 million to $4 million an episode, tops. Great for scenes of characters talking, small skirmishes and politics, not so great when you want to depict the Second Battle of Cairhien or the Battle of Dumai's Wells. Flashbacks to the War of the Shadow? Brief clips, at best. The Last Battle? Offscreen, probably. And fans will get annoyed with that as well.

This paradox is precisely why it's taken so long for the project to get on the screen. Looking at the other fantasy series and novels to make it to the screen, Sword of Truth (soon to hit our screens as Legends of the Seeker) is made up of self-contained books (apart from the last three) with a few ongoing story threads in the background. If it gets cancelled after a few seasons that's fine, as long as they get a few episodes' warning to wrap everything up. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is contained in length at 7 books, possibly 6 seasons (since the fourth and fifth books could possibly be compressed into one season since they won't want to lose half the cast for a year), and is being made by HBO with a giganormous budget. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan (still stuck in development hell) is one book which can be pruned down easily.

The Wheel of Time is one massive, ongoing story which starts in The Eye of the World and ends 12/13 books later with A Memory of Light. And that makes adapting it an absolute nightmare. Only Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen - which is even more complex with even more characters and will be, probably, slightly longer when its finished - would present scriptwriters with an even bigger challenge.

I will be very interested to see how Universal proceeds, because I don't see any way it's possible to get the whole story on screen unless they go for a big-budget TV adaption, and the sources indicate it's going to be a movie series.


Anonymous said...

Great summary, Adam. I've been reading the WoT series since 1996 and totally agree. As a fan I would LOVE to see this series visualized onscreen. The only way I think this could get done is as a television series (HBO preferably) and to cut out lots of the subplots and only focus on the main events. For the first three books all the characters are more or less traveling together so that isn't an issue. It is from book 4 on where the story starts to go in a million different directions. Good luck to anyone who has to adapt this for the screen!

Benjamin Hampton said...

Really, I think this can be done quite easily. If you think about the WoT books - they are the first chapter books I ever read besides the Hobbit and remain some of my favorite books to this day, so I'm not a hater - there is a lot you can cut from them. Tons of useless subplots, pages of thinking about what just happened, and descriptions of weather and fashion. The first 4 books have considerably less than the rest, but there's still quite a bit, and books 7-10 will be very easy to adapt, and relatively nothing will be cut. Anyway, I'm all for this.

Barbara Martin said...

Good summary, although I'm only to Book 7. Once I began just after Christmas this year (with interruptions) I was unable to stop reading the series.

Movies or a television series would be quite interesting, although I am as concerned as you are about how much would have to be cut out. Many of the interspersed bits throughtout each book are integral to the story overall. This will be quite the challenge.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I'm not sure if I want to see these on-screen. If they wanted to focus on a specific thread of the novels, I could live with that, but the layering of plotlines makes it difficult to get a faithfully-done movie or series of any kind. The problem with a movie that plays on an existing fanbase is that they have their specific wants that have to be attended to if you want them to not lash out at them. A filmmaker concerned with the integrity of the film should honestly think about cutting a whole lot from a book and paring things down to a single arc, but that won't draw the audience that Universal wants to draw.

As much as I'd like to say book lovers are an intelligent lot, fanbases tend to be extremely picky and I'm not sure that WoT fans would be particularly forgiving of a film that excised a lot of Mat (for example) in favor of making a good film rather than a faithful adaptation.

Adam Whitehead said...

Agreed. Lord of the Rings worked because they constructed a movie narrative (which works differently to a book's one) out of the book's threads rather than simply trying to put the book on screen as it was. Even though the end product was very faithful to the book, there were still lots of complaints about what they changed and the new things they introduced, even though the reasoning was generally sound (you can get away with having the ruin of Isengard in flashback in the book, for example, but not in a film).

Obviously, Wheel of Time's extreme length prevents it from getting the same kind of faithful adaption, whilst the sheer mass of storylines and the fact we don't know how the story ends yet mean that picking out story threads to follow through in the film will be very difficult.