Much excitement has greeted the news that Amazon Studios and Sony Television have greenlit a TV series based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novel series. There have been at least three major attempts to get a TV series or film based on the books made in the last eighteen years (with NBC, an unnamed Japanese animation company and Universal Pictures respectively) which have come to nothing, so it’s finally a relief that something is happening in this area.
Amazon’s motive in making this series is clear: they want their own Game of Thrones, a zeitgeist-defining show that can run for years and dominate the cultural conversation. Amazon Studios’ mandate was to move away from their small, quirky and award-winning early shows more towards big, brash and expensive projects, many of them in the science fiction and fantasy genres. They have already spent $250 million acquiring the rights to make a Lord of the Rings prequel TV series and are planning to spend between $150 and $200 million per season on the project. They have also optioned the rights to series based on Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Larry Niven’s Ringworld series and Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, and picked up The Expanse (based on James S.A. Corey’s novels) after it was dropped by SyFy after three seasons.
However, The Wheel of Time is the most direct and blatant statement that they want to take on Game of Thrones on its home turf. The Wheel of Time was, historically, the biggest-selling epic fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings, its sales dominating the genre through overwhelming sheer strength. The series has sold approximately twice the copies of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, for example, and more than three times that of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth or Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar series (and about one-sixth the sales of the Harry Potter series, which is actually quite impressive). As well as its massive sales in the United States, Wheel of Time has also sold over 5 million copies in Commonwealth territories and been translated into dozens of languages. A Song of Ice and Fire (the novel series on which Game of Thrones is based) was considerably more obscure before the HBO TV series, with only 12 million copies sold as of early 2011. The success of the TV series has since increased these sales to well over 85 million (overtaking – possibly only briefly – The Wheel of Time earlier this year). With The Wheel of Time starting from a much larger base, however, the pre-production hype and profile of the series is considerably higher.
There are of course big differences between the two book series, some of which may increase The Wheel of Time’s appeal as a different kind of story. Blatant, graphic sex and violence is far less prevalent in Wheel of Time (although it does occasionally take place) and the story is, at least initially, focused on more quest-like narratives. The series does eventually turn to deal with politics, military movements and intrigue, as Game of Thrones does, but not until about a third of the way into the series and this is always at a somewhat lesser degree of importance. Wheel of Time is, for better and worse, a more traditional and a more familiar fantasy story than A Song of Ice and Fire. Those looking for the gritty, complex politics and earthier, deeper characterisation of the latter may be disappointed by Wheel of Time’s more adventurous tone and its more archetypal characters.
That said, Wheel of Time does have several advantages going for it. The series is extremely long (fourteen novels and over 4 million words), but it is complete and the ending is very decent. The writers have a colossal amount of material to draw on without ever needing to resort to dubious filler ideas when the source material runs out (as has blighted the last three seasons of Game of Thrones and left many fans wary for the upcoming finale). Indeed, the books themselves are often criticised for filler material and wheel-spinning storylines which the TV series will be able to drop and edit it into something more compelling.
Another advantage is that, whilst Game of Thrones had to sneak its more fantastical elements (dragons, sorcery, zombies) into the story slowly and carefully over the course of many episodes, Wheel of Time is coming out to a much more genre-savvy audience and can be much more upfront with its magic (multiple main characters can wield the One Power, a form of sorcery rooted in scientific-like rules), non-human creatures and mystical visions.
A final interesting difference is that Wheel of Time has a much, much larger and more prevalent female cast of characters. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones had important, well-defined female characters from early on but these characters are repeatedly shown as existing in a sexist world and having to overcome the limitations of that world through individual strength, intelligence and achievement (to the point where latter books and seasons arguably have more and more important female characters than male). Wheel of Time, right off the bat, is set in a world where only women can use sorcery safely, resulting in a much more gender-balanced (or possibly even imbalanced, in the favour of women) world complete with female rulers, merchants, craftspeople and soldiers. The Wheel of Time world, set in the aftermath of a series of vast wars and geological cataclysms that threw together all the peoples of the world, is also notably much more ethnically and culturally diverse than ASoIaF/GoT, allowing for more varied casting. Homosexuality in the Wheel of Time world, although not a dominant theme, is also much less controversial than in GoT’s world.
Of course, none of these things mean that the show is guaranteed to be a big hit. The global television landscape has massively changed since Game of Thrones launched in 2011. In that time the number of television series on the air has more than doubled, with 520 distinct, original, scripted series airing from American studios and streaming services this year. The Wheel of Time may risk getting lost in the noise of so many other shows clamouring for attention. Game of Thrones also turned heads for being the only serious, well-made adult fantasy show on the air at launch; The Wheel of Time, by comparison, will launch against numerous genre competitors, including Game of Thrones’ own spin-off prequel show The Long Night, Netflix’s The Witcher, the BBC’s His Dark Materials and possibly Showtime’s Kingkiller Chronicle prequel series.
There’s also the fact that Amazon has so far not managed to launch a global mega-hit. Shows like Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have won awards and garnered critical acclaim, but have not yet broken through to a widespread, mainstream audience. The Tick and The Man in the High Castle have had wider appeal and likewise been acclaimed, but nothing to the audience level of Thrones or Netflix’s Stranger Things. Growing dissent with Amazon’s business and employment practices seems to be making at least part of the audience less keen to spend money on the company (although this is, of course, dramatically outweighed by its enormous customer base who disagree or don’t care).
Still, The Wheel of Time will no doubt have an impressive budget, its writers are fans of the books, the source material is good (once you extract several long-winded subplots that kind of went nowhere and condense about three of the books into one) and it has every chance of being a success. I guess we will find out in around about 2020.
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