Thursday, 4 October 2018

Will The Wheel of Time TV series be the next Game of Thrones?

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.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.


Stonewielder said...

I'm still very unhappy they're doing away with Rand's love affair with Min, Elayne, and Aviendha. I assume this is being done so as not to offend some viewers?? Do you have any thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

Game of Thrones went off-book long before they ran out of books. They basically just adapted the first three novels, then started writing fanfic because they like it better.

Anonymous said...

I'm cautiously optimistic about this. Pretty much all of the right pieces seem to be there for this to be good, though. I think the biggest mistake they could make is trying to make it too much like Game of Thrones (throwing in unnecessary/added sex, violence, etc.) when the books don't really have that, or more to the point, the tone doesn't match that. Sure, there's violence, but I think on the whole the books are very much more in the PG-13 kind of camp rather than a hard R.

So I think the challenge is making the show less 'adult' in those ways than Game of Thrones, but also not making it feel too YA. Striking a good middle ground.

Wastrel said...

I'm skeptical. WOT is MUCH cheesier, and its earlier novels in particular are VERY cliché. And it'll require people to try to say "Mountains of Dhoom" with a straight face.

I'm not convinced that there's an appetite for broad, unabashed campy epic fantasy among the general public (yet). Both GOT and LOTR had to, in their own way, prove that they were grounded in something real and important; I'm not sure WOT can do that. As an epic fantasy adventure, it's obviously a classic, but I'm not sure it can really show that it's more than that. And the various lower-budget epic fantasy shows of recent years have struggled for the audience or acclaim of similar-budget shows in genres like urban fantasy or superheroism or SF.

Leaping from the politics of the Iron Throne into the farmboys and dark lords and obsessive lesbian spanking sessions and love-quadrangles of WOT is a big step to take. Indeed, I think maybe of all the big fantasy projects WOT may find it hardest to gain crossover appeal, at least to the degree necessary to justify its costs.

But genre/style aside, I think it also has a structural problem. ASOIAF is a very dense, MPOV story - it naturally fills time, and can easily be expanded by looking at new angles. WOT is a much more straightforward story. Early on, when the protagonists are together, it's a 'thin' narrative without the ability to cut to other stories the way GOT could; when the protagonists do separate, it often feels like lone individuals wandering around an empty world not really doing much. [although the prospect of an entire season just following Perrin looking for Faile and not finding her certainly has a sort of daDaist appeal...]

I wonder if they might just ditch the books to some extent, and build a GOT-style MPOV political story in which the books are only one thread?

Regarding women, incidentally: yes, there are female characters, but it should be noted that, relative to something like GOT, they're all terrible. They have little individuality, and they're all uncomfortably constrained by Jordan's BDSM fantasies (not just the lesbian spanking rituals, but also the constant talk about how women just need to be dominated). They're going to have to be totally rewritten to meet modern mainstream standards.

Relatedly (particularly given the love quadrangle), a big question will be: how desparately will we all want to punch Rand in the face? He was difficult to cope with on the page... but that "smug teenage boy with three girlfriends and unlimited magical power who takes over the known world because he's just that wonderful despite being an arrogant idiot" trope gets a LOT more annoying when you actually have to stick a teenage face behind it rather than leaving it as a reader's wish-fulfillment fantasy. I think we'll be talking Joffrey levels of hatred...

[huh. Maybe Rand is just Joffrey, as Joffrey sees himself...]

Anyway, I hope it's not a failure, as it would be a big blow to the genre. And it probably won't be a total disaster, just given the resources and advertising that will be behind it, and its name-recognition and loyal fanbase (sort of... though AIR a lot of us kind of soured on it even before Jordan died, and I don't know how big the actually loyal fanbase is these days). But... I'm not expecting a mega-hit.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about how they are going to show the one power and channeling in a way that doesn't seem too ridiculous. I'm trying to think of what shows or movies I've ever seen that have people using magic in combat without it being really corny. Seems like I'm coming up blank.

insurrbution said...

No, no...just like the books, it;ll be the next Lord of the Rings!

Not saying it won't be good or popular, but it'll have more akin to Tolkien than Martin.

Anonymous said...

"I'm curious about how they are going to show the one power and channeling in a way that doesn't seem too ridiculous. I'm trying to think of what shows or movies I've ever seen that have people using magic in combat without it being really corny. Seems like I'm coming up blank."

Dude have you been paying attention to the MCU these past few years? It can clearly be done for mainstream audiences. I'm not saying it's not a little cheesy but then again the One Power is hardly the cheesiest aspect of WoT lol

Adam Whitehead said...

Yup. Judkins even said that he thinks the approach used in Dr. Strange and Infinity War is what he wants to go for.

Anonymous said...

The books are way more violent and gory compared to GoT