UPDATE: Team Jordan has released an announcement. The real news, in my opinion, is buried in the comments. Per Alan Romanczuk (Alan is on Team Jordan), “We understand that [showrunner] Rafe [Judkins] and Ted are currently in discussions with a number of content distributors/networks, and that negotiations will be concluded soon.”
It’s been a big week! I went to JordanCon for the first time this past weekend. I’m not going to give a Con report, but it was a blast, and I am going to throw some pictures in below.
But there are more important happenings from last week. We learned almost a full year ago that a Wheel of Time TV series was in development with a “major studio.” This after a wee bit of legal uncertainty. Robert Jordan (or the Bandersnatch Group) sold the rights to Red Eagle Entertainment shortly before his terminal illness and untimely death. Nothing came of that, as is wont to happen in these things. Those rights were due to expire.
Red Eagle Entertainment attempted to extend those rights with what is known as an “ashcan copy.” That is, their license for the rights, much like oil exploration rights, was set to expire unless they made some defined progress in production (as far as I know, the agreement at issue has never been made public). The ultra-low budget pilot, essentially a late-night infomercial, was designed to meet those contractual requirements and trigger an automatic extension of its rights. Was it legally sufficient? Who knows. Not my area of expertise, and I imagine both sides had no trouble finding able counsel willing to argue either side. The parties entered into a confidential agreement, so there is much that we may never know. The most likely scenario is that Red Eagle Entertainment was able to negotiate some sort of financial stake and a figurehead role as executive producers, with real control passing back into the Bandersnatch Group’s (i.e., the Jordan Estate) hands and the hands of the aforementioned major studio.
Which sounds super cool to me, and not many people else, and then only if I could read the confidential settlement agreement. Such is life.
Back to the point—things just got exciting again. Sony TV confirmed that they are in fact the major studio in question, and that they are actively developing the series for TV. This is huge. We may be seeing the TV series I’ve been waiting most of my life for.
A TV series that has always been arguably unfilmable. You know how George R.R. Martin talks about writing A Song of Ice and Fire to be unfilmable after his frustrations in Hollywood? The The challenges of adapting The Wheel of Time makes ASoIaF look likes child’s play. But this is the perfect time. The Lord of the Rings paved the way for epic fantasy on the screen in general. We truly are living in a golden age of TV. And Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon and proved that epic fantasy can work on TV. And The Wheel of Time is better than ASoIaF. That being said, it does offer particular challenges.
My focus here is going to be on those challenges and how the producers might go about addressing them. I’m not going to get down in the weeds with casting. First, I don’t watch nearly enough movies and TV to be qualified to speak on it. Second, these things tend to devolve into naming a bunch of big-name actors who aren’t the most likely candidates (much like speculation around Cabinet appointees is always too heavy on sitting Senators). The casting director would be well advised to find the best possible people. Young and undiscovered is a good thing. They’re going to need them for a while. Plus, I always envisioned Lan as David Hasselhoff. You don’t want to trust me with casting.
Platform. The obvious choice is HBO. HBO has Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones is the only fantasy on TV remotely of the scale and quality of The Wheel of Time. The good news is that HBO probably isn’t interested, but putting The Wheel of Time on HBO would be a terrible mistake. HBO is TV for 13-year-old boys dressed up as prestige TV for snobs (books for 12-year-old boys are awesome; TV for 13-year-old boys is not). The Wheel of Time doesn’t fit well with either. There is a lot of violence and a lot of nudity and even a fair amount of sex, but Jordan never took a Grimdark tone with it. You could run a Wheel of Time TV show on pretty much any channel and just adjust what is shown. More on that a bit later. But if there is a gratuitous sex scene thrown in every few scenes just to meet some producer’s quota, we will get a show that isn’t quite The Wheel of Time anymore. And let’s face it. The Wheel of Time will never be trendy with the smart set.
So what are the other options? There are the other premium cable channels, of course. One of the more obvious options is AMC. Not only did they make two of the greatest shows ever (Mad Men and Breaking Bad), AMC has ample speculative fiction experience with Preacher, Into the Badlands, Humans, and The Walking Dead. And there is the problem. Look, I love that The Walking Dead is the only series that my wife and I can consistently interest ourselves in to the point that it is appointment TV. But it’s just not that good. And not only that, it’s cheap. There is simply no way around it, as the rest of the post should make clear—The Wheel of Time is going to be enormously expensive to film. An intriguing option is FX. They have pretty out some pretty incredible shows—The Shield, Justified, The Americans, Terriers—and some speculative fiction—American Horror Story, The Strain, The Bastard Executioner. But there doesn’t seem to be much of an overlap in a Venn diagram of the former and the latter. Other options like Syfy probably don’t have the money (Syfy spends Game of Thrones-like money on the Expanse, which is the problem for it, really).
Really, though, there is no reason why premium cable, basic cable, or even a network couldn’t work. But the best option in my mind is a streaming service. Why? TV dramas have traditionally been largely episodic. Even really great early serials like The Shield had a lot of case-of-the-week stuff. More lately we’ve been getting a lot of truly serial storytelling, where the story seamlessly continues from one episode to another. The Wheel of Time is the ultimate in serial storytelling, one story that sprawls across 10,000 pages. It’s chock full of load and loads of characters and a massive amount of worldbuilding. It’s the sort of thing that is better consumed in binges rather than weekly dribblings. (How much of the criticism of The Wheel of Time would exist if people hadn’t had to wait a year or two between books?). And Amazon, at least, won’t lack for money if it really wants to make an investment in original programming. (It’s also nice that the book side of Amazon would have a lot of skin in the game.)
Length. And they can’t afford to screw around with the story. No The Walking Dead foot dragging. The Wheel of Time tells a story spanning fourteen books (the prequel New Spring should be ignored) and almost four and a half million words. By comparison, A Son of Ice and Fire is as of now just five books and 1.7 million words. The series is supposed to be finished in seven books, and the TV show will end after eight seasons (with the last two truncated). And eight seasons is long for a scripted drama. The Shield and Mad Men both ended after seven. Justified ran for six seasons, and The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Breaking Bad just five. Supernatural ran for twelve and is still running, but it’s low budget compared to any half decent adaptation of The Wheel of Time.
So how many seasons will a Wheel of Time show take? Game of Thrones showed that you can reasonably adapt a 700+ page book into a single season of television (and a 10-episode season at that). The Wheel of Time books average out at right around 700 pages. They’re actually a bit shorter than the ASoIaF books. The books are also heavy on description, of characters, clothes, buildings, and that will be easy to show on the screen. So one season per book…would still leave us at fourteen seasons. That’s a bit much. The Path of Daggers and Winter’s Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight and Knife of Dreams, respectively, are really one book split in two each. So that would get us down to twelve seasons. That’s a lot. You could do it in six with long seasons, but that wouldn’t actually save any money, and the trend is toward shorter seasons. Maybe that makes more sense with a streaming service. I really don’t think there is any way around the basic issue, though. The sheer length is always going to be a significant risk associated with the show. Which brings us to changes to the story.
Story changes. This is closely related to the length issue. The producers really need to walk into this with the endgame in mind and an outline fully mapped out (one advantage of having an already completed series). Adam Whitehead suggests that if the early seasons are successful you could stretch out the time allotted for latter books. This is nuts. The early books are most important. The show will live or die on the strength of the seasons based on those books. It is most important that those be given as much time as necessary.
Some compression is absolutely necessary, but it needs to come primarily in adapting the latter books (with the main focus on books 7-11). One, because those books are weaker. Two, because the story drags a bit in those books relative to the rest of the series. Three, the story really starts to sprawl there. That is a particular issue for TV. Even if time were no object, there are simply too many characters and too many storylines for TV viewers to be expected to keep track of at that point. Both are necessarily going to have to be cut. This will also be a budget issue.
The length creates other adaptation issues. A character appears in the first couple seasons and you need him back ten years later? The actor may or may not be available. So maybe Agelmar gets replaced by a new character in the final books, or maybe his character gets combined with Rodel Ituralde. Maybe Hurin and Juilin are combined. Characters will need to be cut, combined, and replaced. There is no way around that. Some characters should die earlier than they do in the books.
Scope. I’ve already touched on this in discussing the length of the books, and character-related changes. But there are other issues. This is a series featuring fortresses the size of small mountains and armies numbering in the tens of thousands. Twenty, heck even ten, years ago, this would have been an insurmountable barrier. But CGI has advanced enormously. Game of Thrones in places looks much better than Lord of the Rings, especially in the latter seasons as they’ve continued to up the budget. A lot of the scale of the armies can be dealt with with some sweeping CGI shots and then zooming in for the real action. People cost money, so it’s good to be able to whittle the number you need down some. Horses also cost a lot of money, so it’s a good thing they Aiel insist on walking. (We probably won’t get a long sequence, or even a shot, of the Saldean cavalry showing off—sorry.) A less easily handled issue is that there will be a lot of different locations.
The monsters, I think, are not an enormous problem. The dragons on Game of Thrones look great but cost a bundle. There is nothing quite like that in The Wheel of Time. Trollocs, Myrddraal, Gray Men, the Gholam, and Draghkar can all be played by humans. Frankly, I think they would look much better if the producers focus on practical effects as much as possible, but that’s not really about money. The Trollocs are the most problematic because, (1) they look the least human (including in size) and (2) there are so dang many of them. Money is going to be an issue, but the greatest adaptational issues are created by the One Power.
Magic. I wrote a series of Tweets a while back arguing fantasy doesn’t translate nearly as well to the screen as superhero stories. Superhero stories have their roots in comics, which are a fundamentally visual medium. Fantasy, on the other hand, has its roots in books. Superhero comics creators have to worry about how things will look on the page, which tends to translate well to film with proper special effects. Think of how visually distinct the X-Men are, and how visual and straightforward their powers tend to be (the very best example of the latter probably being Cyclops).
Fantasy, on the other hand, has all sorts of tropes and traditions that do not translate well to film. Monsters look good with the right FX, but magic, especially as used in fantasy, frequently does not. Magic is central to a lot of fantasy, and to The Wheel of Time in particular. The Wheel of Time has far more magic than The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire.
Some of the use of the One Power from The Wheel of Time will be easy to show. Moiraine hurling fireballs at Trollocs. Stuff like her healing Tam will be easy to follow by context. Other sequences will present much greater challenges. How do you show a duel with the One Power between Nynaeve and Moghedien that to anyone who isn’t a female channeler just looks like two women staring at each other? You probably don’t, instead turning it into a more usual sort of magical battle. This isn’t an easily surmounted issue, but I think it’s better to make changes as necessary and to let the visual effect of the flows, the characters, and the context tell what is happening rather than try for any visual representation of the flows (a little trust for the viewer will go a long way). Frequently a visual representation wouldn’t get you where you need to be anyway. It wouldn’t explain just what Nynaeve and Moghedien are doing. When Rand is captured, there is simply no way to show him attacking knots on his shield. You show the Aes Sedai holding the shield getting distracted, and let the viewer listen to the dialogue between Rand and Lews Therin in his head.
There are other choices Jordan made that work on the page but won’t on the screen. The Aes Sedai ageless face—which is a pretty important plot point at times—is described as basically a face lift. We’re pretty used to simply accepting that as normal. Does the Myrddraal’s cloak not blowing in the wind look creepy as hell or does it look like a mistake?
Back to the nudity/violence issue, while I’m on the topic of adaptation. A streaming service will hopefully give the producers more flexibility to ratchet the violence and nudity up or down as needed by the story. HBO execs might insist on the early seasons being bloodier than they should be. Network TV execs might balk at later violence. Dumai’s Well should be gory and shocking. Shocking in part because it’s more violent than anything we’ve seen up to that point.
Final thoughts. I have some more thoughts on adapting the series, and the show in general, but I will leave it at this for now. This is a big deal. The Wheel of Time is the biggest thing in fantasy since The Lord of the Rings. I believe it has still outsold A Song of Ice and Fire. But that won’t last without a screen adaptation. Take a look at the Barnes and Noble bestseller lists. They are dominated by books that have been adapted for a movie or for TV. How we think about The Wheel of Time in fifty years will be driven in large part by the success or lack thereof of this adaptation.