Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” feels, at first blush, like just another entry in an already crowded field of series fighting to be the next “Game of Thrones.” While the streaming service’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s bestselling fantasy series isn’t mind-blowing, its diverse cast, thoughtful script and often nuanced female portrayals make it yet another step in the right direction for the fantasy genre.
Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” feels, at first blush, like just another entry in an already crowded field of series fighting to be the next “Game of Thrones.”
The story is relatively straightforward. Three young men and two young women from a small town — Mat (Barney Harris), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Rand (Josha Stradowski), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) — are whisked away by a mysterious stranger to follow their destinies. That stranger, a member of the magic-wielding Aes Sedai (the series’ term for “witch”), Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), believes one of the five to be the reborn spirit of “The Dragon,” who will save the world. She and her Warder bodyguard, Lan (Daniel Henney), watch over these young people as they discover their various magical abilities and eventually band together to fight an epic final battle against a mysterious dark force.
Despite the simplicity of the overall narrative, at 14 (very long) books, “The Wheel of Time” is the ultimate unfilmable fantasy saga. The novels changed the game in the 1990s, ushering in an era of doorstopper-sized, continent-spanning fantasy epics revolving around “chosen one” narratives. The series was a marvel of meticulously detailed world-building. However, it cared little for momentum. Rather than move the story forward, Jordan preferred to devote chapters upon chapters to building out subcultures and customs while reveling in taking the mythos of the Eastern and Western traditions and melding them into a single hero’s tale.
By arriving after the first wave of “Game of Thrones” imitators like “The Shannara Chronicles” and “The White Queen,” “The Wheel of Time” lands long after ultra-faithful adaptations have gone out of fashion. Two decades ago, the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy was measured by its ability to precisely re-create the novels on-screen. Nowadays, it’s reimaginings like “Watchmen” or remixes like “The Witcher” that hit big.
But since attempting an accurate point-by-point reconstruction would be a fool’s errand for “The Wheel of Time” anyway, Amazon’s series leans into streamlining the story, changing around how characters meet and when and where events happen. It not only ages its lead teenage characters up, it thinks about how that changes their worldviews. And it’s willing to make wholesale changes in the narrative to tell a better story for TV, understanding that as long as the most important moments hit where they are supposed to, the rest is fungible.
“The Wheel of Time” also sidesteps one of the biggest problems with shows and movies that slavishly re-create their source material: that older materials’ racist blind spots. Instead of presenting yet another continent devoid of people of color, “The Wheel of Time” goes the “Cursed Child” route, which reimagined Hermione Granger as a Black woman because her skin tone was never mentioned in the “Harry Potter” novels. Wherever the books do not mention skin color, assuming default whiteness, the TV series assumes the opposite. The result is a “Bridgerton”-like integrated fantasy that still feels painfully rare for prestige TV.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing “The Wheel of Time” does is respect viewers’ intelligence. “Game of Thrones” famously didn’t trust audiences to absorb complex plot exposition and so delivered quite a bit of it while showing people having orgies. It also cut much of the novels’ most important backstories where they were delivered in monologue-type narration. But “The Wheel of Time” doesn’t shy away from these moments, giving Pike long, fantasy-history-laden monologues that she delivers to her companions as they ride horses, trusting the actress’ ability to hold our attention.
The series is less successful in correcting the books’ ingrained sexism and intense reliance on the gender binary. The novels were one of the first mainstream fantasy series to center female characters and give them point-of-view chapters. But they are women very clearly written by a man. In some places, the series makes real improvements: Robins and Madden have far more three-dimensional characters, and Pike’s nuanced, emotional performance could sustain the show for several seasons alone. But on the other hand, the series invents multiple women who die for the express purpose of male character growth.
The series is less successful in correcting the books’ ingrained sexism and intense reliance on the gender binary.
Even more difficult? The series’ entire system of magic is gendered: Men and women access two different halves of the “One Power,” in painfully stereotypical ways. (In the novels, women are flowers who open themselves and surrender to control, while men dominate.) A major plot point in the novels revolves around women being unable to access the “male half” of the power. Though the moral of the tale is ultimately about balance, the story’s inherent insistence that gender is immutable (and heteronormativity is all that exists) comes across as extremely dated. The series does its best to downplay the problematic aspects of this in the early going, but it will eventually have to confront its biases.
If there is one place where the series genuinely falls down, it is the CGI. For a story that relies heavily on visuals, the fantasy graphics are surprisingly workmanlike. This is doubly confusing given Amazon’s giant budget.
And that brings us to arguably the biggest thing standing in the way of “The Wheel of Time” being the next fantasy mainstream hit: It’s on Amazon.
Despite its vast user base, the streaming service still has few huge hits to its name. That means the bar is higher for shows like “The Wheel of Time,” which may be reliant on word of mouth to gain traction. Perhaps it can reach bigger heights in a second season. (Amazon greenlighted more episodes months ago.) But for now, fans will have to settle for knowing the show has moved the world of fantasy forward.