The Wheel of Time review: Superior fantasy storytelling
Fans might grumble over a few missing parts of the books, but this is an accomplished and gripping retelling of Robert Jordan’s original novels.
While some broadcasters have been trying to find “the next Game of Thrones”, Amazon has gone one better by throwing millions of dollars at two fantasy adventures – the much-heralded Lord of the Rings prequel series and this new release based on the hefty Wheel of Time books by the late Robert Jordan.
Whether either will actually reach the global heights of Thrones remains to be seen, but it does The Wheel of Time a disservice to only look at it in terms of George RR Martin’s Westerosi world. Not only because Jordan’s series is actually older than Martin’s, and inspired much of what would become Game of Thrones (check the dates), but also because this is an accomplished, gripping story in its own right that lovingly adapts – and updates – the book series.
But first, introductions. Put simply, the series takes place in a quasi-medieval world where magic is real, but can only be used by women. These sorceresses – known as Aes Sedai – have established a powerful matriarchal order concerned with subtly controlling various rival kingdoms and protecting the world, and de-powering (or “gentling”) any unlucky men who have the ability to access magic (called ‘channeling the One Power’).
You see, long ago, a fiendish being called the Dark One poisoned the male half of the One Power, rendering any man who tries to draw from it mad and liable to committing great violence. The last great male user of the One Power, a man known as The Dragon, still managed to seal the Dark One in a prison – but thousands of years later, evil is spreading over the land, and the Dragon has been reborn to face the Dark One once more.
That’s where series lead Moiraine, played by Rosamund Pike, comes in. An Aes Sedai determined to track down the Dragon Reborn, she and faithful bodyguard/Warder Lan (Daniel Henney) arrive in the remote, mountainous village of the Two Rivers where the trail stops. Within the village are a group of young people who could be the Dragon – but she can’t tell which one is just yet.
Saying too much more might constitute a spoiler (albeit one revealed in the books decades ago), but the Two Rivers residents joining Moiraine and Lan are: stubborn village healer/Wisdom Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), brooding blacksmith Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), romantic shepherd Rand (Josha Stradowski), the wily Mat (Barney Harris, already mysteriously recast for season two) and the sweet, inquisitive Egwene (Madeleine Madden). All five are dragged from their village as dark forces attack, and go on a long journey that will reveal their true natures, abilities and potential over the ensuing eight episodes and beyond (season two is already filming).
Phew! OK, enough plot. It’s fair to say that Wheel of Time has always been a fairly complex story (the finished saga stands at 14 volumes, plus a prequel), but showrunner Rafe Judkins does well to keep everything accessible while still weaving in more dense backstory that will come into play later.
Will every casual viewer want to hear about the history of Manetheren or the Tinkers? Maybe not – but even if that washes over you, the engaging young leads, exciting action and central mystery will drag viewers along through the epic, sprawling story. There are also quite a few surprises for book readers – some things don’t happen exactly as they do on the page, or in a different order.
Watch out for new characters who help fill in backstory, as well as a scrapping of the book series' slightly dated sexual politics that became infamous over the years (basically, in the novels every so often our heroes stop the battle against evil to go "Tchah, women... can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!" and then carry on).
Conversely, Judkins also holds back on a few key concepts from the books including the separate “halves” of the One Power known as saidar/saidin, and the status of our heroes as probability-bending Ta’veren (though this is mentioned once, it’s not fully explained in the episodes I watched). While some fans might riot at even this omission, it seems clear the series intends to pick up these threads later – various pieces of worldbuilding from the books aren’t ruled out, just left for later (just like a few key characters, already confirmed for season two).
And it’s hard to complain about a few changes when the heart of Jordan’s work is so lovingly brought to life here. The Wheel of Time cast are universally impressive and retain the core of the characters on the page even if their circumstances are slightly changed. Pike particularly stands out as the battle-weary, poised Moiraine, and later on Sophie Okonedo steals the show as the Aes Sedai leader Siuan Sanche. Crucially, they all feel like the book characters – and because that story with those characters worked well, it’s the same in this adaptation.
The sheer scale of the world Jordan created is also apparent – towering cities, terrifying monsters and regular use of special effects show every single penny of the rumoured $10 million-per-episode budget was well spent. It’s all helped along by the seriously beautiful natural scenery of the Czech Republic and Slovenia (where the series was filmed), providing a genuinely stunning backdrop to the early episodes. I’d go to the Two Rivers on holiday, Trolloc attacks and all.
The series only falters when it loses faith in those watching. Unlike the confident opening of Game of Thrones first episode (the Night’s Watch face White Walkers beyond the Wall!), The Wheel of Time starts with an awkward, expository voiceover from Pike that rather clubs audiences over the head with lore before they’ve seen any of the characters or action.
Long, dreary scenes of series lore also sometimes kill the pace more than they would written on the page, and it’s hard not to find yourself tapping your foot, hoping they’ll get back to the main story. But these are minor quibbles for a series that has done the impossible in translating a fairly complex fantasy tale to screen, and still kept the story compelling enough that I binged the episodes I was given almost immediately.
Overall, I’m calling this adaptation a success. Once upon a time, Game of Thrones was the young upstart and Wheel of Time was the one to beat – now, it seems things have turned around in a circularity worthy of the Great Wheel itself. But even if it doesn’t hit the insane heights of Thrones (what could?), Amazon can still pat themselves on the back. Wheel of Time is a great adaptation, and I hope it’ll find an audience worthy of that (though the Wheel weaves as the Wheel will).
Still, one note – season two definitely needs more sniffs, braid tugs and arms crossed below... well, you get the idea.