The first episode of Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga just dropped. Some of my friends have already seen the special theater screenings. In spite of myself, I’m a bit excited.
The first book, The Eye of the World, came out when I was still in high school, though I didn’t read it until sometime later. But I remember that cover on that thick hardcover book at the library where I worked as a shelver, compelling enough that I can still clearly recall the sight over thirty years later. Why I didn’t pick it up then, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that while I do enjoy epic fantasy, the style of cover art on the books’ original publications has never really appealed to me. This is mostly a matter of personal taste–though later, as I both read my way through the series and met fellow fans (some of whom I’m friends with to this day) on proto-social-media-network Usenet, the cover art for The Wheel of Time became a running joke. Not only was it not very good, but the characters depicted often barely resembled their physical descriptions in the text. (We won’t even get into how the cover of Lord of Chaos could’ve easily gotten it misshelved in the Romance section. I’ve got nothing against romance but that’s not what’s going on in that novel. Mostly.)
Once I finally got into the series, though, there was a lot about it that I enjoyed. I like adventure fiction as well as epic fantasy, and Wheel of Time has plenty of both (though the slow pace of the later novels is also a long-standing running joke among the same group of friends. If you’ve never read them, fair warning: there’s one infamous chapter the POV character spends taking a bath). The deliberate callouts to Lord of the Rings in the early chapters of the first novel were fun, as were the references to things that were obviously of Earth–those seem pretty cheesy now, but you’ve got to remember that Google didn’t exist yet. They felt like little Easter eggs that one could feel mildly clever about noticing. The cyclical nature of the story’s world, of the magic, of time itself was very compelling to someone who had just discovered Buddhism, as was a fictional setting where reincarnation was an undeniably real and accepted part of existence. And I loved many of the characters, particularly Nynaeve and Moiraine, who combined inborn talent, skill, and determination in ways that I found especially appealing.
The series took so long to come to its conclusion that I listened to the last few books while commuting to my academic job a good twenty years after I read the first. By then, my relationship to the books and the story they told had shifted. Much as I suspect we’re meant to, I started to question whether the White Tower was really such a great place (of course, by then it was reminding me of academia, which I’ve somehow managed to retain some idealism about but which has structural and cultural problems of its own). The skewing and at times outright reversal of gendered allocations of power in comparison to our own world began to seem dated and simplistic. And my personal taste in fiction was shifting in decidedly weirder directions. A few years after the last book came out, I got the audiobook of The Eye of the World from the library and tried a listen. Sad to say, it didn’t work for me.
But I was intrigued when I heard Amazon Prime was working on a series, especially once I heard of Rosamund Pike’s casting; she has a seriousness about her that seemed perfect for Moiraine. And I liked what I saw in the trailers: a world that looked different than I’d imagined when reading the books, and yet still somehow looking right. Though Amazon Prime’s reasons for choosing to adapt the show are as mercenary as anything else that Amazon does, they have some big fans involved in the production, and it shows. It’s interesting to me that I’m excited for this show, even though the books don’t really work for me anymore. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or curiosity about someone else’s take on a story that I’m familiar with.
If I’m honest, though, I think on some level I’m hoping for the show to bring to life some of the magic that the books no longer hold for me. If my own waking dream that occurs when reading is no longer vivid, I’m more than happy to experience someone else’s, and what I’ve seen so far looks promising: beautiful landscapes, mysterious cities, monstrous armies, and women with fantastic powers. The emphasis on Moiraine in the trailers is an element that I particularly appreciate. Though she is not the story’s protagonist, in many ways she is a principal lens through which to experience it: chronologically one of the first to learn that the Dragon has been reborn with all that that entails, her heroic quest is among the longest and exacts the highest cost. And she was one of my favorite characters from the very beginning, when she rides into Emond’s Field and upends everyone’s lives: one of Robert Jordan’s better ideas being to enshrine Gandalfian powers in a diminutive woman whose seemingly indeterminate age is a drawback as often as an advantage.
A lot of the books I grew up reading have gotten adaptations: Lord of the Rings, Dune, Narnia, even Earthsea (though I prefer not to think about that one because it was so bad). The people making these shows likely grew up reading the same books; they’re also stories whose visual adaptations needed either to be animated, or to wait until special effects technology had reached the point that it could be convincing. (Lord of the Rings still looks pretty good.) Though ironically, the magic itself of the Wheel of Time is often not visible, though its effects can be and often are. From the trailers it looks like the show has decided to change that, which is an approach I can’t fault for this particular story. (My favorite approach so far is what they did on The Magicians.) Perhaps it’s because I read so many of these books when I was younger, or perhaps it’s because the visual medium has always, for me, tapped into my younger sense of myself, but I find that I enjoy movie and TV adaptations on a different level than I enjoyed reading their source material. I’m probably never going to read the Wheel of Time novels again, but I’m looking forward to the show.
Though I’d also love it if some studio out there did justice to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which of all my childhood fantasies is probably the one that resonated with and influenced me the most. I can see Timothee Chalamet as Taran, can’t you?