The epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time from author Robert Jordan was always going to make for a difficult adaptation. The dense text and richly developed world practically leapt off the page for readers but was certainly due for a considerable update. While there are elements that are ripe for a page-to-screen adaptation due to the detailed quality of the series and the increasingly expansive universe Jordan penned, there’s the natural fear that favorite moments and/or characters might be short changed in favor of condensing the work to an eight episode season format.
For the most part, Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time series, created by Rafe Judkins, is largely a success due to its ability to see what will and will not translate to screen and which elements needed bolstering (certain characters and their undercooked motivations), as well as what needed to be let go of for the sake of allowing the series to move quickly between set pieces. While there are changes that will require further discussion—one that takes place in the first episode in particular—or the most part, The Wheel of Time manages to capture the scope and magic of this world with location shots and perfectly cast newcomers to the roles of iconic characters to the book readers.
However, if there’s one area the series falters it’s in the characterization of some of the notable players. While some such as Rosamund Pike’s Moirane and Daniel Henney’s Lan are given greater material to work with—for good and bad depending on how faithfully they stick to the original characters—others, such as Josha Stradowski’s Rand, are given lighter loads to carry. That said, the books themselves certainly weren’t the best at this either, with Jordan having a much greater eye for capturing an unyielding and ever unraveling world rather than relationships and character dynamics that so often in fantasy capture a reader’s attention.
We meet our characters in the village of Two Rivers, where Moraine—known as an Aes Sedai—and her Warder, Lan, arrive to take young men and women with them on an incredible journey. Due to a prophecy, Moraine believes that one of them may be the “Dragon Reborn,” a man or woman who can channel the One Power and who will either become the savior of the world or will be the one to destroy it.
Perhaps one of the best decisions made by the series was to add a greater sense of mystery as to who the Dragon Reborn is. While the book makes it rather apparent from the get go, the series aims to make sure it’s cast of Two River’s characters are given equal amounts of screentime. Rand (Stradowski), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris) are all introduced as people who have a strong pull on the so called “Wheel” who, with the help of Moraine and Lan, will leave their home in search of the truth and, perhaps, greater destinies than any of them would have envisioned.
There’s a lot to burn through, however, and the pace wastes little time on character beats in favor of moving them from A to B with a whiplash inducing swiftness. While it brings us to greater set pieces and more interesting action sequences quicker, we do lose some of the establishing moments between characters, their holds on one another, and the history they share.
Of all of them, Pike’s Moiraine becomes the de facto lead of the series and, due to that, her character is given greater depth to work with. Instead of being purely enigmatic and stoic, she’s seen as curious, defiant, playful, and protective. As the largest billed name of the cast this all comes as little surprise, and by allowing the character stronger emotional pulls it helps define her past the limitations of the books, which weren’t always favorable to her.
There’s considerable detail in the set design and costuming which enriches the series by allowing otherworldly elements to become tangible in a way many of its peers fall short. This too is aided by the production being shot on location which makes a striking difference in establishing place and tone by giving off an unrecognizable edge. Other elements allow for the world to flourish but none so much as the music from Lorne Balfe, which enhances those fantastical elements with a searing and pulsing score.
The direction is best with its establishing shots and sequences that play with the customs of the characters. It’s at its worst, unfortunately, in action setpieces, despite some genuinely visceral moments of violence, succumbing to the common problem of action choreography being encroached by shadows and filmed with a lack of confidence in the action itself.
With it’s inconsistent pacing and overreliance on visual spectacle over character development, The Wheel of Time is undoubtedly in need of polishing as it continues it’s first season and begins the second which has already been picked up. That said, for all of it’s forced plot divergences and heavy handed exposition, there’s a noted charm to the series and an untapped promise to the world it’s created. The sheer vastness is overwhelming as we, like the Two Rivers characters, are introduced to areas of the world that we’ve never seen before.
In its best moments, The Wheel of Time perfectly encapsulates the excitement of being taken on a journey, even if we don’t know whether the end will be good or bad or if there will be a definitive end at all. By taking elements of fantasy we’ve come to know and placing a timeless spin on the era it takes place in, the show is at times a beguiling oddity, in others a marathon of a story condensed to a sprint and, more than anything else, a largely enjoyable tale of yet another Chosen One narrative that does its best to both celebrate and eschew the tropes it’s working off of.
Still, despite the flaws there’s enough here that will keep viewers engrossed in the series with its expansive visuals and inherent intrigue over the mystery of the Dragon Reborn.
Season 1 of The Wheel of Time premieres November 19 on Prime Video with the first three episodes.