I Converted a Novel into a TV Show and All I Got Was This Lousy Sheepherder

Having just finished the re-read of The Eye of the World (8 days, not a bad pace considering how much more I have to get through) this seemed like the perfect time to put together my thoughts about the Amazon Prime Television series version of Wheel of Time which just released in the winter of 2021. Substantial spoilers for both the first season of the show, and the first novel along with a blanket spoiler warning for any future plotlines I mention when describing how I think the show will continue, considering the massive changes from the plot of the books. This article is primarily aimed at people who have seen the show, and are either still thinking about whether they want to continue with the show, or who are thinking about whether they may now want to try reading the books. So the structure is going to look at what the show did, and talk about my feelings for how it compares to the novel.

The Good

There are definitely elements of the show that improve upon the book. Foremost (and just to make sure assholes know where I stand, and can show themselves the door accordingly) the show cranks up the diversity substantially. And this is not just a matter of ‘forget the source material, diversity is more important’ though frankly, that’s true. The lack of diversity in the book always rubbed me the wrong way from a world design standpoint.

The story starts after there was a several thousand year golden age that included space travel, teleportation, sentient AI and skyscrapers, plus magic. That kind of thing makes the world really small. There would have been frequent travel between countries, between continents, with all of the general cultural drift, immigration, emigration and intermarriage that goes along with it. Go to any major city that even dances around the words ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘multicultural’ and you’ll find people from all over the world there. The idea that thousands of years later this continent a little bigger than the USA is so monoculture that you can look at a guy and go “By your height, and hair colour I know you are from Texas, and absolutely not from Maine where everybody has a different hair and eye color and specific regional hat” is just nonsense.

Which isn’t to say they did the diversity extremely well (more on that later) but the fact that everywhere they go there are people of a whole range of ancestry and skin tone is far more realistic for the history of the world than having everybody from each little nation-state be different from everybody from anywhere else and exactly the same as everybody from there.

A very in between thing that is part good and part bad in the show is that they skipped over a lot of content, and as a result compressed the size of the world a lot as well. The way in which this is good is that it lets you keep the pacing of the show a lot more interesting and quick-moving. In the book there are chapters that are taken up with ‘Rand and Mat are walking…then they go to an inn and juggle and play the flute for their dinner, then the next day they hitch a ride with a guy on his wagon for a bit then have to walk to the next village and find an inn and…” and so on. And while this -does- give you many more chances for character development and giving you a sense of the world, speeding up the pacing was probably the better choice for television. I will thank them profusely for this process if the series continues long enough that we can skip the entire book and a half of Perrin chasing after his wife.

I can get into a few other things the show did well just on its own in a way that can’t really be compared to the books, a few of the casting decisions have been incredible (Most especially Abdul Salis as Eamon Valda [Though Valda doesn’t even appear in book 1], Madeleine Madden as Egwene, and Daniel Henney as Lan for me) and aside from the horrible looking scene of Moraine using the One Power to throw bricks around, the visual effects on weaving have been super cool, but I can’t really compare them to the books. Still, by and large, the show is gorgeous to watch and has done a few things well.

The Bad

Conversely, there are a lot of things that are uh…not great…about this conversion to the screen. One common experience I’ve had with people watching the show with me who haven’t read the books is that they just broadly have no idea what is going on at all. This is the downside to the accelerated pacing, there’s no time for handy exposition dumps and so you’re left feeling like a lot of things are happening that you just have no context for or knowledge about. The books also have a rotating PoV between chapters, so even while looking at the same series of events, we may get more than one character’s internal monologue to help us flesh them out and understand them better.

They’ve left out several characters that are integral to the plot as written, and are either going to have to fit them in later or adapt the story around them. You know how Perrin has some weird wolf thing going on and neither he nor we understand it? In the book, Perrin and Egwene meet a man named Elyas before they meet the Tinkers who basically says “Oh hey, you’re a wolfbrother, so am I, let me tell you what that means.”

There’s no implication that they’re going to The Eye of the World specifically with the idea that ‘one of you will turn out to be the Dragon, and we’ll just do the Last Battle’ instead, multiple characters have heard from multiple sources just that there’s a big threat to The Eye and they go there not because one of them is the Dragon, but because the three boys are all Ta’Varen, and the pattern is shaping around them so bringing them to a point of crisis is probably good. 

Another thing that bothered me a lot was their constant reminders to the viewers that ‘any of the Two Rivers people’ might be the Dragon Reborn including Egwene and Nynaeve, and the idea that there have been Dragons Reborn in the past who were women. I understand part of it was to increase the mystery as to who would actually be the Dragon (even though it was Obviously going to be Rand because he’s the only one who didn’t have some other thing going on with his story. If it wasn’t him, he served no real purpose for being there) and part of it was the leaning on Rosamund Pike as the big name in the show making them want to push the idea that one of the women could become the major protagonist but like…the cosmology of the story doesn’t allow for it.

Imagine if Nynaeve had been the Dragon Reborn like they tried to imply during that scene with Logain where she goes Super Saiyan. She’s not a man, so she doesn’t use Saidin, so there’s no taint from the Dark one to risk driving her insane or turning her to the shadow. Doesn’t really make for much more of a story. She goes to Tar Valon, does a training montage, and goes to the Last Battle and wins or doesn’t. The Dragon Reborn being a man is core to the story. Now there’s a race against the clock to see if he can get ready for the Last Battle before he loses his mind and has to be killed. Now there’s a whole category of Aes Sedai whose like…life goal is to gentle him so he can’t channel, cranking up all the divisions within the White Tower that already exist. It’s just core to the story, and I don’t get why they felt the need, having cut out so many things, to add in some red herrings that would have actually made the story worse if they were true.

And just to be clear, zero part of this is any idea that there’s a general storytelling reason why it shouldn’t be a woman, just that the specific cosmology of the world, with the taint on saidin, and the major events that need to happen to bring the story around to the ending need to have that looming risk of madness for the Dragon. There are plenty of strong and (relatively, but that’s another article) well developed women in the story, and I’d love for some more emphasis to be put on them in the show conversion, but Nynaeve was explicitly not even the right age to be a possibility and they chose to feature her in the episode called ‘The Dragon Reborn’ I just don’t get it.

Another problem they’re going to have to deal with somehow is that their choice to quicken the pace (generally good) came at the cost of giving us very little character development of people or places besides the core characters. I mentioned earlier the usual A->B->C progress of most epic fantasy, where they don’t go back to anywhere and it’s all progress towards the end. That is not what happens in the Wheel of Time.

In the book, pretty much nobody is killed in Emond’s Field when the Trollocs attack, and definitely most of the village is not levelled. They pretty much all survive. Major plot events will go on to happen in Emond’s Field, including several major battles, and a number of the girls from the town turning out to be able to channel and so forth. 

The show also completely removed the entire presence of the characters in Andor, and the capital Caemlyn, a place where Rand and Mat first end up and where Rand meets the Queen of Andor, and her daughter Elayne (who is a major protagonist in the books) and her brother and half-brother Gawyn and Galad (who are major secondary characters in the books)

The frantic pace of the story means that we’ve completely missed the parts where Lan teaches Rand how to use his sword. The parts where Rand, Mat and Thom are travelling together and he teaches them the basics of tumbling, juggling and playing the flute, which become important to their further travels (also not pictured) before reuniting with the rest of the group.

Nynaeve doesn’t ever have a super magic doing moment like in the show, she’s eventually convinced by Moraine that she can channel and needs training, but that’s about as far as it goes with her or Egwene in book 1.

They absolutely do not go to Tar Valon in book 1 or indeed anywhere NEAR it. There are no scenes of the sitters in the hall, the Amyrlin does not appear at all, Moraine is never exiled because she never shows up.

In fact, the whole focus of the story in the show on Logain and his being brought to Tar Valon doesn’t happen in the book. They know he’s been captured, and he is indeed paraded to Tar Valon, but the only main characters who even see him are Rand and Mat, we never meet Liandrin or any of the other sisters, he doesn’t break loose, he doesn’t kill anybody, he isn’t gentled on the road, which means there’s no scene about Moraine getting yelled at for their having done so. And there’s absolutely no way Egwene and Nynaeve could have set foot in the tower and then been allowed to leave, as two of the most powerful channellers they’ve ever seen.

The whole thing just felt very rushed, and very sporadic. They touched lightly on things that needed more depth, they skipped important things entirely, and then added in things that never happened for no readily apparent reason compared to just doing it like the books.

The other main thing that bothered me was their choice to make the show a LOT more violent than the book ever was. I get that action keeps people watching, and the ability to do things like cool magic effects makes you really want to take advantage of using them but just…wow so many people are dead who aren’t actually dead in the books.

They give a much greater impression of the death and destruction toll in Emond’s Field at the start of the season than was ever there in the books. The town becomes a significant feature of later books and a bunch of characters we meet in book one who either aren’t present in the show or are barely mentioned are also important. The Grinwell farm where Mat, Rand and Thom are camped out in the barn? Not only are they all alive in the book instead of dead, they had 9 kids not 1, and instead of Else being a little kid, she’s around the same age as Rand and Mat and crops up in the story later.

The books don’t follow Logain’s journey to Tar Valon like…at all, so all of the battle scenes around his escape, his army trying to free him, and his gentling never happened. Kerene doesn’t die here, and so Stepin doesn’t commit suicide either. (They do die, off-screen several books from now, together) 

Lady Amalisa can’t channel, in the books, so there’s no scene where she burns out some random people and nearly kills Nynaeve. The battle is actually saved by Rand, with no implication that Tarwin’s Gap got overrun. Cool special effects I guess, but so would have been the effects of Rand doing it, without killing Amalisa (who survives the whole series) and some more strangers.

There are so many things that got cut in the transition, that adding in a bunch of death and violence that wasn’t there feels like a strange choice mostly informed by the desire to be ‘like Game of Thrones’ or at least, keep the people who liked Game of Thrones watching until the big major war stuff starts up in book 3+ but basically every time somebody died on screen I had to tell the chat watching it with me ‘that character isn’t dead in the book’ and I just don’t care for it at all.

But then of course comes the worst random death in the show:

The Ugly

When it comes to the things about the conversion I think are bad, those are mostly a matter of opinion and people can agree or disagree. However, there are a few choices they made that are just indefensible to me.

The first one that comes immediately to mind is the frankly ludicrous decision to invent a wife for Perrin so he could fucking MURDER HER in the first act. Why? What is the reason for this choice? Perrin wasn’t married in the book, Perrin didn’t kill anybody until much later in the book, Perrin absolutely didn’t murder an innocent denizen of the Two Rivers in the book under any circumstances.

I mean…I can structure the argument for why it was done. Perrin’s core character conflict is the one between his creator and destroyer sides. He’s a blacksmith, and a warrior. He spends most of the series torn between carrying his axe or his hammer, whether he’s a creator or a hunter. He is extremely good at killing and hates it. This is why the discussions with the Tuatha’an about the Way of the Leaf are important to his character. And since they’re cutting out whole swaths of storyline, they’ve got to show us his inner turmoil somehow, and having him murder his wife, who famously hated making weapons was a very -fast- way to set it up, but fridging of women in media is a bad enough problem without inventing women who weren’t in the story just to fridge them.

The other issue touches on the diversity in the show. More diversity is wonderful, and they’ve done a great job adding in characters of all non-white ethnicities and skin colours and I’m all for it. That said, they’ve got a fairly serious colorism problem here.

In case you’re not aware, colorism is a sort of analogous concept to racism. In the way that racists in a society have systemic prejudice against people of other ethnicities, colorism is when within the ethnicity, there is systemic prejudice against people based on the social assumptions around their skin color. In a great many cases, colorist societies are specifically prejudiced against darker skinned members of their society. 

So in the context of Wheel of Time’s diversity, the issue is that while it’s great that they’ve made a number of characters who were white in the story Black or Indigenous etc when you look at the choices that were made for which characters are lighter or darker skinned we’ve got some problems.

Consider that none of the major characters is dark skinned. In itself this might not be so objectionable, after all in the book they’re basically all white. But look who IS dark skinned. 

We have Eamon Valda, the Questioner for the Children of the Light, who is obviously a clear antagonist. He’s extremely zealous and portrayed as borderline mentally unstable. He captures and tortures characters, we see him burning an Aes Sedai at the stake (which, yes yes ‘witch burnings’ is to my recollection never a thing they do to Aes Sedai) and ordering an assault on the Tuatha’an (also not occuring in the book) and while Abdul Salis is tremendous and portrays the character extremely well, this character is a bad guy who does a lot of bad things. 

Padan Fain, played by Johann Myers, is the peddler who comes to Emond’s Field in the first episode. They didn’t do NEARLY as much with him in the show as in the book to show how nasty and evil he is. There’s his generally jovial presence in Emond’s Field. The shot of a boot walking out of The Ways that implies he followed them, and then he shows up in Fal Dara, steals the Horn and reveals he’s nasty. In the book, we found out that he’s been a Darkfriend for decades, and has done so many horrible things Moraine doesn’t even want to talk about them. He was basically brought to the presence of the Dark One, and turned into a ‘hound’ to search out the Dragon Reborn. He’s been brought back and ‘distilled’ and made into an even more efficient hunter. The compulsion to follow the protagonists is so strong that he had to basically survive by eating bugs and mushrooms he could grab on the run, run until he literally lost consciousness from exhaustion, and as soon as he was able to move again, continue the hunt.

The book is NOT KIND AT ALL to Padan Fain, and he is extremely evil, incredibly vicious and very bad things happen because of him.

Finally, of the non-protagonist characters of significance, we have Siuan Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat, played by Sophie Okonedo. This character at least is not a villain or a monster, though they’ve gone instead down the “must be nobly dignified at all times” sort of like…Amazon Queen trope, who pronounces things in a portentous tone and all must hear and obey and who brooks no disrespect. Which sure, makes sense for the most powerful woman in the world, but in the context we’re looking at here doesn’t do the show any favors. Plus, Siuan in the books is not at all like this. She was a fisherwoman, she grew up poor, around sailors, and had a large extended family of mostly men, so she curses like a sailor and will fuck you right up if you piss her off. So while in the case of Fain and Valda, they gave the roles of horrible villains to the dark skinned actors, Siuan gets pushed into this box of largely emotionless dignity and we only see her even slightly unwind in the scene with Moraine that, also, doesn’t exist in the books. 

And while, for the same reasons I’m all for diversifying a very white book, I’m in favour of queering up a very cishet book, of all the characters to choose, having that relationship be between Moraine and Siuan does a bunch of weird things. In the series they -do- have a sexual history. They were ‘pillow friends’ as novices, which is to say, when you pack up a bunch of teen girls and ship them off to an all-girls school and never let them leave, they’re going to end up much closer than they might otherwise. Which on the one hand, they did have some kind of canon relationship that was sexual, but on the other hand, that relationship continuing even ‘in private’ for decades undercuts the other element of their relationship which is ‘they’ve been plotting together for 20 years to find the Dragon Reborn and have carefully cultivated the public image that they actually can’t stand each other for the whole 20 years.’

So while the scene they had together was great, you only have to look at the way she swore that oath to be exiled to know that there was NO WAY they kept that relationship a secret for 20 years, let alone made everyone think they hated each other. There are a whole pile of other major and minor characters who could have been put into non cishet relationships if they wanted to increase queer representation, and while I get why they picked that one, I don’t think it actually adds to their dynamic, and in fact undercuts it in ways I don’t like.

So does all of this mean I think the show is bad? Not really. It’s decent, it has some great casting, and the broad strokes of the story are still interesting. The degree to which they’ve changed things around gives me some tentative hope for the ‘correcting’ of a few major plot issues that I never liked from the books, including the ending assuming the show ever gets that far. But I definitely don’t believe watching the show gives a proper sense of what was in the book.

If you watched season 1 and thought that meant you could get into the books with book 2, you are going to be -extremely- confused about the story, more than you probably already are seeing season 1 on its own.

I had intended to include a like…somewhat comprehensive list of significant deviations from the book in the conversion but oh boy we’re already at nearly 4000 words, so while I -will- put that together, I think I’ll expand it from a list into more of an overview, listing the changes and also some comments on them and how they impact the story going forward, so look for that in another day or two.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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