I hate to be the bearer of bad news.
And this is going to be some pretty bad news, especially for the kind of people who read this blog.
Because if you have any interest at all in me and my attempts at publication, then you’re probably the kind of person who reads a lot of books. Speculative fiction books. Escapist books. Books with magic and mystery and a lot of what I call “The Good Stuff”.
And so I probably don’t have to waste any time introducing a book series that you probably already know about. So I won’t.
Let’s instead talk about a TV show you haven’t seen yet.
Das Rad der Zeit
In the past week, casting announcements were made for a TV series based on The Wheel of Time—a fourteen-book epic fantasy series (fifteen, if you count the prequel novel) started by Robert Jordan and finished by Brandon Sanderson.
It was one of the most popular fantasy series ever written, and fans have been clamoring for it to receive greater recognition in wider society. Film adaptations have been on the table in previous years. But as long-form television continues to steal market share from cinema movies, and as long-form book series are easier to adapt into TV seasons by nature, discussions of a Wheel of Time TV series have been ongoing for the past decade or so.
With the success of other dramatic fantasy television shows, such as Game of Thrones, it’s easy to see why the WoT adaptation has been greenlit now. Money hungry studios are eager to capitalize on what they see as a trend. Devoted fans are eager to see their beloved books brought to live. And everyone is excited by the prospect of a fully realized dramatization to do the story justice.
The atmosphere is not much different than how people felt right after the RMS Titanic was built.
Doomed to Failure
Like I said, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but The Wheel of Time TV series is doomed to failure.
This is not a judgement on the WoT franchise itself. I’ve read the books, and I know that people like them for the right reasons: well-written characters, intricate worldbuilding, and a handful of memorable moments—you know, places in the story where everything comes together, and something crazy happens that transforms the story into something you didn’t think it could be. Good narratives are built on such moments.
But they won’t do any good here.
Because even a fantastic story can still be impossible to adapt. Even an epic book might not be a cinematic epic. Both movies and TV shows can only operate within a narrow set of story structures. And The Wheel of Time is incompatible with those structures.
The Things You Forgot about The Wheel of Time
The series is old enough to be considered a nostalgic literary property. And because so many people have spent so long a time away from the books, the rose-colored glasses of memory are concealing a fatal truth:
The Wheel of Time is a series of increasingly frustrating detours.
Even the books’ most ardent apologists recognize that the series starts to go off the rails sometime after the fourth installment. More neutral parties will see that these flaws exist even in the first three books.
From the beginning, the narrative is lore heavy, requiring even the early books to publish an accompanying encyclopedia/glossary in each volume.
It is also dialog heavy, with the bulk of each book’s “screen time” involving the characters sitting around and expositioning about the particular place or situation they find themselves in.
And, most regrettably, the books have a bad habit of introducing new elements rather than resolve the elements already in play. The story is always supposedly building up to an epic final confrontation. Yet each book spends most of its time throwing new characters, locales, and magic systems into the mix. The author frequently gets bored with the toys he was already playing with, and decides instead to buy some new ones.
The main characters can disappear for chapters—or even books—at a time. Any moment when it seems you might get some resolution regarding one of your favorites, it gets put on hold so that we can meet some new face who will never have their story resolved, either.
The books are also low on action. Fans will point out specific action scenes, but a pound-for-pound comparison of “moments where the characters are facing down a threat” versus “moments where the characters are standing around talking about their tea” reveals the sheer amount of landfill that was put into the series.
And that does not Translate
Visual storytelling needs to be dynamic. Too much standing around, and the interest of the audience is lost. It also cannot have too many characters or plot threads going at once.
This is why Charles Dickens’ novels always need to cut out half the cast when they get turned into movies. Movies don’t let you go back and reread passages explaining who all these hundreds of people were.
The WoT TV show will need not only an overarching conflict and climax, but also a smaller, individualized conflict and climax for every episode. And simply having the trollocs attack every time things get boring will get old fast (and boy, did it ever get old when the books did it).
The first four books had a few climactic moments each. The later books usually only had one (except for Crossroads of Twilight, which had none at all). This is not a sound basis for creating a long-form epic fantasy televised serial drama.
A Failure in the Making
I realize that being a flawed book series is not the same thing as being an unsuccessful TV series. There is an argument to be made there.
But the fault tolerance of books is not the same as the fault tolerance of a movie or TV show. The flaws in the WoT books were the kinds of flaws that the nature of that medium could mitigate. Those same flaws will not so easily be forgiven when they are translated onto the screen.
(The opposite is also true: certain flaws endemic to TV shows are often hidden by the nature of their medium. When you try to convert the story to a written form, they become unpardonable.)
The only way to bypass this problem completely is to change the show to make it radically different from the books. But that would also be a mistake because the show cannot be successful without the fans of the books, and those fans will be displeased by any significant changes.
There are no winning moves in this game.