For the last couple years, networks have tried to create "the next 'Game of Thrones'" by snapping up fantasy properties and giving them the long-form TV treatment. There have been some hits ("The Witcher") and misses ("The Shannara Chronicles"), but nothing that has captured the world's attention quite so completely as "Game of Thrones" did.
And then there's "The Wheel of Time," Robert Jordan's 14-book fantasy epic. This is the make-or-break one. Amazon's "Wheel of Time" show needs to be a hit, not only so the company can recoup its considerable costs, but so fans who have waited literal decades for a (proper) adaptation feel vindicated, and maybe even to keep this high fantasy roll going.
Well, I've now watched the first three episodes of "The Wheel of Time," and I can report that the show is . . . good. I dunno if I'm prepared to call it great yet, but it's good, and it's made with clear passion on the part of the cast and crew. And I am very relieved.
What is "The Wheel of Time"?
"The Wheel of Time" is a story of grand ambitions — I mentioned it was 14 books long, right? — but it begins simply enough. A sorceress names Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) comes to the Shire-ish village of Emond's Field looking for the Dragon Reborn, a messianic figure destined to either destroy the world or save it from the Sauron-esque Dark One. Moiraine knows the Dragon is here but doesn't know exactly who it is: is it the mild-mannered farmer's son Rand al'Thor (Josha Stradowski)? Maybe the innkeeper's daughter Egwene al'Vere (Madeleine Madden)? Perhaps the town troublemaker Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris)? No question an epic quest won't answer, eh?
I made a few "Lord of the Rings" references up there, and indeed, the first book in "The Wheel of Time" series borrows heavily from J.R.R. Tolkien's milestone work. But that's not a bad thing — there's comfort in the familiar — and the story soon branches off in its own unique direction.
The show feels similar, but with a twist. This time, I couldn't stop seeing influences from "Game of Thrones," particularly in the premiere episode. Without giving away too much, they manage to fit in a prolonged battle scene (the fight in question happens in the books but we don't see it) and some pointless nudity which is definitely nowhere to be found in the pages of "The Eye of the World." "The Wheel of Time" books may have started coming out before "A Song of Ice and Fire," but "The Wheel of Time" TV show is living in the shadow of "Game of Thrones" and that's just the way it is.
Things slow down a bit in the second episode and the show finds its own groove. The acting helps, particularly from Pike. As Moiraine, she can deliver long, deeply felt monologues about fantasy nonsense and make you buy it. She's definitely the show's secret weapon.
The first few episodes do a good job with the rest of the cast, too, and even improve on the book versions in a couple of instances. I liked what the show does to soften up Mat, who I often find grating in the books. Stradowski is winning as Rand, if a bit bland, which sounds about right. Alexandre Willaume makes some interesting choices as Thom Merrilin that I enjoyed. The Wheel of Time feels like an ensemble show, as it should; nobody steals the limelight.
Do you need to read the books to watch "The Wheel of Time"?
By the way, if you're wondering, I've read the first few "Wheel of Time" books but haven't yet made my way through the whole series. I watched the first three episodes with someone who likes epic fantasy but who hasn't read the books, and it went over well with them too. I don't think you need to be a "Wheel of Time" expert to enjoy this, which is good news for Amazon.
Not everything is perfect. The first episode especially I thought was a bit uneven, as the show trumps up some teenage angst that didn't feel quite native in this world. But even then, I never doubted that the cast and crew were devoted to this story and giving it their all. There's an earnestness to "The Wheel of Time" that I like.
And of course the sky-high budget helps sell things. Book-readers, I doubt you'll be disappointed with Shadar Logoth, that's all I'm saying.
So overall, I enjoyed "The Wheel of Time" and am eager to watch more. I think it's too early to tell if this is a great series in its own right or an also-ran surviving off the fumes of "Game of Thrones," but it has me interested.
The first three episodes of "The Wheel of Time" drop this Friday on Amazon Prime Video. I'm looking forward to hearing what you all think!