Why "The Wheel of Time" succeeds as an adaptation (and "The Witcher" fails)

Not all adaptations are created equal

Published January 7, 2022 8:00PM (EST)

Johann Myers as Padan Fain in "The Wheel of Time" (Amazon / Sony Pictures Television)
Johann Myers as Padan Fain in "The Wheel of Time" (Amazon / Sony Pictures Television)

This story originally appeared on Winter is Coming.

Not all adaptations are created equal. For every "Game of Thrones," which translated its source material fairly faithfully (until it ran out), there are legions of adaptations like "The Golden Compass" or "The Legend of Earthsea," where the soul of the original work has been sucked out, not to mention groan-worthy cash grabs like "The Hobbit" trilogy.

Since the success of HBO's fantasy phenomenon, we've seen a swell of companies adapting fantasy and science fiction stories that they might never have had the daring to before. At the end of 2021, two big ones dominated the conversation: Amazon's "The Wheel of Time," based on the 15-book series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson; and the second season of Netflix's "The Witcher," based on the bestselling short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. While both adaptations include large changes from their respective source books, one managed it far more successfully. We're here today to discuss why.

A note before we begin: Opinions and tastes are subjective, especially with reviews like this. Both of these shows have done things that some fans have liked and others have loathed. I'm not here to try and convince you that you should or shouldn't like a show; enjoy what you enjoy. What I am going to do is dissect how these shows are in conversation with their source material.

With that out of the way, let's talk about why "The Wheel of Time" succeeds as an adaptation while "The Witche"r fails. Of course, you should be warned that there will be SPOILERS for both shows as well as their respective book series below

Who is the Dragon Reborn?

Let's start with "The Wheel of Time." This is the tale of a group of young people who are whisked away from their sleepy village by a sorceress and her steely-eyed bodyguard; as you can tell, it starts out about as familiar as fantasy stories get. As we already started to find out this season, things grow more interesting the farther you get into the story, but at the start, "The Wheel of Time" might not feel like it's reinventing the wheel much.

But how does the show stack up as an adaptation? There were some major changes made in the first season, including the cutting of locations and characters, several deaths, compressing storylines, and at least one major plot deviation that was likely the result of main cast member Barney Harris having to leave the production. In short, it felt like "The Wheel of Time" had to make some really difficult choices to adapt a basically unadaptable story. Was I sad to not see the city of Caemlyn this season? Sure. But it also made sense that the show could only go to so many locations in eight episodes and needed to focus on the ones it could get the most use out of. For instance, many of the events that happen in Caemlyn in the first book happen in Tar Valon on the show, Tar Valon being a city the story returns to again and again. Why not save some money and build a set you know you'll be using for the long haul?

The inclusion of plotlines from other books, like the Aes Sedai politicking or Moiraine and Siuan's romance, also served the story well. "The Wheel of Time" feels like an adaptation of the series as a whole, not a book-by-book thing. Which was always going to be the case, right? Showrunner Rafe Judkins has gone on record as saying that he hopes the show can last for around eight or so seasons. There are 15 books, including a prequel revolving around Moiraine. We were never going to see a one-to-one adaptation of this story; for logistical reasons, it's just not possible.

On the flip side, what changes the show is making mostly feel like they are coming from the source material in some way or another. Moiraine and Siuan's romance is a great example. This is book canon, but held very much in the background of the prequel novel "New Spring." Judkins and his team took those "kernels" that Robert Jordan peppered throughout his series and blew them up to make more meaningful story arcs. For the most part, it really feels like that worked.

That's not to say there weren't hiccups. There were changes in the season finale I didn't love, like separating the team for the journey into the Blight and cutting out two of the Forsaken. But again, they were mostly understandable since the show is playing up the ensemble nature of the story. The first book, "The Eye of the World," focuses extremely heavily on Rand's point of view, while the rest of the series is told from many perspectives. The show made the conscious decision to be an ensemble piece from the get-go, to give viewers a more honest idea of what to expect from the show overall.

In conclusion, it feels an awful lot like the changes and choices made by "The Wheel of Time" team were done with a lot of care and reverence for the source material. There was never a feeling that they were changing things for the hell of it, but because they were doing the best they could with the medium in which they were working.

Sometimes, the changes even ended up working out better for the story, as with the mystery over who the Dragon Reborn was. This was something the show played way up, and it worked really well. In the books it's far more obvious that it's Rand, since we spent more time with him. Here, first-time viewers could plausibly be in suspense.

There's still a sense that "The Wheel of Time" is finding its footing . . . but to my mind it has never been a question that the show is trying really hard to do its best by Robert Jordan's story.

Who needs the books?

Then we have "The Witcher." The easiest way I can think to describe what "The Witcher" did with its second season is that it looked at the book, shrugged, said "meh, we can do it better," and then tossed the damn thing out the window.

It did not do it better.

Just like "The Wheel of Time," there were plenty of changes made here that were pretty understandable. Many fans have been upset that the Nilfgaardian Emperor Emhyr var Emries (aka the White Flame) was revealed to be Ciri's father in the season finale . . . something we don't learn until literally the end of the final book of the series. But as jarring as that might be for book fans, it's something that makes total sense for the show to do because in the novels the reveal hinges on different people calling Emhyr different names. When you finally realize who he is it's only because Geralt calls him a name he once used in his past. It's a great example of an author capitalizing on the unique strengths of the written medium, but that won't work in a television show because we see the guy's face. Think of what "Game of Thrones" did with Barristan Selmy / Arstan Whitebeard; you just can't hide a person's identity onscreen in the same way you can in a book.

Conversely, there are ways that a reveal can be more effective onscreen than it can on the page; I think "The Witcher" is pulling off the reveal of Rience and Lydia's employer quite well.

So what's my problem with "The Witcher"? Well, the biggest is that the show basically sidestepped most of the novel on which it's based, "Blood of Elves." You remember that cool Kaer Morhen set we spent so much time in? It's only in one chapter of the entire novel. The rest sees Geralt and Ciri journeying across the land, before Ciri separates to train with Yennefer and Geralt attempts to stop nefarious forces from pursuing his adopted daughter.

This wouldn't be so much of an issue, if it wasn't for the fact that the show downplayed some of the novel's most important parts, or didn't even get to others. For instance, the Redanian city of Oxenfurt is a huge part of "Blood of Elves." It's a cultural center for the Continent. It's home to the Academy, which trains everyone from bards to scholars to advisors to kings and queens. Geralt meets Djikstra and Philippa Eilhart there; he's also ambushed by the Michelet Brothers in a scene that is very clearly meant to show that humans can be just as dangerous to him as monsters. Sure, it was hinted that the meeting with Djikstra will happen next season, but by then they'll also need to have a very different encounter which happens at the end of the next book, "The Time of Contempt." The relationship between those characters is now fundamentally changed, and Oxenfurt was relegated to a stereotypical medieval city with no worldbuilding whatsoever.

It's kind of baffling that "Blood of Elves" is a relatively short and straightforward book, yet the show managed to not even cover all of it, to leave out huge chunks and outright disregard others. It would be understandable if the show ran out of space, but the issue was that it chose to tell a ton of other stories instead. That entire Baba Yaga plotline with Yennefer? Not in the books. The monoliths? Not in the books. It's safe to say that most scenes you can think of from the season are not in the books at all, and what few are have been so boiled down that all the tension is sucked out of them. It's very clear that the show prioritized its own ideas over anything Andrzej Sapkowski laid out in his novels, which stands in stark contrast to "The Wheel of Time," where many changes were at least still rooted in Robert Jordan's work.

There is a reason for this, of course, and it's one that "The Witcher" showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has spoken openly about: the writers believed "Blood of Elves" to be too slow for television audiences to stomach. They'd lose interest, so the choice was made to liven things up by adding in extra plotlines and action sequences. The irony is that what parts of "Blood of Elves" the show adapted were done so carelessly and without regard for what made them interesting in the first place that I almost believe it. (The sole exception being Rience's interrogation of Jaskier.) And so we got the story we got in the show, which feels more like fanfic than an actual adaptation.

The straw that broke The Witcher's back

The place where "The Witcher" really runs into problems is when it does things that outright undermine its source material. This was more of a problem last season and in "Nightmare of the Wolf," but its effects linger. In "Nightmare," certain witchers are creating monsters in order to keep their coffers filled. In the novels, this is a rumor that is spread about witchers, which leads a group of opportunistic sorcerers to bring a mob of villagers to the keep with torches and pitchforks. The whole point of this plot is to show how irrational fears of the other can lead to irrational violence (a huge theme of the novels). Instead, the film justified the pogrom.

Nilfgaard is another pretty clear example where "The Witcher" has tripped up. In Andrzej Sapkowski's novels, the empire is an economic powerhouse. They conquer countries and then bolster their economy and give them better infrastructure. It makes the whole expansion of the empire an extremely complicated issue. Contrast that with the show's depiction of Nilfgaardians as religious zealots, vastly simplifying their ideals to the point where they are unrecognizable and utterly unsympathetic. The show took a complex issue and dumbed it down to the point where it no longer forces viewers to think critically about the complexities of the story. The same can be said of Francesca's baby-vengeance plotline. In the novels, the elves work with Nilfgaard because they are promised the return of their ancestral home, Dol Blathanna. This is touched on in the show, but is undermined by the baby plotline.

I could go on and on; the show is littered with this stuff. Eskel and Lambert's personalities are swapped for no discernible reason, Jaskier slut-shames Yennefer in the first season while his book counterpart defends her from slut-shaming in the exact same scene.

Suffice it to say, for all the stylistic and aesthetic things "The Witcher" does right, it really drops the ball when it comes to interpreting its source material.

It's not all bad news

I've spent quite a bit of time ragging on "The Witcher," but I'd be remiss not to mention some things that the show is doing right. Henry Cavill's portrayal of Geralt of Rivia has been nothing short of perfect. Triss Merigold has a much stronger plotline, and actor Anna Shaffer has really grown into the role. The introduction of the monoliths and the multiple worlds, while a bit frustrating for how much time it took up this season, does make sense. The multiversal aspect of "The Witcher" novels comes a bit out of left field in the books even though it's a major plot element for the back half of the series. It's to the show's credit that it's setting it up earlier. And of course, the costuming, monster design and special effects are really stepped up this year. There's no denying that "The Witcher's" second season is a huge improvement over the first.

While "The Wheel of Time" has an extremely challenging task adapting a gargantuan book series, "The Witcher" has a similarly unique challenge in appeasing multiple fandoms. "The Witcher" books have many fans the world over, but the wildly popular video game adaptation by CD Projekt Red is equally (if not more) well-loved. I can't imagine it's an easy task to try to please not one but two rabid fanbases with different ideas of what the story should look like. The controversy surrounding the death of Eskel is a perfect example. He's hardly in the books but a fixture of the game series, so to my eye it seems the vast majority of the people getting upset about it are the gamers. I don't agree with how the show handled that, or the reasoning for why it had to be Eskel who died, but I'm sympathetic to the writers who need to untangle these thorny issues.

"The Wheel of Time" vs. "The Witcher" — Which is a better adaptation?

In conclusion, it feels like the producers behind "The Wheel of Time" made difficult choices to adapt a borderline unadaptable story; hiccups and all, their passion for the source material is obvious. "The Witcher," on the other hand, feels like a show at war with itself . . . a war where the only loser is the novels.

There are still many seasons to come for these shows, and reasons to be optimistic for both . . . but for my money, "The Wheel of Time" is doing a much better job of honoring its source material.

By Daniel Roman

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