‘The Wheel of Time’ and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Adaptation

The Wheel of Time adaptation finally hits Amazon Prime Video tomorrow, and for someone who’s been a fan of the series for over 30 years, the journey to this day has been a lesson in getting what you want when you least expect it.

The Wheel of Time TV series is set to premiere Friday, November 19, with Prime Video dropping three episodes immediately and releasing the next five on a weekly basis until December 24. The current TV adaptation was announced back in 2017 with Rafe Judkins attached to write and executive produce, and I remember hearing that it was in the works, but I refused to follow very closely because I had already been burned several times before.

Back in 2004, Red Eagle Entertainment bought the film, TV, video game, and comic book rights to The Wheel of Time. Over the years they indicated interest in developing a movie or TV show based on the books, and occasionally, I would hear about their plans and get excited, only for nothing to happen. Then, in 2015, they aired a hastily shot “pilot” episode in the middle of the night without the knowledge of Robert Jordan’s estate, in an attempt to retain the TV rights. The whole thing was so shady and weird that I had given up hope completely of ever seeing Wheel of Time on the screen.

The Wheel of Time is Robert Jordan’s sprawling and masterful 14-book series (15, if you count the prequel, which is a healthy 300+ pages in its own right) published over 23 years from 1990 to 2013. Jordan himself died in 2007 after two years living with terminal heart disease. During this time, he made extensive notes for the ending of his series in the hopes that someone else would be able to write it up in the way he planned, and after his death, the last three books in the series were completed by Brandon Sanderson.

The Wheel of Time novels, beginning with The Eye of the World, are high fantasy in the tradition of Lord of the Rings. There’s a chosen hero, a landscape to be traversed, monstrous enemies, and an elder infused with magic trying to guide our hero to their destiny.

But one of the things that made Wheel of Time stand out for me from among the various fantasy novels I was reading at the time was the balance of male and female characters and the handling of friendships between men, between women, and between men and women. Balance is a theme of the novels, so it’s not surprising that Jordan hit the theme over and over again in various ways. The main characters are more or less split along gender lines, and while (spoiler alert) our main “hero” will be a man, every main character has an important role to play and the women are just as powerful as the men.

While the men and women are equally balanced in power, Wheel of Time does rely a bit too heavily on traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics for my current more complicated and nuanced modern thoughts on gender. But to quote my favorite recent article encouraging people to watch an older movie to appreciate a new fave: “​​Look, does it hold up? Probably not! Does anything?!”

For me, at the time, it was refreshing to see women who had strengths and flaws in positions of leadership going head-to-head with men who also had strengths and flaws. In some ways, I think Jordan was going out of his way to make a particular point that men and women were equals (for good and ill) even in situations where they had different roles in society. That’s something I can still appreciate, even if I take issue with the idea that men and women should have different roles.

The feeling I always got from interviews with Robert Jordan was that he would have described himself as a progressive thinker, and he was clearly heavily influenced by his relationship with his wife and editor Harriet McDougal. They were a strong team who were closely aligned on the direction of the books.

There are a lot of potential pitfalls fantasy novels can fall into – because most Western fantasy novels draw inspiration from different real-life cultures, and in particular white cultural views of non-white cultures, the different races and cultures within a fantasy novel can feel racist or stereotypical regardless of the authors intent (and sometimes that was the intent). But in Wheel of Time, the length of each novel as well as the sheer number of novels meant that there was an abundance of world building and luckily very few races or cultures are left one-dimensional. Jordan did often rely on common tropes to introduce a new culture, but his constant striving for balance offered us a nuanced perspective on every group we follow for any length of time.

We get to see individuals within the group making positive and negative choices based on very human motivations. Many characters find themselves torn between upholding long-held cultural beliefs and the need to break from those, but Jordan never provides an easy answer for which one is right. Each character is truly given the freedom to be a complex individual with the potential for both good and evil.

With this strong, character-driven foundation, the adaptation is well placed to push certain aspects of the storyline into an even more modern sensibility. For example, while homosexuality is mentioned and not villainized, it also is extremely tangential. Even in the canonical F/F/F/M polycule (do I have your attention?), it is a little unclear what the sexual relationship between the women is, although the emotional relationship is quite close. I think the adaptation has the potential to push at a few doors Jordan left semi-open and give us some great representation that is well within the spirit of the novels, if not explicitly laid out on the pages.

When I heard about Amazon’s The Wheel of Time casting, I remember sitting up straight in my chair like, “Wait. This is actually happening!” The casting itself is a revelation. With the exception of Rand and Moiraine, no one looks much like the character I had in my mind’s eye. I’m going to be honest, I had pictured pretty much every character as white. That was, very obviously, my bad. As soon as I saw the casting photos my whole perspective realigned. My third eye opened. Each actor was so clearly perfect that I was instantly converted to Rafe Judkins’ vision.

I could wax poetic about each casting choice, but I’m going to limit myself to one: Daniel Henney as Lan Mandragoran. Was I previously familiar with Henney’s work? No. Did I instantly fall hopelessly in love? Yes. Do I have a real weak spot for stoic, seemingly emotionally unavailable men whose character arcs reveal hidden emotional depths? You betcha. Everything I’ve seen so far leads me to believe my favorite Wheel of Time character is in excellent hands.

Since the casting I’ve made sure to follow Rafe Judkins’ Twitter and Instagram, where he has helpfully gushed about his love of the books and his dedication to making an adaptation for long-time fans, of which he is one. While the process of adapting a 14 book series to the small screen is bound to involve changes that long-time fans will regret, Judkins seems to have his heart and mind always pointed towards an adaptation that respects and embodies the spirit of the series. When an unadapted property has been beloved for so many people for so long, the fraught investment of those long-term fans has got to be such a high stakes factor for a showrunner, but in many personal ways, I’m glad it’s taken so long to happen, because it’s given me the chance to grow and change in terms of how I relate to media.

I found The Eye of the World in 1991 by way of my brother’s bookshelf. I needed a road trip book, and as soon as I picked up this giant, oversized paperback, I knew it was the one. I was 19 the first time I read it. and for many, many years, I was only ever a few months between rereads, because each time a new book came out, I would start the whole series over again to prepare. I eventually gave up the consistent rereads (parenthood, amirite?), but I still devoured every new book the minute I could get my hands on it. In the 30 years since I fell in love with the series, I have longed to see a live-action adaptation and, for me, this adaptation is coming at the perfect time.

Nineteen year old me was a purist. I watched adaptations and said things like, “The book was better,” and, “I don’t know how I’m supposed to take this seriously when he has straight hair!” Here, in the no judgement zone, I will tell you that I was a huge Anne Rice fan and desperately awaited the movie version of Interview with a Vampire. And while I can say that to this day, I do have an extreme fondness in my heart for the movie, after I watched it I spent a lot of time enumerating all the ways it fell short of the book. Somewhere along the way, I got tired of being disappointed. I learned that movies are not books and that change and compromise can sometimes result in something even better. Somewhere along the way, I also learned that canon isn’t all there is, so I don’t have to pin all my hopes on any one thing in particular.

But in the summer of 1991, I was sandwiched between my parents in a U-haul truck, driving 1800 miles across the desert to Southern California. It wasn’t, to be honest, ideal reading conditions. The sun was relentless, the truck bumpy, the air conditioning inadequate, and the middle seat too small, but I read and I read, falling in love with Emond’s Field, Rand and his stubborn friends, Moiraine and Lan. Especially Lan. Did I mention Lan?

I spent the next four months, when I should have been enjoying my sophomore year of college, helping my parents settle in a new city. After a year away from my parents, I suddenly felt like an infant again. Living at home, in a new city, where I had no friends, no car, and no school, which was rough because up until then “good at school” had been my defining character trait. The internet was still in its infancy, and it cost roughly one billion dollars per minute to call my boyfriend long-distance. What I’m saying is, I had time to develop an obsession.

By the time I read The Eye of the World, the second book (The Great Hunt) was already out. Just a few months later, the third book, The Dragon Reborn, was released. Those books kept me company for four months while my life was more or less on hold. Reading them while I was in such a strange pause in my life instantly gave them more emotional weight.

My extensive free time also meant I could sit at our Tandy 1000 with dial-up AOL and try to connect with other fans. It was sort of disastrous. I don’t even really remember the particulars, except that it felt a touch gatekeepy and I eventually gave up and just held my love inside for myself and the occasional real-life friend who tried to talk to me at the wrong time.

One of the foundational things I learned by coming into this obsession around the same time that the world wide web was blossoming was that no matter how weird you are about something, lots of people are weirder. My interest may have seemed overwhelming for all of my IRL friends, but on the internet I didn’t even feel worthy of calling my fannishness obsession compared to the intensity of some others. This cognitive dissonance has absolutely followed me throughout every fandom experience I have had since. I consider it a healthy check to my ego. You’re nothing special, girl. Enjoy your thing and don’t worry about it.

In the real world, though, I struggled to find anyone to connect with about it, one exception being a friend’s boyfriend. For some reason, there were persistent rumors that Robert Jordan was dying. The rumors weren’t true, until they were. I remember stopping by my friend’s table at my wedding in 1995 to commiserate with her boyfriend about how sad it was that our favorite author might be dying. Turns out he wasn’t dying, although he would succumb to a terminal illness just over 10 years later.

Because of the early rumors of his impending death, by the time Jordan did announce that he had been diagnosed with a rare, incurable disease, I had already experienced the roller coaster of emotions that comes from fearing the early demise of something you love. I had my selfish freak-out in 1995, worried about losing out on these books I loved, but by 2006 when he announced his illness, I was older and wiser. I’d watched friends lose parents and I’d experienced death on profound, life-changing levels. I only had room left to be sad for his family and friends.

But also, perhaps because Jordan had to address these rumors before they became true, he was always very clear that he had plans for the story to be finished no matter what happened to him, and I did take solace in the fact that even if he couldn’t finish them himself, Harriet would ensure they would be finished. By that point, it felt disrespectful to gatekeep over who or when. I would have been happy with a bullet point outline of how the (many, many) plot lines wrapped up, so when someone who was already a well-known, gifted author was chosen, I was more than ready to accept Sanderson into my heart.

Maybe if I had re-entered online fandom at some point it would have been helpful to have an online support community around this time, but I also think it might have been harder. By this time I was pretty good at hoarding Wheel of Time all to myself. Not having to process big fandom emotions about his death or discourse about Sanderson’s credentials gave me the chance to privately come to terms with it and say pat, pat, pat, everything is going to be okay.

Thirty years after starting The Wheel of Time, it seems laughable now that I just had to like this thing in my own head. When I pick up a new book now, or a tv show or a movie, I can find so much content to gorge myself on. I’ve become greedy. I suck up articles, memes, interviews, and fanfiction until I’m bursting, befriending other fans online and at events. Because of my early experience of hoarding my Wheel of Time love inside myself, I’ve never really expanded into the online Wheel of Time fandom, so it has been fun to see how popular the series really is and to watch the excitement for the premiere to ratchet up.

One of the nice things about the lead up to the new series is discovering a friend I made through an unrelated fandom is also a long-time Wheel of Time fan. It’s fun to have someone to scream at who I know will understand, even though I still haven’t felt any great need to spread roots in Wheel of Time online fandom spaces. But even from a distance, I have enjoyed seeing how many fans there are and how much they love it. I’m like a mom watching her teenager have fun at a party with no desire to participate in order to appreciate it. Aw, the kids are having so much fun. Good for them.

When I was younger, adaptations were rare and precious. If a book I loved was getting turned into a movie, that was all I had. In my mind, it had to be perfect. But transformative fandom has, for many, for me, become adaptations. Exploration and adaptation of the source material has become an act of love and amplification. It doesn’t take away from the original, it expands it.

This is the angle that Neil Gaiman has encouraged fans to take regarding his recently adapted 30-year cult classics, Good Omens and The Sandman, when it comes to feeling protective over the version that lives in their heads. The books are still right there, exactly as they always were. What is this new show but a fanfic with money behind it? By all accounts, this show is being made by fans, for fans, so that is the spirit in which I am taking it. I’m so much better situated to love whatever they throw at me now than I was as a younger reader.

Adapt away, Rafe Judkins, give me what I didn’t even know I wanted.

‘The Wheel of Time’ season 1 premiere airs at 12:00am ET November 19 on Amazon Prime Video

This article was written by Subjectify contributor Nichole David.