*In this article I will refer to major spoiler moments from both Amazon Prime’s TV series and Robert Jordan’s book series The Wheel of Time. If you wish to remain spoiler-free don’t read past this point*
Film production holds a unique ability to bring a viewer into the moment. Watching recorded events unfold before their eyes creates an illusion of immediacy that transports the viewer to the place in which plot happens. Camera, script, sound, light and design all play a strong role in shaping how a viewer experiences this moment. A skilled storyteller knows how to mould and craft the subtle interweaving senses of their product in a way that evokes emotional engagement in the viewer and builds empathy for the plight of the protagonists. When senses are woven together in a way that feels incomplete, or lacking this subtle awareness, a viewer is detached from the narrative. They begin to question the events unfolding, lose empathy for the characters and ultimately, stop watching. Sadly, the latter is a major issue that concerns the reception of Amazon Prime’s recent adaptation of The Wheel of Time, a fan-beloved fantasy series by Robert Jordan first published in 1990.
Robert Jordan is renowned, almost to a fault, for highly detailed and layered world building. Not often do show creators have such a wealth of existing material to work with. Every location visited in the books has a detailed description and history, as well as evocative descriptions that let a reader know how a character experiences that place. Huge sets have been constructed for the TV show representing just a few of these areas, and from the glimpses that we see of them in the show it appears a great deal of care and attention to source material has gone into their building. Actors have time and time again impressed fans by how deeply they are able to use the narrative in the books to understand and embody their characters. However, when it comes to the actual screenwriting and cinematography, far too often the story seems content with juxtaposing these incredible sceneries with clunky monologues and camera angles that strive to merely touch base and tell what the characters are doing instead of taking the time to immerse the viewer in the moment and build that all too needed empathy. Producing any kind of film production involves an enormous amount of work from hundreds of individuals and departments, yet no matter how much dedication and care for source material any single department puts in, there is nothing that can make up for a neglected script.
In the following article I want to address three major areas in which I feel that the Wheel of Time TV series was lacking in terms of scripting, cinematography and directing and voice my opinion on examples of what could have been done to improve the flow of storytelling in the series.
Lesson #01 – Your plot is Ta’veren
Story writing is not just about proving you can get your characters from A to B, it’s being are of how you are shaping the journey for your audience. In Robert Jordan’s books, each individual has a thread within the pattern of the world, but some people are more tightly bound to this pattern than others. These people are known as ta’veren. The wheel that weaves the pattern has a goal in mind for ta’veren and they will be tugged and pulled until they fulfill that goal. Other character threads that come close to them will be unwittingly wrapped and distorted around the ta’veren to fit these goals. Ta’veren can be taken as an in-world explanation of the role of a protagonist in connection to the overarching plot of a story. To create a strong story, viewers should be able to follow their protagonists on a journey with every action and sub-plot being something that twists and turns around a singular goal.
One major challenge of the TV series was to turn the effectively single perspective of The Eye of the World, into something multi that would prepare the reader for the coming seasons. However, instead of creating subtly interweaving plot lines that build toward a shared goal, the writing feels somewhat scattered and inconsistent in where it tries to guide the viewer’s attention. Main story lines and important character arcs happen off-screen whilst temporary side characters are fleshed out and given much more emphasis than is necessary to tell the story.
Episodes 5 and 6, for example, see our protagonists arrive in the city of Tar Valon where we follow the inner politics of the White Tower. A large amount of screen time is given to Steppen, a side-character in grieving, along with Moiraine’s trial and relationship with Siuan, the Amyrlin Seat. Whilst there are some beautiful moments that arise from these interactions, the heavy focus on these sub-plots means that our key protagonists from the Two Rivers are forced to take a step back. Whilst they are still present and doing things, their actions are not central to the main storyline being presented and they do not contribute to the forward momentum of the plot, even though they are intrinsic to that plot.
In order to keep a viewer’s interest in our protagonists plight, a greater level of empathy needs to be built for their plight. For it to not feel like a jarring change of pace when Moiraine rushes them off toward the waygate (and final battle) at the end of the episode, they need to be more intrinsically tied to that decision to leave. That means tying in greater levels of subplots that link our protagonists to the events occurring on screen at all times. One way to do this could be to bring darkfriends into Tar Valon. Show our protagonists are being hounded by followers of the Dark One, either as occupants of the city, inn guests, or even hinting already toward the Black Ajah. The constant immediacy of the rising threat of the dark would create a stronger impetus for Moiraine to get away from the White Tower ASAP. Rather than her swearing to never return on the oath rod (which both contradicts some major background lore and feels a somewhat extreme reaction to the crimes she is accused of), have her sneak away before the sentencing with Siuan’s ‘permission’. The consequences of skipping a formal hearing could be dire enough to forbid her return, but it is a necessary action to protect the potential Dragon(s). If Siuan fails to pursue or actively punish Moiraine, this could be motivations for building tensions against against her later on. The result would effectively be the same, but we would have greater empathy for the over-arching plot.
Lesson #02- Embodied Storytelling
The way a scene is filmed can have a great impact on shaping perspective and emotions. Despite the detail gone into the scenery, at times it feels that the photography has not been best planned to make use of location. From the perspective of someone who has worked within the film industry for 7 years, it feels as if the cinematographer aimed to merely capture what’s happening in the scene without sensitive reflection for how to shape that happening. Shadar Logoth is a prime example of this for me. The ruined city is a home of an corrupt force that terrifies even creatures of the Dark One himself. There is a great deal of lore surrounding the place in the book and detailed descriptions of exactly how the characters find the place unsettling (Rand, for example, feels unseen eyes prickling at the back of his neck when mashadar is close by). When we enter the city in the series, however, our main exposition is shots of the characters walking through the streets informing us ‘there is no sound here… not even birds’. Lan then goes to to give a somewhat rushed monologue addressing the backstory of where they are. We are supposed to infer through the character’s dialogue how disconcerting the place is, but we are not allowed to experience it for ourselves. Rather than telling us the place is creepy and that dark things live here, let us infer it by listening to the silence. Let our own skin prickle by letting the camera take on the perspective of things watching from the shadows. If we wanted monologues, we could have just read the book out loud.
At the beginning of the following episode, we watch a flashback of Nynaeve hiding from and eventually overcoming a trolloc in the town’s ceremonial pool. The location for the scene is stunning. The cinematography however, is kind of flat. Most of the action is shown by uninteresting wide angles that try to encapsulate as much of the on-screen movement as possible. It shows us what is happening, but doesn’t tell us what the character feels about it. One alternative for this scene would be to focus more tightly on Nynaeve as she ducks into the pool. Longer close-ups on her face as she hides, with indistinct movement at the edges of the screen would centre the viewer more strongly on her perspective and help to build a stronger sense of uncertainty for the viewer as they know the trolloc is there, but they don’t know how close and they don’t know when it is going to attack. A greater suspense is built allowing viewers to connect more with the characters they are supposed to care about.
More time to plan shots, and to plan them well, can do a great deal for viewer immersion within a scene. One place in which I actually feel that this is done well is during the trolloc attack on the Two Rivers. Here the camera tracks different characters through the chaos of the moment. Just as they are disconcerted and don’t know how to orientate ourselves within the chaos, neither do we as the camera swerves and reels about their every movement. I only wish that this level of attention to detail could have been maintained throughout the series.
Lesson #03 – Exposition-dumping will not save you
It is clear that the distribution of budget was a problem for this show. There are a lot of elements to the books that, whilst they work well on paper, can be exceedingly hard to justify expenditure for on screen. On the other hand, a screen adaptation allows for expansion and altering of events in a way that can actually bring deeper meaning to the source material (let’s face it, 34 hours of literal braid tugging, sniffing and skirt straightening might be true to the books, but it would hardly make for interesting television).
There are several moments where Wheel of Time TV series actually does manage to make us connect with characters in a deeper, different way than in the books. The relationship between Rand and Egwene is fully fleshed out with nuanced exchanges in the show whilst in the books it only really exists in the characters’ heads, if at all. On the other hand, there are a few too many times where engaging, key moments in the story are condensed into clunky exposition that the audience is expected to buy because it sounds important. These moments steal away any elements of subtle story-building that has taken place and rob the viewer of potential deeper connections to the characters. Although there are several different moments I could bring up here as an example, the one I am going to draw attention to here is the build up and reveal of the identity of the Dragon Reborn.
In Robert Jordan’s books, the identity of the Dragon is largely obvious from the very beginning of The Eye of the World. The TV series, however, took a step that could have been very effective in building intrigue by both withholding the identity and increasing the number of potential dragons. Where this approached failed, however, was that, after 7.5 hours of attempting to build up suspense around the question of who the Dragon is, the answer is given in a sudden info-dump that reveals that all the obvious events in the book did happen, they just happened off-screen. As a viewer this moment felt highly anticlimactic and robbing of the chance to experience a more nuanced relationship both between Rand and himself as he comes to terms with who he is, and with other people’s relationship to him.
One way to reveal the identity that may have been more impactful, and plays off new-dynamics introduced into the show, would have been to actively lead the audience to believe the Dragon is a particular character. Criticisms of the Dragon potentially being a female aside, the writers clearly have left hints that push toward Egwene being the strongest candidate. Build up on these hints more, make our audience care for her as a protagonist, then throw her into a situation where she cannot survive if she is not the Dragon (note – no one actually needs to necessarily say she could be the Dragon. She and Nynaeve could decide that they are the only ones that stand a chance against the Dark One as they are the only ones that have really shown any kind of power. It would not be out of character for them to rush off and decide to try facing things alone). Rand (not knowing he is the Dragon) races to rescue her and during this processes actively channels (making it clear to the audience that he is the actual Dragon, even if he has not realised it yet). When the heat of battle dies down, and both are safe, the impossibility of the emotional pledge that Rand made to follow Egwene and be her warder settles in. We experience fear for our characters, uncertainty over their outcome, shock at Rand channeling and heartbreak for their relationship. The question isn’t really about who the Dragon is, but what stakes risk being broken if a character turns out to be, or not to be, the Dragon. Make us feel these stakes. The Wheel weaves as the author wills.
The Wheel of Time TV series has received a lot of traction, however it is still only spoken about largely by the pre-existing fanbase. No one I know in any of the circles where I am based are talking about the series who haven’t read the books, or don’t have a direct connection to someone who has read the book. People like me will watch the series, maybe twice, three times, not because it is a piece of well-scripted cinema, but because it relates to characters and stories we already know and love. ‘It’s another turning of the Wheel’ has become a tagline in the fandom for discussing the show, however this phrase is not said with excitement of things to come, but as a way of consoling oneself about things not being as they hoped. We don’t need millions to be spend on extra content, maps and animations, we need a show that takes the time to be what it deserves to be.
The biggest question I would love to have answered is, what happened? As someone who works with the film industry, would love to have been a fly on the wall to see exactly why things were allowed to slide to this extent. As I have mentioned, there are several moments where the series does show that it holds potential and there are many people working on it that care deeply about the source material, but sadly there are more moments that seem driven to spit the story out in its most basic form that undermine all of the hard work. A sensitive focus on embodied story-writing can turn the show around in future seasons, however, there is a strong risk that without vast improvements a lot of newcomers to the series will be lost and it will be difficult to reel them back in.