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Amazon reinvents 'The Wheel of Time' for the small screen, with surprising turns

Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) visits a remote village in search of something — or someone — in Amazon's <em>The Wheel of Time</em>.
Jan Thijs
Amazon Studios
Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) visits a remote village in search of something — or someone — in Amazon's The Wheel of Time.

This isn't the article about Amazon's adaptation of Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time that you were supposed to be reading right now.

It isn't one I'd planned to write.

You were supposed to be reading a sort of chatty, funny, and ultimately invaluable introduction to the sprawling world of the series, and its many characters, factions, lands and institutions drawn from Jordan's books. It would be the product of a deep knowledge of, and affection for, the scope and details of the 14-volume saga (the last three of which were co-written by Brandon Sanderson, following Jordan's death in 2007). It would offer a refresher course for those who've read the novels, and much-needed guidance to those going into the Amazon series without knowing the difference between the Red Ajah and the Blue Ajah.

It would also be filled with incisive, clear-eyed critiques of the series — noting with effusive praise what it got right, and ticking off, with withering barbs, what it got wrong.

You're not reading that piece, because my friend and colleague Petra Mayer isn't around to write it like she was supposed to. She died suddenly last weekend.

We'd traded texts about the Wheel of Time primer she was planning to write for NPR. It would have been something to bookmark, a rich and satisfying stew of information and opinion to keep by your side as you watched the series, I know that with an ironclad certainty.

Instead, you get this comparatively thin gruel — a review, written by me, someone who has never gotten around to reading the books. To the impossibly long list of reasons to be angry that my brilliant, funny, profoundly nerdy friend died so suddenly, it's way down at the bottom.

But it makes the list.

The shadow of the past

Gotta admit, that ferry scene gave me pause.

Early in the Amazon series, several of our doughty heroes escape from their isolated, bucolic village at night, via ferry. In hot pursuit: A hooded creature, dressed in black, astride a black horse — he's a servant of a powerful malevolent entity called The Dark One, who has, it appears, returned after a long absence to threaten the world once again.

Huh, I thought. How about that.

That certain elements of The Wheel of Time would echo elements of The Lord of the Rings seems inevitable, of course. Tolkien's massive work inspired scores of imitators, and later, interpolators — writers who would create high-fantasy worlds that would inflect and invert the now-hoary tropes Tolkien helped usher in: A Chosen One, A Dark Lord and his Dark Riders, a Foul Army of Orcs, A Council of Wise, Color-Coded Wizards, etc.

But for a scene so early on to so closely map itself over one of the more memorable events in The Fellowship of the Ring — both the Tolkien book and its Peter Jackson film adaptation — seemed to bode ill.

I needn't have worried.

Because the ferry scene in question doesn't end with the heroes' escape, as it does in Tolkien — it goes further, and includes a turn of events that raises the stakes and reveals that the world of the series will admit many more shades of gray than the tidy Light/Shadow duality of Middle-Earth.

Yes, the plot involves the search for The Chosen One — in the lore of the series, the long-prophesied person called the Dragon Reborn, who alone can defeat the Dark One. This, too, is familiar ground.

But the series introduces a twist, and introduces it early: The Dragon Reborn may be one of four people in the remote village of Two Rivers. There is Rand (Josha Stradowski), a humble farmboy; Egwene (Madeleine Madden), a young woman recently admitted to the ranks of the village's matriarchy; Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), a hulking young blacksmith; and Mat (Barney Harris), a charming wastrel.

And that "Reborn" business? Turns out the clash between Dragon and Dark One has happened before, many times, and will continue to happen. (Wheel of Time, geddit?) But another twist: The last time the Dragon faced the Dark One, he blew it, and the world was broken.

Moiraine Layer: An Aes Sedai (Rosamund Pike) gets her magic on.
/ Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios
Moiraine Layer: An Aes Sedai (Rosamund Pike) gets her magic on.

Attempting to patch things up: An elite organization of women magic-users called the Aes Sedai. We first meet Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) and her warder, the taciturn Lan (Daniel Henney), who are searching for the Dragon Reborn before he or she can be found by the Dark One, his servants, or his army of Trollocs (think Orcs with horns and goat-feet).

Again and again, the series executes familiar story beats and fantasy tropes with a contemporary sensibility that would likely cause old Professor Tolkien to spill his Twinings all over his tweed waistcoast: A matter-of-factly diverse approach to casting, storylines that foreground women, the existence of same-sex couples, and of it all taking place in a moral universe where characters make choices that aren't dictated by their noble blood, or the relative swarthiness of their skin.

In the six episodes made available to the press (the first season consists of eight episodes, and a Season 2 has already been picked up), the central storyline splits off into several threads, giving each of our main characters room to breathe, and their situations time to complicate, in ways that feel necessary and intriguing — without the sense of narrative bloat the bogs down so many streaming series.

The dialogue mostly avoids the fantasy-genre trap of sounding falsely stiff and heightened, as if the screenwriter entered Beowulf into Google Translate; neither does it sound too jarringly contemporary (i.e., "Word comes from the North! We are to just like chill here for the nonce!")

What do you call a scaled-down epic?

You won't need to have read the sprawling, 14-volume fantasy saga to know instinctively that what you're seeing on the Amazon series only skims its surface.

Feints are made to indicate the scope of Jordan's world, and its history — a bit of dialogue here, a snippet of song there. Characters gets a moment or two to invoke their homeland, or their ancestry. But the ultimate effect is to cause the world underpinning the events depicted — the world that always seems to hover just offscreen — to insist upon itself, and always compete for our attention with the story we're watching.

It's not that the show looks cheap, by any means. There are plenty of breathtaking vistas and vibrant, richly textured costumes and elaborate sets. It's just that it can't help but feel scaled down, reduced, distilled, made for television. Something about the quality of light in certain scenes seems a bit too sharp, too clean, for a world lit only by sun and fire. The sinister Children of the Light, for example, wear cloaks so blindingly and pristinely white, even as they trudge through muddy forests, that you can't help wondering about their OxyClean budget.

If the world of The Wheel of Time doesn't come off as satisfyingly grimy and lived-in as the world of other fantasy series, and it never quite musters the sweep and scope of its older brothers — Jackson's Lord of the Rings, HBO's Game of Thrones — it does manage to tell its story in a way that's compelling, unique and, frequently, surprising, full of narrative twists and character turns that even the most jaded fantasy reader might not see coming.

I know Petra had a deep affection for the book series (and also strong caveats, because: Petra). I don't know what her ultimate of the opinion of the show might have been, but I do know this: The last time we talked, she was just beginning to watch the Amazon show, so I braced myself to spend a few days reading a series of her stream-of-consciousness, expletive-studded texts about it, full of joy and outrage, effusive praise and bones to pick.

I'm still waiting.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.