The Wheel of Time: The fantasy epic hits Amazon Prime tomorrow. What’s it all about?

Robert Jordan’s sprawling 14-book series is a good vs evil high-fantasy tale

Television’s latest fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time, is set to bring Robert Jordan’s 14-book series to life. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

Television’s latest fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time, is set to bring Robert Jordan’s 14-book series to life. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

 

When the late writer Robert Jordan was a tot, his older brother would keep him out of trouble by reading out stories by the likes of HG Wells, Mark Twain and Jules Verne. Even at that age, it sparked Jordan’s imagination. “I could visualise all of it in my head,” said Jordan in 1991. As his interest in storytelling grew, he recalled: “I started out not only reading fantasy but going to fantasy and science fiction movies. In more recent years, I’ve probably seen Excalibur two dozen times.”

With the world of writing and screen entwined from the start, it’s only right that his magnum opus, the 14-book fantasy series The Wheel of Time, gets an on-screen adaptation. And in the form of an Amazon television series, it finally has. 

Covering much of the story from The Eye of the World, the first book of the series released in 1990, it’s a good vs evil high-fantasy that begins when Moiraine (played by Rosamund Pike) – who is a member of the Aes Sedai, a powerful group who can harness mystical powers – and her warder Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) arrive at Two Rivers in order to find the young adult believed to be the Dragon Reborn, who is prophesied to either save or destroy humanity. Unsure which of the young villagers it is, she sets an adventure in motion for the candidates as they make their way to Aes Sedai HQ, all while agents of the Dark One close in. You’d be forgiven for likening it to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones with its noble quests, expansive journeys and mystical worlds.

Rosamund Pike in The Wheel of Time. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video
Rosamund Pike in The Wheel of Time. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

The journey to the screen is as epic as the story itself. In 1999, as the Lord of the Rings films went into production with the promise of being a surefire blockbuster, NBC optioned the rights to The Wheel of Time, but it failed to do anything with it for five years, a frustrating experience given each new book in the series was hitting number one in the New York Times hardback fiction bestseller list. Red Eagle Entertainment sat on it for another 14 long years. Finally, in 2016, Jordan’s widow Harriet McDougal announced that “legal issues had been resolved”. With the path cleared and each streaming service clamouring for its own answer to Game of Thrones, Amazon picked it up. 

Once greenlit, the series was four years in the making – understandable given the mammoth task of adapting a sprawling, dense story into an episodic show pitched at those who have and haven’t read the books. On a day off from filming the second series in Prague, where cast and crew have lived for the last couple of years, Pike notes that showrunner Rafe Judkins (known for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Chuck) “has cut things out but I can guarantee that anyone who’s read the books is going to find that for the elements they think have been cut out, the seeds are going to be sown, so they will understand that there’s been very careful decision making to arrive at that way of navigating the story,” she says on a video call.

Next to her, Henney adds: “You may lose some things from the book, like certain cities or characters may show at different points but they’re still going to be there. For example, my favourite part of the of the world, the Stag and the Lion [the inn] isn’t shown as it is in the books. But that will pay off at some point.”

'It’s a brilliantly structured world for embracing a wonderfully diverse cast with authenticity and a justification for that vision'

One of the more notable changes is that originally, an all-male line up was in the running to the Dragon Reborn, but the series adds two women in the mix, giving another dimension to the gender balance that was already written into the books, particularly with the Aes Sedai being all-female.

“There are many, many amazing female characters in the show,” says Pike. “And female empowerment, female strength looks very different from woman to woman, as it should. It’s not that the men are weak – Daniel’s character Lan is an incredible swordsman – but women have a different power that’s unique to them. And I like that fact. Often when a woman in really strong in fantasy, it’s because she’s strong along the lines of a masculine model.” 

“I find it interesting too that for a lot of the male fan base, their favourite characters are female. It’s really wonderful,” says Henney.

“And unusual,” adds Pike.

The series also builds on the global lens of the books, which incorporates Celtic, Norse, Middle Eastern and Native American elements, leading to a cast picked from across the globe. Archives tell us when Jordan visited Trinity College in 1993, he discussed “reverse-engineering” mythology by stripping specificities and combining them to create pan-global concepts.

Pike elaborates: “The essence of the Wheel of Time is a world that’s been blown apart at the seams. There was an event called the Breaking of the World that happened 3,000 years prior to our story, and that’s where continents shifted and cultures were all mixed up. So you might have something with Japanese cultural influences, but the people of that culture are ethnically completely diverse. And that’s the same with all cultures. 

“For our current concerns, it’s a brilliantly structured world for embracing a wonderfully diverse cast with authenticity and a justification for that vision.”

“It’s been really exciting to work with people from all around the world,” says Henney. “That’s been a real pleasure for me, especially as one of the only Americans here.” 

Daniel Henney in The Wheel of Time. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video
Daniel Henney in The Wheel of Time. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime Video

Across the first series, you’ll note a particularly strong Irish presence, with Maria Doyle Kennedy and Daryl McCormack among the cast members.

“There’s a section with some lovely characters called the Tuatha’an, who are travelling people, and some of your great Irish actors are part of that group,” says Pike. “Also, Rand’s father is played by Michael McElhatton, and now we’re excited to welcome Dónal Finn as Mat for our second season.”

That said, the pair have only had limited opportunity to bond with the whole cast as they appear in different storylines. And there’s less opportunity in the second season as the main cast splinter off, faced with their own quests. “We’re at the point where the show is getting bigger and bigger,” says Henney. “So we’re not working together every day like we used to, but we’re still very much in touch with each other. It seems like we’re all in chunks but,” he says, while trying not to give too much away, “we will come back together”.

The Wheel of Time is on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, November 19th.

Other fantasy dramas coming soon

House Of The Dragon
Based on George RR Martin’s novel Fire & Blood, House of the Dragon will be the first of the long-mooted Game of Thrones (GoT) spin-offs out of the traps. It follows the downfall of the House Targaryen, and stars Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy.
Expect it: In 2022 on Sky and NOW

The Sandman
Thirty-three years after they were first unleashed, the DC comic books by Neil Gaiman (who serves as executive producer in the series) gets the small screen treatment. The first two books are covered in the debut series of the dark fantasy, with Tom Sturridge in the lead role of Morpheus, the Dream King. It also features GoT alumni Charles Dance and Gwendoline Christie (as a Lucifer that’s more faithful to the books than Tom Ellis’s version in the homonymous TV series) and Niamh Walsh as the young Ethel Cripps.
Expect it: In 2022 on Netflix

The Lord of the Rings
The prequel TV series is set in Tolkien’s second age era, thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. An ensemble cast will explore new storylines while alluding to ones we already know. A testament to Jeff Bezos’s deep pockets, the TV adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is expected to cost $1 billion (€870 million) across five seasons, making it the most expensive TV show ever.
Expect it: August 2022 on Amazon Prime

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