Adapting The Wheel of Time for TV Is an Epic All Its Own

Adapting The Wheel of Time for TV Is an Epic All Its Own
Image: Amazon Prime Video

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time novels have legions of fans and sold millions of copies, but adapting their 10,000+ pages into live-action was never going to be easy. Spanning thousands of years and starring thousands of characters, there’s literally too much material to put on film. Gizmodo talked to showrunner Rafe Judkins and producers Marigo Kehoe and Mike Weber about the immense challenges of adapting, condensing, and updating Jordan’s epic fantasy series for Amazon Prime Video — and their plan for the series’ very long future.

Gizmodo: There’s so much lore in the world of Wheel of Time in the first book that it can be bewildering even for hardcore fantasy fans. When you were trying to pare down the epic for general audiences, what was your approach?

Rafe Judkins: Way more people have read Wheel of Time now than had read Game of Thrones when that show came out, and they really stuck to those characters and trying to tell the story of these characters in the television medium. That’s what I try to do, as much as I can, with Wheel of Time. If we stick to the core things that made people fall in love with the books, hopefully, new audiences will also be able to [love them]. So we do make changes, but a lot of them are to bring in a fresh audience and let them understand this world as they watch these episodes.

Mike Weber: [Rafe] was able to really focus on these characters and their journeys and these conflicts. He really tried to put the audience in the point of view of these young people who are going out in the world for the first time under these circumstances. And I think once you’re along for that character journey, you know, everything else sort of falls in place.

Marigo Kehoe: I also think we’ve done the exposition moments very carefully so that you don’t go, “Oh, she’s just explaining that.” You know? For me, not being a fantasy girl in the first place, I was able to say to Rafe, “I don’t quite understand that mythology, can you just run that by me?” There are a few of us who work on the show who haven’t necessarily been immersed in the books in the way that so many of the fans have, and that counterbalances those moments of, “How do you translate it?”

Gizmodo:How much are you treating Jordan’s books as the series bible? How have you decided what to keep and what won’t work for this show?

Judkins: I mean, we still treat them like a bible in that the goal is to tell the story of the books. Sometimes we have to cut some stuff out or change things in order to do that effectively in the television space. If we did a word-for-word translation, it would not only be 2,000 episodes long, but it also wouldn’t necessarily represent what the books are really about. We’ve tried to be as thoughtful as we can of any changes that we’re making or designed to better tell the heart of the story that’s in the books and most importantly, kind of the emotional journey of those characters. Because I think that’s the thing that really keeps people coming back to Wheel of Time and keeps people coming back to TV shows in general — making sure that you understand the arc that these characters are on and why they’re making all the decisions that they’re making.

Image: Amazon Prime Video Image: Amazon Prime Video

Gizmodo: The fundamental premise of the Wheel of Time is based so much on binary genders, with the all-female Aes Sedai, the male Dragons, the gendered sides of the One Power. How are you updating that for 2021, when gender identity and gender equity are so important?

Judkins: I think what’s exciting about [the Wheel of Time TV series] and what was exciting about [the books] in the ‘90s is that they opened up a conversation about gender and how gender is represented in all of these different cultures within the world of Wheel of Time. Because it’s not just one way you see a lot of different representations of gender, you see things that are more binary and less binary. I think that we have to lean into that in the show and continue to explore what gender means for these characters in as fresh of a context today as Robert Jordan was working in in the ‘90s. He was pushing the envelope a lot for the genre at the time and I think we need to do the same today.

Gizmodo: What are some ways that you’ll be doing that on the show?

Judkins: I think — well, I can’t tell you all of them, but in the books, there’s an idea that if you’re born as a man in one life, you’d be born as a man in the next life in the show. We’re not doing that. We’re approaching it as you are a soul and you move through different bodies through whatever life that you’re in. So that’s one. It’s a very fundamental change actually to make to the book series, and it has a lot of ripple effects, and we’ll continue to do things like that I think are more reflective of what hopefully Robert Jordan would be writing if he was writing today.

Gizmodo:Speaking of, the show’s seemingly biggest change from the books is the revelation that a female character could be a potential Dragon Reborn, whereas in the books the Dragon is exclusively male.

Judkins: I think the idea that the Dragon Reborn doesn’t necessarily need to only be a male character, that’s really important. We see that play out in a number of different ways through the season. Also, as we learn, some of the Dragons of the past were women. How was that different? How did that affect the world? So that one change that we’ve made, it really does flutter through the whole series. I think it’s good to make changes like that and to put them in the show, even if it does have those effects.

Image: Amazon Prime Video Image: Amazon Prime Video

Gizmodo: While Jordan rarely mentions anything regarding race in the novels, the show’s incredibly diverse casting feels like an update as well.

Kehoe: I think you’ve got to. We absolutely have done that and tried to keep it up to date and make it organic, which I think we’ve done very successfully. It doesn’t feel like you force those characters into that situation. As Mike said on various other calls, the [show’s] physical Breaking of the World allowed us to have cast diversity from all over the world. In Emond’s Field, for example, there are people who come from all these different countries. So that’s the way we portrayed our world.

Gizmodo:There are 14 books in The Wheel of Time book series. Are you hoping that Amazon will give you 14 seasons to make the whole story?

Judkins: I would love to say yes, but I think it’s unrealistic to imagine that there would be 14 seasons of a show. Just the amount of time it takes us to produce them — all of the Emond’s Field five [main actors] would be 50 by the time we finished 14 seasons [laughs]. So I hope that we get enough time to tell the story that is told in those 14 books too because the ending exists and it’s amazing. I’d love to be able to get there.

Weber: We want to adapt all of the books. […] We don’t plan for failure. We’re going to succeed. I don’t have a plan other than success for this.

Kehoe: Exactly.

Gizmodo:Assuming you don’t get 14 seasons, how much can you tell us about your plan to adapt the series? For example, are you aiming to cover two novels per season?

Judkins: I feel like it’s smarter to not make a restrictive plan for how you’re going to approach every single season in terms of the number of books covered. When I broke it down, I was looking more at the overall stories and what needed to be told, so there’s a couple of sections where there are three books that could very easily make one season, and then there are a number of different places where I think the one book needs to be the entire season because of the way the stories are told in it. My plan is different depending on the season.

Image: Amazon Prime Video Image: Amazon Prime Video

Gizmodo: Why do you think 2021 is the right time for a Wheel of Time series?

Judkins: One of the core themes of this book series is balance, and that’s very unusual for a big fantasy book series. I think that is a theme in this hyper-polarised world that we’re living in right now that really speaks to people, and it has something important to say. It’s a fantasy series much more underpinned by Eastern religion and Eastern philosophy than by a Judeo-Christian model. I think it very subtly is talking about things that are really important to our time right now. It does feel really different than other fantasy shows, even today.

Weber: We sold this and started developing it back in 2018, right? Those themes were as meaningful then as they are now. I think now, what nobody could have foreseen, is this incredible demand for escapist entertainment. Shows that don’t shine a light on how challenging our actual world is here but take us away to a world that we’d love to be in, and those conflicts don’t seem so close to home, while we still relate to them. I think that’s why fantasy series such as this find themselves in such perfect conditions for this kind of demand. They take people away to a place that they kind of recognise through the characters and conflicts, but it’s still escapism.

The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on November 19. They’ll drop one each Friday afterward until the season finale on December 24.

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.