Why the Wheel of Time succeeds as an adaptation (and the Witcher fails)
Not all accommodations are created equal. For each Game of Thrones, which translated its source material fairly faithfully (until it was exhausted), there are legions of adaptations like The golden compass Where The legend of Earthsea, where the soul of the original work was sucked in, not to mention the moan-worthy seizures of money like The Hobbit trilogy.
Since the success of the HBO fantasy phenomenon, we’ve seen a slew of companies adapting fantasy and sci-fi stories that they might never have had the courage to do before. At the end of 2021, two big ones dominated the conversation: that of Amazon The wheel of time, based on the 15-book series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson; and the second season of Netflix The witcher, based on the short stories and bestselling novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. While both adaptations include big changes from their respective source books, one has handled it much more successfully. We are here today to discuss the reasons.
A note before we begin: Opinions and likes are subjective, especially with reviews like this. Both of these shows did things some fans loved and others hated. I’m not here to try to convince you that you should or shouldn’t like a show; enjoy what you love. What I a m going to do is dissect how these shows are in conversation with their source material.
With that out of the way let’s talk about why The wheel of time succeeds as an adaptation while The witcher failed. Of course, you should be warned that there will be SPOILERS for both shows as well as their respective book series below.
Who is the Dragon Reborn?
Let’s start with The wheel of time. It is the story of a group of young people who are taken out of their sleeping village by a witch and her bodyguard with steel eyes; as you can see, it starts off about as familiar as fantasy stories get. As we have already started to find out this season, things get more and more interesting as you progress through the story, but at the beginning, The wheel of time maybe not feel like it reinvents the wheel a lot.
But how does the show stack up as an adaptation? Major changes were made during the first season, including the removal of locations and characters, several deaths, storyline compression, and at least one major plot deviation that was likely the result of the actor being Principal Barney Harris had to leave production. In short, I had the impression The wheel of time had to make some really tough choices to fit a fundamentally inappropriate story. Was I sad not to see the town of Caemlyn this season? Sure. But it also made sense that the show could only go to so many places in eight episodes, and that it had to focus on the ones it could make the most of. For example, many of the events that happen in Caemlyn in the first book happen in Tar Valon in the series, Tar Valon being a town where history returns time and time again. Why not save some money and build a set that you know you’ll use for the long haul?
The inclusion of storylines from other books, like The Politics of Aes Sedai or The Romance of Moiraine and Siuan, also served the story well. The wheel of time looks like an adaptation of series as a whole, not a pound-by-pound thing. Which was always going to be the case, right? Showrunner Rafe Judkins has publicly stated that he hopes the series will last around eight seasons. There are 15 books, including a prequel revolving around Moiraine. We were never going to see an individual adaptation of this story; for logistical reasons, this is simply not possible.
On the other hand, what changes the show is mostly giving the impression that they came from the source material in one way or another. The romance of Moiraine and Siuan is a prime example. It is a canon book, but it is very much in the background of the previous novel New spring. Judkins and his team took those “cores” that Robert Jordan strewn throughout his series and detonated them to create more meaningful story arcs. For the most part, it really feels like it worked.
This doesn’t mean there weren’t any hiccups. There were some changes to the season finale that I didn’t like, like the split from the team for the Scourge trip and the removal of two of the Forsaken. But again, they were mostly understandable since the show plays out the overall nature of the story. The first book, Eye of the world, is extremely focused on Rand’s point of view, while the rest of the series is told from many angles. The show made a conscious decision to be an ensemble piece from the start, to give viewers a more honest idea of what to expect from the show as a whole.
In conclusion, this is very similar to the changes and choices made by The wheel of time team were made with great care and respect for the source material. There had never been the feeling that they were making a difference for the hell, but because they were doing the best they could with the environment they were working in.
Sometimes the changes even ended up working better for the story, such as with the mystery of who the Dragon Reborn was. It was something the show played path in place, and it worked great. In the books it’s a lot more obvious that it’s Rand, since we’ve spent more time with him. Here, first-time viewers could presumably be in suspense.
There is always a feeling that The wheel of time finds its place… but in my opinion, there was never any question that the series really tries to do its best with the Robert Jordan story.