Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

Intents and Purposes

I have not been writing on my blog recently. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the demands of graduate school, several alternate places that I write and some issues that I have run into in life, but perhaps the biggest concern for me in regards to the blog is the sense of purpose. When I started this blog I meant it to be a way for me to think about and talk about history while I did not have a formal platform. It was that general and as a result there was a sense of aimlessness. The one thing I did not want was excessive narrative of my own life. As I have gotten back into school the content changed slightly, and I spent more time reflecting on academia and society, as well as history. This is closer to what I want, but I am still not sure.

My ideal would be to help foster my own blog network among people I know who are writing and thinking about various topics, connected through mutual readership, commenting and supporting one another and collaborating whenever possible. In this goal, I have a standing offer to host blogs for other people. My dream in this event is to also host a forum community connected to this blog network that would (hopefully) foster collaborative and peer-review opportunities, as well as the opportunity to participate in academic debate. There are a number of problems with this goal, though, particularly in that my colleagues, much as I am, are pressed by their own work even if they are inclined to blogging, the internet or this sort of collaboration. There is also a fundamental lack of participants in general. The most successful forum communities I have or still do participate in have dozens of regular participants and hundreds, if not thousands, of members and occasional contributors. Of course this will not deter me from creating this forum with the hope that eventually something will come of it. Now, if only I had time to set all of this up.

But those are the goals for the aspects that are beyond my control and I still have uncertainty about my own blog, in part because I have heard horror stories about intellectual property and research projects stolen because they were posted online before publication. Now in my experience there tend to be five type of historian-academic blog:

-Relating everything that happens in the modern world to whatever project the author is currently working on
-Discussion of the academy and classes
-“This day in History”
-Commentary on politics and society
-Posting links

Now most blogs blend two or more of these different elements and, inevitably, mine will be no different. I started this for history and that will still feature prominently simply because it is central to my life, but more and more I expect that I will write about more diverse topics, including academia generally, self-review, book discussion, methodology, and commentary about society. Whatever piques my interest is fair game, though I expect narrative of my life will rarely feature. The key here is that I will also rarely feature straight narrative history. If some story comes up in my research then I may recount that, but that is about it. More often I expect my historical discussion to be in the form of contemplation and working through various arguments.