Amazon's major fantasy wager, The Wheel of Time, is now streaming its first four episodes on Prime Video, and the reviews have been far from epic.
As with any show based on a long-running fantasy book series, comparisons to HBO's Game of Thrones were inevitable and indeed forewarned by months of coverage saying as much. There's no escaping the shadow of George R.R. Martin's game-changing novels as told on the small screen, but The Wheel of Time deserves at least a chance to shine in its own right.
After all, the late Robert Jordan's beloved series, also titled The Wheel of Time, came out in 1990, years before Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire began in 1996 with A Game of Thrones. But there's no indication Martin lifted much, if anything, from Jordan's work. The two were contemporaries trying to subvert the genre, long-defined by The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, in similar yet wholly different ways.
The Power Play
George R.R. Martin set out to create a more grounded and violent fantasy world where villains might actually win the day, and good people rarely get to be heroes. The Song of Ice and Fire books, and HBO’s Game of Thrones by extension, were graphic, gory, and highly sensual for the time. And while the series didn’t pick up a large following until its second or third entry, it eventually became clear to the fantasy community that Martin was really onto something. He struck a chord by eliminating the sacred cows of old-fashioned epics and infusing a high degree of shock and intrigue into well-worn stories about kings, queens, and valiant knights.
Put more simply, Martin's world felt real, at least to a degree. Yes, there were tidbits of magic and a growing number of dragons to consider. Still, these typical fantasy elements were rare. They existed in a functional, authentic world, down to its ever-increasing characters and viewpoints, which transformed the work into a sandbox of possibilities.
Game of Thrones was one of the last true watercooler shows.
Martin wasn't the first author to do any of this, but he was one of the very first to do it exceptionally well. The show adaptation roughed out the edges of his overlong text and gripped the entertainment world immediately with a new era of medieval television. It was a series that captivated mainstream audiences well outside the genre's bubble, similar to Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings.
Game of Thrones ended in 2019, well past its peak of universal acclaim with audiences and critics. Blame the showrunners or Martin for not finishing the actual books in time or whoever else you like, but the consensus is that the show ended with a whimper, not a bang. Regardless, there's been no shortage of attempts by other streaming services to recapture the magic, and understandably so. At its prime, Game of Thrones was one of the last true watercooler shows, a smash hit like none other before it, where for 10 weeks a year, the entire world seemed to be watching and speculating on what could happen next.
The One Power
Amazon is staking in its own claim on the throne. Jordan's The Wheel of Time certainly has sparks of the same lightning that HBO caught in a bottle back in 2011. It's a beloved book series from the ‘90s with a dedicated fan base. With 14 books to adapt, there's no shortage of set pieces and intrigue to weave into a digestible show. Its world is complex and ahead of its time, yet simple enough to adapt cinematically, thanks to its focused themes and straightforward roster of main characters.
But The Wheel of Time, both the books and the series thus far, are not entirely comparable to Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire. This isn't Pepsi vs. Coke; it's The Iliad vs. Odyssey. Both works certainly share familiar elements and, in some ways, feed off of each other's success (they’re both poems by Homer, after all). Still, they're entirely different texts attempting to tell totally different narratives.
The Wheel of Time sets out to do its own thing in its own way.
Like A Song of Ice and Fire, Jordan's The Wheel of Time begins with innocent characters who become far more aware of the dangers in their world after a series of traumatizing incidents. But Martin does this same thing quickly, violently, and in the most extreme ways possible. Jordan does it more methodically. His characters don't suffer beyond reason, but they do face compounding trials that test their true hearts as people.
Watching their progression from doe-eyed, naive youths to confident, knowledgeable adults is what makes The Wheel of Time as investing as it is. You don't keep reading out of fear for which of your favorite characters might meet an untimely end. You read out of hope that they'll come through these harrowing journeys and tests without becoming shadows of their former selves. In other words, you can grow up with them.
True, The Wheel of a Time has its own "chosen one" or Dragon Reborn. But Jordan wisely de-emphasized the importance of the Dragon Reborn over time. It's far less about whether or not the destined hero will save the world but far more about whether a group of friends — all of them capable of greatness — can fulfill their respective roles even as they grow and change into different people.
This is a far cry from the politicking and delayed gratification of Game of Thrones, which moved its characters like pawn pieces and withheld heartfelt moments and reunions (which was, of course, the point). Well, we already got that story. The Wheel of Time sets out to do its own thing in its own way. It makes it clear from Episode 1 that it won’t be as sanitized and sexless as The Lord of the Rings, but it won’t have gratuitous nudity like Game of Thrones. In doing so, it’s not passing judgment on sex and violence; the show simply has other things it wants the audience to consider.
The Wheel of Time can potentially make the fantasy genre feel hopeful and escapist again. Not because the world it presents is any more magical than the ones we've seen before, but because the characters in those worlds remind us of ourselves more than ever.
The Wheel of Time releases new episodes Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.