Oh the Controversy

Auntie Leigh’s Commentary on Wheel of Time Casting

Unlike the rest of the developed world’s nerds, I came to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series late in life. I saw the covers in my local Walden Books and Caldor, but never picked them up until well into adulthood back in 2011.

But when I did pick them up, mostly on my Kindle, I blew through them quickly. I hit the same sludge pit that everyone seems to have when I got to Knife of Dreams, but was refreshed to finish up with Brandon Sanderson and a satisfying conclusion to the epic tale. (Which also seeded my interest in Sanderson that blossomed in his Stormlight Archives).

So count me impressed when Amazon announced they were pursuing adaptation of the series, with an early announcement of Roseamund Pike as Morraine. Well, the next set of character castings was released this week and it stirred the internet.

First, to be clear, I think the “Internet” is stupid. We tend to recognize and pay attention to those things that have echo-chambered themselves above the general noise, and make controversy where there is none. And, as an author who has a blog, of course I’m hypocritically jumping in!

Second, I think we are missing the bigger risk in this project failing to satisfy fans and stay true to the author’s legacy and intent. More on that below.

But first, we need to talk about Edmond Dantes.

Back in 1997, I read The Count of Monte Cristo for English class. As a lifeguard, I had a lot of time in an empty pool, and I managed to blow off my girlfriend, chores, and a lot of things that weekend and week to burn through it quickly. I’d never read anything so engrossing since my first toe-dipping into Dragonlance. So I was excited when a movie adaptation was announced in 1998.

Fast forward to my initial disappointment. How could they betray Duma’s intent? But over time, I came to appreciate that the book was good, and the movie was good, and yes, they were different. The major message of the book, Wait and Hope, were still communicated. So a movie doesn’t need to exactly replicate the book fore to enjoy both, but some qualities need to be shared.

Back to The Eye of the World and a (hopefully) long-lasting series.

My worldview of big-entertainment is a bit jaded after so many shows I’ve liked have been cancelled, and projects slowly drift toward ignoble content. The world, the flesh, and the Devil, right? Bottom line, whenever a fantasy series is licensed, I’m always assuming the producers are hoping for another Game of Thrones. The number of times I’ve read that tagline “It’s the next Game of Thrones….” makes me sick. GoT was GoT; there won’t be another. There will hopefully be more successful, long-running series, but let’s leave the Wolf and Dragon (at least, that Wolf and Dragon) out of it.

So in 2019, Amazon wants to earn some cheddar. They recognize they need a big audience to pay for episodes, including the existing fanbase (which, interestingly, is the source of value of the property). They (wisely) cast young neverheardof’s as the main characters, since, like Harry Potter, this series is huge and it’s about their growth and journeys, and we’ll come to love them, and, they cast across a racial spectrum.

Leigh’s commentary at Tor provides a great analysis of the decision and the good it shows. Jordan’s world is already multi-cultural, and multi-racial (the Sharans???), and there is every reason not to expect a cast to be monochromatic. Sure, he wrote in the 80/90’s context of a post-Tolkien cast of characters in a Euro-centric world, and the coverart, if nothing else, reflects that. Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of passages waxing eloquently about Rand’s milky-whiteness. And as the respective Twitter updates from the cast indicate, the story of the Wheel of Time is a story about identity. It’s a story about who the characters are, and who they are becoming and who they become.

In that light, I hope the cast all do great and really dive into their roles. Each of them has all the potential to make a great Rand, Matt, Perrin, Nyneve, and Egwain, and to reflect the people we came to love in the books. I can’t wait to see a reluctant Rand, a devious Matt, a stoic Perrin, a determined Nyneve, and a dedicated Egwain.

So what’s the real risk?

Ethics

What do I mean by ethics?

Let’s go back to the commercial desire for success and the model we’re all recently attuned to, Game of Thrones. HBO found success not only from character development, good special effects, a spectrum of characters, catchy lines, a drunk dwarf, a theme song that stuck in my head, and seeing a lot of Emilia Clarke (and others, and you know what I mean by ‘a lot’). I believe Game of Thrones found success by reflecting a moral philosophy and worldview that is true of this generation in time. A worldview of moral relativity, and a deep humanistic sentiment. God? Gods? Who cares. Just follow your traditions and we’ll all make fun of your choices and assume no help is coming. Or if so, it’s from an evil source that makes us all question your beliefs. How’s that child sacrifce working out, Melisandra?

I think that general belief, that we can solve our problems and are on our own, that good and evil are just shades of grey, is one reason why many fans were upset with the series conclusion (HBO’s version at least, we’ll see about George’s). It’s incongruent with who we really are. I may spend some time unpacking that thought later, but I think there’s something there

So now we have Amazon, and they hold licenses to two significant properties: Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time. And what do they have in common that Game of Thrones does not? A moral compass pointing in a different direction.

There’s plenty of human nature to explore in the Wheel of Time series, but there’s a lot of black and white ethics in the worldbuilding. How much of that will get watered down or passed over? Jordan had a lot to say about gender… How will that be explored? Will we be made to empathize with the Forsaken and myrrdral who are clearly just evil?

I’m also worried the series will focus on the romantic relationships at the expense of the true relationships that develop between characters. Given that in today’s world, sex sells, I suspect we’ll dive into that pool a lot sooner than the books would suggest.

Anyhow, just some flowing thoughts as I sit here reflecting on the topic. I’m relistening to the series on audiobook during my commute (at 38 hours a piece or more, each book lasts a while!) and remembering how much I love it. I also read commentary earlier about the decision to ask Sanderson to finish the series after Jordan’s death, and how it was partially motivated by recognition of his ethics and the complementary elements to the Wheel of Time series.

I can hope that Amazon ensures the right folks working behind the scenes also reflect that same ethical quality and bring it forward through the adaptation.

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