Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wheel of Time: The Movie? ...Oh boy

Variety has just reported that Universal Pictures has picked up the film rights for Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time" series.

Blood and bloody ashes.

I already wrote last month (see Elfstones of Shannara post) on my reservations about turning my beloved fantasy books into movies, so I don't need to repeat it all here. But in summary, a movie adaptation does not simply run the risk of tainting my memory of the book on which it is based if it turns out badly. In the case of what I call "second-tier fantasy" (a category not based on quality but on familiarity to the general public; LotR, Narnia, and Harry Potter would fit in the "first-tier"), a poorly executed movie adaptation has the potential, because the general public associates the story with the publicized movie rather than the niche novel, to destroy the reputation of the series.

That said, I am even more frightened at the prospect of an Eye of the World movie than an Elfstones of Shannara movie. Of course, all that's happened is the acquisition of film rights. We don't have any screenwriter or director attached or anything. Nothing may come of it (we all know countless projects make it further along than this without ever coming to fruition). But if Universal is serious about cracking a Wheel of Time movie series, they've got some daunting work ahead of them.

First, allow me to indulge in a little reminiscence. It was the summer of 2000. During the previous year, I had torn through the Shannara series and the Harry Potter books available at the time, now, beyond doubt, an avid fantasy fan. My mother came home from shopping one morning and handed me a book: The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan. This was an odd occurrence. This was the one time I recall in my teenage/young adult life that my mother gave me a book outside of Christmas or my birthday (actually that's not entirely true--when we were in Alaska she bought me a book on Alaskan marine mammals), and she never gave me books to fantasy series that I hadn't requested. I have no idea what inspired her to buy this particular book for me, and I don't think she fully understood what she was getting me into. My first impression was dubious. As they say, don't judge a book by its cover, especially if it's a Tor book--those covers are crap (that this very copy of Eye of the World currently appears to sit on my shelf in one piece is merely a carefully placed illusion). On the book's cheesy cover was a party of people on horseback, led by a large knight-type in goofy armor and a petite woman in fancy clothes, who I remember assuming was just a princess (turns out she is kind of a princess, but far from just). This was not a great first impression. I remember, however, noting that the book at least had a map, which I thought was a good sign (Shannara and Redwall books always had maps). In any case, I'd run out of books in my other series, so I decided to give this one a shot. We went to Hawaii that summer on a family vacation to visit my grandparents, and I remember it was while I was sitting in the airport, in a corner by the window, waiting for our plane to arrive, when I first started reading The Wheel of Time. The prologue is actually hugely confusing if you haven't read more of the series (which is kind of silly, since it is the prologue to the first book)--between unfamiliar terminology, unfamiliar characters, unfamiliar events, and the fact that it's told from the third-person perspective of a madman, it certainly left me scratching my head. But once I got into the book on the plane, I was hooked. That's no knight--he's a Warder. And that's no princess, she's an Aes Sedai! And she's leading these naive people because pretty soon, they'll have to save the world! By the time I returned from Hawaii three weeks later, I'd finished the first three in the series. And these are not short little novels. At the time, they were the longest books I'd ever read, with several of the paperbacks breaching the four-digits mark (and Harry Potter number five wasn't out yet). But the world was so immersive, the detail so fine, the characters so intriguing and so varied, I flew through them as fast as I could. It was a good year.

Now at the time, I remember picturing Wheel of Time as a movie. Who would play Rand? Moiraine? Nynaeve? Selene, the dark epitome of female beauty? I also remember reading somewhere that Robert Jordan was open to the idea of a screen adaptation. But as I read further into the series and the world got bigger and bigger, and Jordan kept writing more books, I concluded that this was something best left to the unlimited pages in a book and the infinite patience of fantasy readers. And I never heard any mention of a screen version.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, there are currently 11 books in the main series with one prequel novel. Robert Jordan had intended there to be 12 books total in the main series, with a small handful of prequels and side novels. Tragically, he passed away in September 2007 at the age of 58, leaving the 12th installment unfinished and any additional books unwritten. Fortunately he had been prepared, leaving plot notes and designating Brandon Sanderson as the author to complete the series book should the worst befall him. Still, it will not be the same, and the prequels and side novels will never be written. But the legacy of Wheel of Time in the fantasy world is impressive. Wheel of Time is known as one of the longest continuous fantasy storylines (like Harry Potter, all of the books follow one storyline, unlike the Shannara series, for example, where the series is divided into stories told in individual books or trilogies), with countless complicated plot lines featuring too many characters and excessive detail. It is known to include a few completely extraneous books in which very little to nothing of importance happens (when someone asks me what happened in book #10, I tell them that the only thing I remember is that Mat bought Tuon a bunch of silk--true story). But overall, it is known as a gigantic, engrossing series that breeds intense obsession.

And now they want to make it into a movie. In some ways, it would make a great movie. For one, the story is engrossing and sufficiently original. Adventure, suspense, mystery, magic, politics, battle, romance, personable characters, and a quest to save the world--it's got it all. It is set in a beautiful, vivid fantasy world, with widely varying nations and peoples. The magic system is probably my favorite in all my fantasy experience. I'd love to see how the movie would depict "channeling". Plus, Hollywood can get its fix on casting beautiful people (no complaints that Emma Watson looks to pretty here). Rand is extremely handsome. Mat is very handsome in a roguish way. Perrin is handsome in a rugged way. Moiraine is gorgeous. Egwene is beautiful. Nynaeve usually wears a grumpy expression, but if you can get past that, she is also quite lovely. Elayne, Aviendha, and Min are all beautiful. And these are just the main characters. Looking at supporting cast and villains, you've got "Selene" (as I said above, the most beautiful woman imaginable), Rahvin (basically the male equivalent of Selene), Galad (so extremely gorgeous he's pretty)... Oi, the list goes on.

However, there are some serious difficulties in making WoT into a movie series. Did I mention that it is one continuous story of 12 books, each 800+ pages? It's like Harry Potter x 2, but not little-kid-friendly and not even comparable in popularity (there are few things that are comparable in popularity to Harry Potter... maybe chocolate?). A lot could be cut out. A LOT. But that doesn't change the complicated, complex, intertwining, meandering mess of a storyline that some poor screenwriter would have to slog through to streamline it into a workable movie.

Then there are the characters. WoT readers acknowledge that they tend to lose track of who's who as they make their way through the series. My mom once remarked how she was so impressed by the huge number of characters in Harry Potter. I laughed out loud. Let's look at Eye of the World. Main characters include Rand, Mat, Perrin, Moiraine, Lan, Egwene, and Nynaeve. Min and Elayne have been introduced, but haven't yet assumed "main character" status. Aviendha, Faile, Siuan and Leane haven't appeared yet. Important supporting characters include Thom Merrilin and Loial, and Padan Fain is notable as well. And we can't forget Logain, Morgase, Elaida, Gawyn, Galad, Tam Al'Thor, Elyas Machera, or Bayle Domon, either, since they'll pop up again later. Looking at this list, EotW doesn't seem so bad after all. I guess it's later in the following books that things get messy, with hundreds of Aes Sedai (challenge: Can you remember which Ajah she's in? Is she in the evil Black Ajah? Is she on Elaida or Egwene's side, has she sworn an oath to Rand, or is she under the control of the Asha'man?), Aiel chiefs and Wise Ones, Seanchan, Windfinders, Children of the Light, Two Rivers folk, and nobles of Cairhien, Caemlyn, Tear, Illian, Ebou Dar, Tarabon, Far Madding, Saldea, plus villains including 13 Forsaken (the main evil emissaries of the Dark One; a couple of them get short-changed though--it sucks to be Be'lal), any number of Darkfriends, plus all the nobles or others in power who aren't necessarily evil but merely working against the protagonists... I'm getting sick just thinking about it. I suppose what's more is that, while Harry Potter was conveniently told from one point of view (with a few exceptions here and there to give the reader insight into the enemy's plans) so one never had to remember more than Harry remembered, WoT switches between countless points of view, frequently leaving the reader bewildered at which character is featured in the chapter, who the people around this character are, and what in the world is this character up to and why (and where)?

Eye of the World could work as a movie. Like Fellowship of the Ring, it's an introduction to the world and a few of its characters, and the main characters are only separated temporarily. The plot is actually quite straightforward. Books two and three may even work as movies. But danger awaits once the series gets going. I am terrified picturing it. I don't know how far they can make it into the series, but they'll lose somewhere along the way. Maybe the first couple can be movies, and the rest could be done as a mini-series. Or maybe they should just make the first movie and leave those interested to read the books. I just don't think they all can be done.

Well, as they say, The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills. I am, after all, a huge fan of the books, and I love movies, so if they can do it justice, I am psyched to see it! Best of luck to Universal (it'll need it)!

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