Monday, May 2, 2016

The Wheel Weaves as the Network Wills

Welp. It's happening, apparently. We all knew it. The only question was when. And the answer, it would seem, is soon.

Of course, I'm talking about Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time being adapted to television. In the wake of Game of Thrones, there have been umpteen period costume dramas and/or fantasy series adaptations headed to television, including Spartacus, Camelot, The White Queen, Vikings, The Bastard Executioner, The Last Kingdom and on the lighter end, The Shannara Chronicles. Similar in tone, if not setting, is the pirate series Black Sails. Networks have been accused of all wanting their own Game of Thrones, though in some cases I think the intent was to ape the sumptuous costume dramas of Showtime, such as The Tudors and The Borgias.

The Wheel of Time is probably one of the more well-known and rather infamous epic fantasy series to exist, and unlike most of what we're covering on this blog, it isn't really all that dark. It sorta straddles the line between adult and young-adult fantasy, in fact, and the darker aspects are more hinted at than really explored. It's a classic good-vs-evil tale, very much in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, if also different in a lot of ways.

It tells the tale of a world where magic (referred to only as "the One Power" or just "the Power) is split in half based on gender. The Dark One (yes, that's the level we're on here) and his minions, the Forsaken, were bound in an eternal prison by Lews Theron Telamon a powerful figure known as the Dragon, a male channeler of the One Power and a member of the order known as the Aes Sedai. In retaliation, the Dark One managed to taint the male half of the One Power, causing anyone who uses it to gradually go mad and eventually destroy themselves. This happened to Lews Therin, who went out in spectacular fashion, creating a giant mountain known as the Dragonmount. A prophecy would later foretell that the Dragon would be reborn on the slopes of the Dragonmount, and that he would destroy the Dark One and save the world, but in the process would destroy himself.

Flash forward to the main timeline, wherein the Aes Sedai is now a female-only organization, the world distrusts One Power users in general and the seals on the Dark One's tomb are weakening. Already the Forsaken are free and they're working to help the Dark One rise.

In a tiny village in a remote part of the world, a shepherd named Rand and two of his friends, gambler Mat and blacksmith Perrin, are found by a mysterious member of the Aes Sedai named Moiraine, who has determined that one of them must be the Dragon Reborn.

That's how it starts, and if you want to know more, the internet pretty much will tell you the rest. The books themselves are among the only series you could probably find on book store shelves in their entirety even today. Really, unless the series is less than two years old, it's pretty hard to find complete collections on modern-day book store shelves, and especially so if the series is very long, which this one is. The only series 20+ years old that you can still find whole these days are pretty much limited to the Middle-Earth books, the Shannara books, the Sword of Truth books and the Wheel of Time. There are 14 volumes and a prequel novel. There's also a graphic novel set that covers the same ground.

To be perfectly blunt, this is one of the more divisive series out there. There are people who love it, people who hate it, people who admit it has a lot of problems but love it anyway and people who hate to admit the series' many glaring flaws. And oh, yes, it has them. In spades. For one thing, it's way too long. I'm all for series with intricate, multiple plots building on each other, and umpteen characters, but a great deal of what happens in this series is pure padding. If you trim the fat from this series, you might get three to five good novels out of it. There are numerous other issues with it, and I don't particularly want to go over all of them as it will take forever and that is not the purpose of this post.

Now, this is one of the first fantasy series I ever read, I was pretty much smack dab in the middle of the target demographic (early 20's) when I started and I also got swept up in the thousands of fan theories the plot generated. One could almost say I grew up with it, but that's not entirely true because I was already an adult when I read it, if still quite a young one. Still, it was one of my introductions to fantasy, and I know it was for a lot of other readers as well, and thus, we forgive a lot about it due to our fondness for it. And personally, I still think the main story is pretty good, and I like the characters, especially some of the supporting cast.

So, would I watch the TV version? You bet I would, and so, I'm willing to bet, would countless others.

But as I tend to do, I'm overthinking this one. How to make this good and not a bland rehash of The Legend of the Seeker, and how to avoid turning it into teeny-bopper silliness like The Shannara Chronicles?

My first thought would be to put Steven S. DeKnight and his production crew behind this one. They're the ones responsible for Spartacus, and while that show could get silly, I think it looked absolutely superb, like the movie 300 brought to television. This would help set The Wheel of Time apart from both Game of Thrones and The Shannara Chronicles early on. After all, it's going to be accused of aping both shows; why not make it as stylistically different as one can?

Michael Hirst I'd like brought in as executive producer and co-head writer. He can bring in his costume designers from The Tudors, because if there's one thing this series is definitely going to need, it's amazing costuming.

Because this series doesn't overdo it with the blood and sex, it doesn't have to air on a cable channel like HBO or Starz, but I like the idea of Showtime, because while Showtime doesn't insist on copious nudity, it also doesn't mind when shows do engage in it. The Wheel of Time has several scenes of nudity, and while Jordan doesn't describe them, it also has quite a bit of sex. Our central hero has three lovers. At once. Hirst and DeKnight both have a history with such material, and will likely show us what Jordan only hinted at, which isn't all that bad because one of the umpteen issues readers had with this series is Jordan's attempts at including sex and sexuality with a kind of blushing, "aw, shucks, they're kissing" mentality.

Other thoughts; age the characters up. A majority of the lead characters are somewhere around 18-20 years old. Not as young as Jon, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys and others were in A Song of Ice and Fire (which is the name of the series Game of Thrones is based on) but still fairly young, and in the early books, they act even younger. Screw that noise. Just make them somewhere in their 20's and cut all the blushing and immaturity. While the interplay between genders (another issue readers had) can be mostly be kept, particularly the idea that men and women continually frustrate each other for similar reasons, the idea that Rand, Mat, Perrin and others have a hard time talking to women at all should be cut, and while these books often do pass the Bechdel Test, too many of the female characters act like love-struck tweens, and that should be toned down as well.

The effects need to be amazing. The Trollocs, Myrdraal, Ogier and others need to enthrall us, not take us out of the story.

Then there's the story and characters themselves. Game of Thrones started out pretty faithful to the books but moved a bit further onto their own path with each season. I think this series should start out being only about half-way faithful. Use the major story landmarks, obviously, and keep our main characters mostly as they are (again, older and with more maturity), but streamline the plot, do away with all the needless side-trails and please, please use composite characters. You think A Song of Ice and Fire has too many characters? This series will drive you nuts.

Do all of that and I think you've got a great show. But I know the question you're all asking, assuming you've read the books: who's going to play Rand?

Well, wonder no more. I've taken the liberty of casting the major characters for the first season. I actually did this a couple of years ago, but several of the actors have aged out of the roles, a few aren't available anymore, and a couple have died. I also have an eye to the idea of making this series more racially mixed. So, the main roles I have changed from my old list.

Here is my cast for The Wheel of Time, Season One.

Matt Milne as Rand al'Thor
Rand is a very hard role to cast because his lineage is important, so whoever plays him has to be red-headed (or easily made so) and very tall. Rand is about 6'6". He'd also have to be the right age and still look handsome and innocent, and a lot of very tall actors either too old or too fierce-looking, or both. Downton Abbey actor Matt Milne is the perfect blend of young, handsome, innocent-looking and almost exactly the right size, at 6'5". Initially I had Black Sails actor Tom Hopper in the part, but Hopper doesn't look like he'll be available any time soon and is close to being too old.
Rosie Day as Gwen al'Vere
First thing to note is that I've changed this character's name. There are already two prominent female characters on this show whose names end with "aine", and "Egwene", this character's name in the books, is actually pronounced "ee-GWAINE". Considering that's just too many "aines", I changed her name to Gwen. Gwen is pretty, but kind of haughty (and only grows more so), so I wanted someone who kinda looked like her shit don't stink. That's why I picked Day, who is also the youngest of the main cast.
Andrew Simpson as Matrim "Mat" Cauthon
Mat Cauthon will be a difficult role to pull off, because he's a gambler and trickster who seems to be pretty knowledgeable of the world despite coming from the Two Rivers, a place few people ever travel from. Andrew Simpson looks so close to how I pictured him that I had to pick him for the part.
Matthew Cheetham as Perrin Aybara
Perrin is also hard because he's supposed to have huge shoulders and look kinda like a football player. I found this guy on an Australian actors' union site, and it doesn't look like he's had much work, but he does have a showreel which shows that he's a pretty good actor and absolutely could play the strong silent type that is Perrin. His broad shoulders also work for the character, though he'll probably have to work out to turn his bulk into muscle.

Anna Julienne as Nynaeve al'Meara
There's got to be some nuance to this character when adapted to the screen. In the book she's kind of a bitch who can't wrap her head around the idea that the world outside her home doesn't work like she's used to and that's not a bad thing. But she also falls in love with a man whose heritage couldn't be more different from hers, so I'd like to see the actress who plays her bring more layers to her.
Antonio Te Moaiha as al'Lan "Lan" Mandragoran
One of the most popular characters from this book, Lan the fierce warrior with the secret heritage is a man of few words who prefers to let his fighting skills talk for him. The actor will need to be skilled, as much of his acting will be with his eyes, and he'll need to be very tall and look like a warrior. That's part of why I chose Te Moaiha up there. Another reason is that the northerners in this world have a culture based somewhat on ancient samurai but don't look Asian. I figured getting them all to be played by Maori actors would be a neat way to introduce some racial mixing.
Jade Anouka as Elmindreda "Min" Farshaw
More racial mixing! Written as a white woman in the series, Min doesn't really delve into her past much, so there's no reason she can't be a runaway Sea Folk (African-like sailors) or something. Min's chief characteristics from the book are that she has visions, prefers men's trousers to dresses and is the most blatantly seductive of Rand's three lovers. Anouka could add something to this role.
Mary McCormick as Elayne Trakand
I'll be honest; much like Egwene, there's not a lot to the part of Elayne, or at least, not much. In both cases I can think of little that sets them apart from other fantasy heroines. Elayne is a princess, and red-headed, and about the same age as Rand. So I picked a New Zealand-based actress that matches that description. She'll do.
Neil Fingleton as Loial
Loial the Ogier is much larger than most humans, to the point where there almost aren't any actors tall enough. Enter Neil Fingleton, England's tallest man, who has gotten into acting of late. At 7'7", he's just about the right size for a short Ogier, and wouldn't need more than make-up to complete the illusion. He's pretty used to being covered in make-up. I am not certain if I would want Fingleton is a good enough actor to pull off this part (pretty much all his roles have been silent thus far) but I did see that he's been taking lessons, so I think he could pull it off.
with Peter Capaldi as Thom Merrilin
Christopher Lloyd was always my Thom throughout the years. As he's still (kinda) acting, I kept thinking he should just go ahead and be cast. But he's now 77 years old and not looking like he's in great health. But I just wasn't sure who else could do it. Every other suggestion is lacking in some way. Sam Elliot is the one I see the most often, because he has the white hair and long mustache already, but he also has a heavy southern drawl that he can't get rid of. So he's out. Then I decided to look for actors who were also musicians and see who fit the bill the most. Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, former rock star who still shreds on a guitar, is perfect. I mean, he's just perfect. He's got Thom's litheness, his projecting voice, the eyes. Ooooh, the eyes. So perfect. And with hair dyed white and a long white mustache, he looks the part perfectly. Now, of course, right now he's the star of one of the biggest sci-fi series in Great Britain the world, but there's two reasons that might not be such a big issue. Partly it's because Doctor Who doesn't film throughout the year, so he'd have time to do two shows, and also he's been talking about leaving after his third series in the role, so he might have open availability.
and Maggie Q as Moiraine
Height? "Ageless" face? Mysterious, cool facial expression? There's no question Maggie Q would make a great Moiraine. I also picture Cairheinin looking slightly Asian, so that fits as well.

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