The fantasy genre on live-action television used to be limited to a few campy, juvenile shows, but HBO’s Game of Thrones changed the playing field forever. Now that the grimly magical hit has completed its eighth and final season, epic fantasy is destined to become a staple of high-budget long-form drama. Filming on the first official spinoff of Thrones has already wrapped, but it’s inevitable that there will also be unrelated shows attempting to replicate its massive success. Two of these are coming to Amazon Studios: one based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, and one based on Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
Most of us are, at the very least, acquainted with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, which recently revealed its core cast and began filming, is a different animal. The book series that inspired it is a landmark of speculative literature from the 90s, predating George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones-inspiring A Song of Ice and Fire series. However, many television viewers won’t be familiar with these books. As a result, they may go into The Wheel of Time with some assumptions about what high fantasy means -- specifically, they may expect a setting that resembles medieval England.
Ever since Tolkien shaped the modern fantasy genre by reimagining ancient “fairy stories” for compelling novels, certain tropes have seemed unavoidable. Where there’s magic, there are monarchies, swordplay, travel on horseback, blacksmiths, innkeepers, and women in flowing gowns. The fiction that’s followed in the footsteps of The Lord of the Rings is all over the map in terms of quality and originality, but most writers don’t try to obscure the influence of European history on their mythical cultures.
At first glance, the world of The Wheel of Time looks like another sword-and-sorcery setting, but its premise has one key deviation: long before the story begins, all nations and peoples were scattered across the globe in an event known as the Breaking of the World. This removed individuals from their ancestral homelands. Even the collective memories of the time before the Breaking are rare and unreliable, so if there was ever a parallel to the British Empire, there’s no trace of it now.
The difference this change creates in the story is evident from the beginning. It's seen in the cultural views on gender, the lack of religious customs, and even the pace of industrial development: these people came from different roots than what we know.
This is why the racial diversity of the actors who have joined the cast is so inspired. Although most of the characters were described as white in the books, there’s no canonical reason for them to look like Europeans.
In the books, the main character, Rand al’Thor, is said to stand out from others in his village due to his tall stature and red hair, and this becomes a clue that his parentage is not what he had been raised to believe (another classic staple of the genre). It appears that the actor playing him, Josha Stradowski, still stands out, but now it’s because the other characters that populate his village are not only dark-haired but dark-skinned. There’s also enough physical variation among them that Rand’s ginger coloration wouldn’t necessarily be a dead giveaway of his origins.
The Wheel of Time doesn’t need to draw from real-world history at all, in fact -- and that opens all kinds of possibilities for the setting and how it corresponds to real parts of Earth. This could even extend to subtle visuals in the background -- for instance, early in the first book, there’s a reference to a badger. If we see one, will it be a European badger or an American badger?
There’s also a greater range of options for the accents the characters will use. Another oddity of the books is that there are essentially only two languages ever used, and one, the “Old Tongue,” is dead. Whether or not that detail is kept for the show, there are a great many ways that English can be spoken, and more than one is bound to be used.
Footage of the core cast’s table read suggests they’re going for the usual generic British tones. But as more of the world is introduced, we may hear some delightfully out-of-place American or Australian voices to represent the more exotic and distant of the story’s cultures, like the desert-dwelling Aiel or the tyrannical Seanchan.
Jordan and his co-author Brandon Sanderson liked to sneak in the occasional hint that there was, in fact, some kind of connection between our world and the World of the Wheel. These references might show up in the form of a displaced car-hood ornament or a legend about a hero who sounds suspiciously similar to King Arthur. Rather than painting the story as an alternate Earth, this device enhanced the otherworldliness of the setting. It may take place in another dimension, but it's not a metaphorical look at ours.
What other ways could The Wheel of Time shake up the expectations of high fantasy while still honoring its source material? The Lord of the Rings might always be the yardstick against which all others tales of magic are measured, and Game of Thrones might be the original hit epic fantasy TV show, but audiences may soon find that there’s more to the genre than what Tolkien and Martin have given us.
Produced by Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television, The Wheel of Time stars Rosamund Pike as Moiraine Damodred, Daniel Henney as al'Lan Mandragoran, Josha Stradowski as Rand al'Thor, Zoë Robins as Nynaeve al'Meara, Barney Harris as Mat Cauthon and Madeleine Madden as Egwene al'Vere. Rafe Judkins is showrunner and executive producer, aided by Robert Jordan's widow and former editor Harriet McDougal, who will serve as consulting producer.