Adapting a 14-volume, 12,000-page epic for television is no small task. But that hasn’t stopped Amazon Studios from attempting to do just that with The Wheel of Time, a live-action spin on Robert Jordan’s fantasy saga that ranks among the genre’s most popular series ever published.
Between the scope of the source material and the high expectations of a fan base that’s been hearing about a potential adaptation since the early 2000s, The Wheel of Time had a high bar set for it long before cameras began rolling — including one set by Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who’s reportedly pushing the studio to deliver its own Game of Thrones.
Whether the series lives up to those lofty goals remains to be seen. But that external pressure doesn’t appear to be affecting the show’s cast, who remain focused on bringing showrunner Rafe Judkins’ vision for The Wheel of Time to the screen in a way that preserves the themes and essence of the characters while still offering a few unexpected twists and turns for longtime fans.
Set in a world in which a powerful magic called the One Power can be safely wielded by women — but drives men insane — The Wheel of Time chronicles the adventures of a group of men and women from a remote town whose destiny is intertwined with the fate of the entire world. Caught up in a prophecy that suggests one of them will either save humanity or destroy it, the friends soon find themselves swept away on a journey that will take them from one end of their world to the other. and test both their capacity for love and their loyalty to one another.
Speaking to Digital Trends , the series’ cast indicated that the wealth of source material — and the script’s distillation of the saga’s narrative and emotional arcs — has made it surprisingly easy for the cast to get into the heads and hearts of their characters.
“We’re so lucky, because there’s so much material to work with, [and] we don’t really have to do much grabbing for things,” said Zoë Robins, who plays Nynaeve al’Meara, a woman from the small village of Emond’s Field who has learned to manipulate the One Power without formal training and struggles to overcome the limitations of her abilities in the face of terrible new threats.
“Everything is in the books and the scripts,” Robins continued. “Rafe has done an absolutely incredible job. … The characters are written so complex, beautiful, and flawed. It’s nice to to play someone who’s not perfect, because none of us are. And it just makes them so much more relatable and easier to play, because I truly understand Nynaeve and where she’s coming from.”
Among the characters joining Nynaeve on the journey to far-off lands are Rand al’Thor and one of his best friends, Perrin Aybara. Josha Stradowski and Marcus Rutherford play Rand and Perrin, respectively, and the pair said the story’s unique approach to gender dynamics is one of the elements that most appealed to them about The Wheel of Time.
“It really is at the foundation of The Wheel of Time,” Rutherford said. “When women have that sort of superiority, it affects how the male characters function in the world. So [our characters] have different qualities to them, essentially being the underdogs in this story, in a way.”
“And if men try to use the One Power and change that dynamic, they become a danger to themselves and the people around them,” added Stradowski. “But ultimately, the show is about finding balance.”
That dynamic offered some intriguing twists on character relationships for other members of the cast, too.
In the series, Madeleine Madden portrays Egwene al’Vere, whose love for Rand is complicated by her burgeoning skills with the One Power and the expectation that she’ll become one of the town’s spiritual leaders. Her instruction in wielding the magical force is interrupted when she and her friends are whisked away by Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a skilled magic user tasked with finding the prophesied figure from their world’s lore.
“When the books came out, it was something that was so ahead of its time, this world where the matriarchy really is running the world,” Madden told Digital Trends. “That’s something that was exciting to read. And they’ve done an amazing job of contemporizing that in this adaptation. … It’s amazing to play such strong female protagonists, and that’s something people really relate to and connect with, particularly in this day and age.”
“I feel a lot of similarities to Egwene,” added Madden. “She’s quite determined and independent and wants to make a difference. With what’s going on socially and politically in the world, a lot of women and girls will be able to relate to that characteristic of hers. So I hold her really close to my heart.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the books and script were the only places the cast turned to when researching their characters and the arcs they followed.
With more than 90 million copies of The Wheel of Time books sold worldwide (putting it on par with both The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones in its reach), Jordan’s series has spawned a large, active, and still-growing fan base both inside the fantasy literature community and among general readers. The breadth of interest in the series has — as with any popular story — also spawned an active online fan community that, according to Robins, offered yet another way to get in touch with her character’s place in the story.
“How I approached Nynaeve at the beginning was just trying to consume as much information as possible,” she explained. “That included watching YouTube videos by Daniel Greene and reading Reddit and all those types of things.”
And as some of the cast members admit, the availability of all that material also has led to some reading ahead among the actors — but not too far ahead, given how long it takes to get through all 14 volumes. “It’s quite a lot,” laughed Stradowski.
“When you have so much source material there, as an actor, you have to use it,” said Rutherford when asked how far ahead he’s read in the books. “We all started reading the books before we started shooting season 1, so I know the trajectory of where my character goes. But the scripts draw on some different elements, so it’s important not to get stuck in the books. Just having an idea of where your character’s going is probably the best way to approach it.”
No matter where Perrin, Nynaeve, Rand, and Egwene are headed, though, the actors playing them each feel that their characters’ stories offer a unique opportunity to approach the fantasy genre from a new angle — and that ends up being its own reward.
“As actors and especially as women, it’s a dream job, really, and dream characters to play,” said Madden.
Season 1 of The Wheel of Time series premieres November 19 on Amazon Prime Video.