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In 1996 a little known fantasy author, nervously counting down to the publication of the first volume of his new sword and sorcery saga, received a welcome phone-call. A much more famous writer had enjoyed the novel and agreed to provide a blurb for the cover. At that moment George RR Martin realised his book, A Game Of Thrones, had an outside shot at success.
"Grabs hold and won't let go,” went the recommendation from Robert Jordan. The endorsement carried huge weight with fantasy readers of the period. When it came to sprawling narratives and invented worlds that felt almost as vivid as our own Jordan was, in the mid-Nineties, a past-master, Martin very much the acolyte.
Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was, at that point, regarded as the natural successor to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It featured a vast cast of characters and a huge, textured universe. Some super-ardent fans were even starting to grumble about Jordan taking too long getting to the end and wondered if the story would ever be told in full. At the time you would have received long odds on Martin ever coming close to his popularity
The situation is now reversed. With the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones having just concluded after eight blockbuster seasons, Martin is one of the world’s best-selling authors with a net worth estimated at $65 million.
And Jordan’s epic, though highly regarded among many (if not all) fantasy devotees, exists very much in the shadow of Game of Thrones. That said, the two series are neck in necks in sales, with the books making up The Wheel of Time having shifted 85 million books compared to 90 million for Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Now The Wheel of Time is set to reach an even wider audience. Filming is to begin in the autumn on an Amazon Studios adaptation of the first of its 14 volumes, The Eye of the World.
Much like Game of Thrones, the initial focus in on a group of young, wide-eyed protagonists forced to step into a hostile and complex world when destiny comes knocking.
Our heroes are fresh faced peasants Rand, Perrin and Mat, plus Rand’s potential love interest Egwene, who has potentially supernatural powers. They are required to flee their remote village of Emond’s Field when dark forces take an unseemly interest.
Their guide early in the journey is Moiraine, a sorceresses who belongs to a mysterious order of female magic users, the Aes Sedai, who will be played by Rosamund Pike. Gradually they are drawn into a climactic conflict for the future of the world and a showdown with the ultimate evil, Shaitan (the equivalent of GoT’s Night King, only he doesn’t break if you drop him).
With the success of Game of Thrones, TV networks are rushing to add fantasy to their slates. Amazon is also working on a Lord of the Rings prequel. Netflix has an adaptation of the Witcher video games and novels in the works. A Game of Thrones spin-off, Bloodmoon, is in production in Belfast. But there is a case that Wheel of Time, with its huge sweep of heroes and villains and intricate lore, could be bigger than any of them.
Game of Thrones had a notoriously long journey to the screen, with Martin turning down many approaches from Hollywood to adapt his life’s work. The Wheel of Times’s progress has been even ricketier. Jordan told the rights in 2004 to production company Red Eagle. To retain them it shot a 22 minute adaptation of the prologue of the Eye of the World, starring Billy Zane and Max Ryan and broadcast just once at 1.30 am on the FXX channel in the US in 2015 (in a horrible coincidence the director / producer of the pilot died in a car-crash the following day).
A legal battle ensued, the rights wrested from Red Eagle and a deal struck with Amazon. Cameras are set to roll in Prague later this year. It’s expected the cast will be announced over the summer, potentially at San Diego Comic-Con.
Already confirmed is that Westworld/Stranger Things director Uta Briesewitz will oversee the first two episodes. A show-runner is already in place too. Rafe Judkins’s path to Amazon’s Wheel of Time almost as wending and unlikely as that of the source material itself. His entry into showbiz was the reality show Survivor, in which he competed when it went to Guatemala in 2005. After that he moved to Los Angeles and wrote for the Christian Slater drama My Own Worst Enemy and comedy-thriller Chuck.
He hasn’t been foolhardy enough to predict Game of Thrones-scale success for his new project. But his belief in Wheel of Time is clear. “The way I’ve pitched it since I first became involved, is that even though the world is incredible, the magic system one of the best in fantasy, and the gender dynamics are so fresh feeling, the thing at the heart of this are the characters,” he told Jordan fans on Twitter.
Jordan and Martin have a great deal in common as writers – in particular, their obsessive world building. So it isn’t unthinkable Wheel of Time could become the next Game of Thrones. It even has several advantages over Martin’s saga. The fact the story is told all the way through for instance.
Jordan, whose real named was James Rigney, passed away fromcardiac amyloidosis in 2007, aged 58 and with the saga in mid air. He had, however, left detailed notes , allowing his widow – also his literary editor – Harriet McDougal approach other authors with a view to finishing the series.
She went first to George RR Martin who is believed to have respectfully declined. With his own A Song of Ice and Fire a long way from complete he presumably felt unable to make the time commitment.
McDougal next turned to the younger fantasy bestseller Brandon Sanderson (who later revealed on Reddit that Martin had been the first choice). Working from Jordan’s drafts he brought the Wheel of Time to an appropriately epic conclusion across three volumes culminating with 2013’s Memory of Light. Whatever else happens with Wheel of Time, the Amazon won’t run out of road.
That, of course, was the major flaw that bedevilled later seasons of Game of Thrones. Required to move past Martin’s published words, show runners David Benioff and DB Weiss had to make up a certain amount of the story themselves (angling towards plot points furnished by Martin). The results were deemed unsatisfactory at best; more than 1.5 million fans have signed a petition demanding HBO re-shoot in full the final season.
Wheel of Time also differs from A Song of Ice on Fire is its explicitness. Jordan’s story of clashing kings is every bit as violent and relentless. But Jordan doesn’t delve into the gruesome specifics – no children are shoved from windows, there are no canoodling twins.
This more discreet sensibility arguably chimes with the post-MeToo consensus on how women, especially, should be portrayed on screen. It certainly marks a break with the tiresome and now hackneyed “sexposition” that was a hallmark of early Game of Thrones and which we could see dating almost in real time.
Indeed, and considering Jordan started working on it in the early Eighties, the saga is notably progressive in its gender politics. Women are portrayed as fully equal in the WoT. Only they can use magic without going insane – this is to simplify the story slightly but communicate the essence of it – and thus are capable of wielding greater power than men. Jordan’s universe is furthermore largely free of the traditional medieval prejudices against gay people.
“I have gay and lesbian characters in my books, but the only time it has really come into the open is with the Aes Sedai because I haven’t been inside the heads of any other characters who are either gay or bi,” Jordan wrote in 2005. “For the most part, in this world such things are taken as a matter of course.” This will, as it should, go down very well in 2019.
What Wheel of Time shares with A Song of Ice and Fire is its mind-blowing scope. True, the first volume, The Eye of the World, reads in places like a pastiche of the Fellowship of the Ring as our heroes are pursued from their rural idyll by nightmarish agents of evil. This was a deliberate strategy on the part of Jordan and his publisher to win over fantasy fans. In the Nineties it was felt a Tolkien-esque premise would help draw in readers.
The longer the story goes, though, the more the world is fleshed-out. So instead of Martin’s Night’s Watch, readers can lose themselves in the power dynamics of the Aes Sedai at its headquarters of the White Tower. Rather than wondering about the political dynamics between Highgarden and King’s Landing, they can contemplate the threat posed by the Children of Light.
Jordan and Martin’s lives unfolded almost in parallel. They were born within a month of each other in 1948 and, coming of age in America in the Sixties, came of age in the shadow of Vietnam. Jordan did two tours of duty, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Martin, for his part was a conscientious objector. A Song Of Ice and Fire can indeed be read as a commentary on the horrors of conflict and the price paid by ordinary people (one of the themes that dominates the later books, particularly the fourth volume, A Feast For Crows).
And each came relatively late to the work that would eventually define them. Martin was in his 40s when he started on A Song of Ice and Fire. By middle age Jordan already had a successful career writing historical fiction. He turned to fantasy because he wanted a grand canvas against which he could interrogate questions of good, evil and manifest destiny.
“Fantasy allows you to create new cultures, experiment with them, and apply a freedom to them that is impossible in the real world,” he said. “Fantasy enables a brighter, clearer portrayal of the struggle between good and evil, allows you to speak more freely about what is right and what is not, and no one can say that your opinion doesn’t fit with what is generally accepted.”
Martin has always credited Jordan with creating an environment in which it would be possible for A Song of Ice and Fire to find its audience. Without the Wheel of Time there would be no ASOIF and no Game of Thrones. He went so far as to name a noble house in the Kingdom of Dorne after his friend. House Jordayne was ruled by Lord Trebor (“Robert” backwards) and their seat was Tor (after Jordan’s publisher).
“Jordan essentially broke the trilogy template that Tolkien helped set up,” Martin said. “He showed us how to do a book that’s bigger than a trilogy. I don’t think my series would’ve been possible without The Wheel of Time being as successful as it was. I’ve always wanted to sprawl, and Jordan, to a great extent, made that possible with his series.”