Welcome to The Wheel of Time: Take a magical first look at Amazon's new fantasy adaptation
Showrunner Rafe Judkins previews his TV take on Robert Jordan's best-selling novel series, starring Rosamund Pike.
It's been two years since Game of Thrones went off the air, and even longer since Amazon chief Jeff Bezos directed his Prime Video team to deliver him a hit akin to the HBO supernova. Into this vacuum steps The Wheel of Time, a new drama (coming November) adapted from author Robert Jordan's best-selling series of the same name.
Spanning a whopping 15 novels, The Wheel of Time — which debuted in 1990 — seemed impossible to adapt before shows like Thrones. But while George R.R. Martin's epic beat Jordan's opus to televisions, showrunner Rafe Judkins believes WoT serves as a perfect bridge between Thrones and the earlier mythic saga The Lord of the Rings (another literary world getting a show at Amazon).
"Wheel of Time is the first fantasy series that really dove into the political and cultural worlds of all these different characters," Judkins (a former Survivor contestant and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. producer) says of the insanely popular and lengthy books. "It was also one of the first to dive into multiple POV characters, so you're following an ensemble, with each of them having their own agendas and approaches to everything. That's always felt to me like the missing piece of the fantasy-literature landscape that hasn't been brought to TV or film yet."
The Wheel of Time also differentiates itself from those other big-name franchises in the way it highlights its female characters. While Middle-earth's most prominent heroine has to disguise herself as a man, and Westeros' few female conquerors are often facing threats of sexual violence, the world of WoT is essentially matriarchal. The largest kingdom in the novels' unnamed land is ruled by a queen who will pass her crown to her daughter rather than her son, and uneasy peace is maintained by the female-only mystic order known as the Aes Sedai.
"These are not just a bunch of princesses swanning around in pretty dresses," says series costume designer Isis Mussenden. "These are women doing jobs. They're taking care of the governance; they're taking care of healing."
The Wheel of Time's most prominent Aes Sedai is Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), who rescues a handful of young villagers after monsters attack their community of Two Rivers. Though the group of new refugees doesn't trust her, "Moiraine is the guide figure in this world," explains Pike, "the mysterious stranger who comes to town and changes their lives forever. They leave with her on a journey that will either save or destroy humanity."
As a member of the Aes Sedai, Moiraine is a master at channeling a magical force called the One Power. Lifetimes earlier, both men and women were able to access the magic, but an evil known as the Dark One tainted the male half. Now any man capable of mysticism is hunted by the Aes Sedai and stripped of his abilities (a process that can turn fatal). Exemplifying this fate is Logain (Álvaro Morte), a man capable of channeling the One Power who attempts to assert himself as the reincarnation of the Dragon, a long-lost messiah. In the photos above, you can can get a glimpse of what the Aes Sedai do to him as a result.
"Just as men are often trying to shut down female power in our world, the Aes Sedai are trying to stop this man from becoming too powerful," Judkins says. "If, hypothetically, one of our male characters were able to use the One Power, they understand the stakes of it from what they see of Logain."
That scenario might be a bit more than a hypothetical. If WoT sticks to the plot of Jordan's books, Moiraine encourages her new female travel companions, Egwene (Madeleine Madden) and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), to embrace their mystic potential. But she also suspects that one of their male cohorts may unknowingly possess "the spark" and be linked to the long-lost messiah known as the Dragon. She's just not sure if it's Rand (Josha Stradowski), Mat (Barney Harris), or Perrin (Marcus Rutherford).
While shooting in Eastern Europe over the past two years (pausing for a significant hiatus due to COVID-19), Judkins and his team felt the pressure to get Jordan's story "right" — and spared no expense crafting a world they hope is embraced by the millions of rabid WoT fans.
"We literally built Shadar Logoth from scratch just for 15 minutes of airtime, because it's that important to the series," Judkins says of the infamous abandoned city, which is haunted by such dark energy that even the monstrous Trollocs hunting our protagonists fear to tread there. "That's where it becomes very clear it's not just the forces of good and evil. There are lots of different angles."
Judkins hopes to explore all those angles as his drama expands beyond Jordan's first WoT book. It helps that Amazon has already commissioned a second season — and that an unrelated WoT prequel movie in the works is sure to boost name recognition — but Judkins knows he must bring in more than the existing die-hard fan base for any chance of his series lasting long enough to cover Jordan's epilogue. To accomplish that goal, he's relying on the author's celebrated world-building.
"I try to stick to the spine and the heart of the books, and bring that to the screen," Judkins says of his philosophy as showrunner. "If I can successfully do that, the story and the characters will sell themselves."
A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.