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The Wheel of Time’s showrunner is ready to adapt the unadaptable

“I feel a special burden laying me down, crushing me, of just wanting to deliver for this thing that I love”

Rosamund Pike rides a horse in a still from Wheel of Time season 1 Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon

Amazon’s The Wheel of Time series is an adaptation in every sense of the word. What showrunner Rafe Judkins has clearly recognized, from the outset, is that there’s no way to bring a carbon copy of fantasy author Robert Jordan’s expansive world to screen, particularly in just eight episodes. But what Judkins says his show can do is stay true to the spirit of the series, and what highlight what it is that has given The Wheel of Time such an enduring legacy.

In the lead up to The Wheel of Time’s Nov. 19 premiere on Prime Video, Polygon discussed the series with Judkins over Zoom, where he addressed something that’s been a common refrain during the press tour: With those other huge fantasy series — Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones — in the works, comparisons seem inevitable. Did he think about the giant HBO-sized dragon sitting in the room?

Wheel of Time in the literary world really sits as kind of the pillar between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones,” Judkins said with the confidence of someone who gets the canon. “But [the show is] coming out after both of them. So, we have to be mindful of that I think, too. There are things that Wheel of Time created that Game of Thrones did their riff on, and it’ll feel like we’re being repetitive when it was actually in Wheel of Time first.”

With all that in mind, Judkins is excited for new audiences to discover the series. He knows the legacy of Wheel of Time doesn’t begin or end with his show. “A lot of people are picking up a fantasy series today […] it’s not like if you didn’t read it in the ’90s, you’ll never read it. Or if you didn’t start Game of Thrones at the beginning that you’re not going to pick it up. People are picking up Lord of the Rings today and reading it,” Judkins says of his approach to adapting a book with an ever-expanding fan base. “I try to be really true to what the Wheel of Time books are, and what makes them great.”

Longtime fans of Wheel of Time might find the consistent comparison between the two frustrating, but as the closest comparison and current TV fantasy heavyweight, Thrones has trained mass audiences to expect salacious scenes and intense violence from an epic fantasy television series. But Wheel of Time has always been a much more innocent series —there’s a sweetness and naïveté to the characters that Jordan leaned into. “There’s way more nudity in Witcher or Game of Thrones, but that’s not really true to The Wheel of Time series, and we don’t need it to tell the stories that we have with the characters that we have. It’s an adult world. So, you still see stuff sometimes, but we’re never really super graphic with that kind of stuff.”

The cast of Wheel of Time stand in a picturesque cliff in a season 1 still of the Amazon show. Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon Prime

Despite this commitment to keeping the innocence the books relish, there was a deliberate choice to age all the characters up, giving them adult experiences to build from, like the controversial decision to give Perrin Aybara a wife.

“In the books they’re all around 17 or 18, and we really felt that it was important to make them feel more like they were 20-21 — and to do that and have it feel authentic we also had to have those characters have a further emotional life that they’ve been leading,” Judkins says. “We felt like it was important to try to find a way to put some of these more adult concepts and relationships into their lives. So when the show starts it doesn’t feel like Moiraine [Sedai, played by Rosamund Pike] walking into the Two Rivers is the first day of everyone’s life. It should feel, hopefully, like they’ve all led complex, emotional lives and now they’re being swept off on this whole journey together.”

The shift of focus to Pike’s character is also a departure from the books. Jordan was, at the time, one of the few mainstream male authors to focus so heavily on women in his epic fantasy. But what was forward thinking 30 years ago now reads as a frustrating commitment to the binary, and Judkins “always” kept discussion going in the writer’s room about how to tackle the books’ philosophy where men act one way and can access one part of the magic and women another. Judkins says he understands that Jordan’s binary-centric motifs were rooted in an attempt to focus on how important balance is to his universe. The question now is how the show can latch onto that idea and make it their own.

“This is a world of balance and the world of yin and yang and the strength you always have to have. In the first episodes, you already see some of the stuff we’ve done with gender,” Judkins says, with an eye towards growth. “As the show continues on, too, we’re always trying to keep that conversation alive and make sure that we’re still doing the thing that he was trying to do in the ‘90s but doing it today.”

At the end of the day, these changes are personal for Judkins, too. He’s also a fan. Judkins read the books at a formative age and he’s discussed how he and his mother used the books as a way to connect with each other, he as a young gay kid in Utah and she as a matriarch in a Mormon family. The Wheel of Time gave them a way to connect and build empathy for these characters who had to exist in a world where they were different. With that in mind, he feels a particular weight of responsibility to do right by fans like himself.

“I feel a special burden laying me down, crushing me, of just wanting to deliver for this thing that I love, and my mom loves, and so many of the women in my family love. I just want so much for the show to deliver for the people who really love it the thing that they love, while at the same time truly creating something that can translate to television,” Judkins says. “It’s built as a book series, I have to build this as a TV show. I hope that the changes that I’ve made and the changes we’ve had to make to do that still give the heart of it that people can fall in love with.”

The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Nov. 19.