The first book in the epic Wheel of Time series came out 30 years ago, but we’re just now getting an adaptation. We dig into the saga’s torturous journey from page to screen.
We here at WinterIsComing.net have spent a lot of time writing about Amazon’s upcoming adaptation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time novel series. When one of the best-selling epic fantasy series of the past century finally lands a major studio, you pay attention.
And we do mean “best-selling,” as in an estimated 80 million copies sold worldwide. And yet the saga hasn’t gotten a proper film or TV adaptation until now. One would think that with such a massive audience, studios would have jumped at the chance to adapt this series years ago, so what took so long?
As a younger fan of the series, I was interested in answering that question myself. After a bit of research, I managed to track the journey of The Wheel of Time from pen to print to production and got a better understanding of the agonizing wait the fans have endured.
The Wheel of Time begins
It is said that there are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time, but our story starts in 1984, when James Oliver Rigney — better known by his pen name Robert Jordan — proposed his idea for an epic fantasy series to the head of Tor Books, Tom Doherty. The story was laid out on a panel that included Doherty at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2008. “I’ve got a great idea for an epic fantasy, and it’s going to be six books,” Jordan told Doherty. That first book came five years late, finally getting published in 1989, but Doherty fell in love with it anyways.
Tor prepared a marketing campaign of 5,000 Advance Reader Copies of the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, and sent one to every bookstore in the country. Upon release, the 40,000 first editions sold out almost immediately. When the second book, The Great Hunt, came along, sales of The Eye of the World shot up again, selling double what it had sold the first time.
Jordan was writing full-time at a rapid pace for the next several years until he completed the seventh volume, A Crown of Swords, which came out in 1996. At that point he started to slow down, delivering a book every two years instead of every one. Every subsequent book in the series would reach the top spot on The New York Times Best Seller list, which attracted the attention of top-tier production studios.
The Red Eagle era
In 2000, there was a short-lived attempt to make a Wheel of Time series at NBC, which had optioned the rights that year. Unfortunately, interest in the project dried up, and in 2004 Jordan sold the television, film, video game and comic book rights to The Wheel of Time to Red Eagle Entertainment. In March of that year, Red Eagle released a statement promising to “bring the storytelling magic of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time to film audiences worldwide.”
While NBC was interested in a series adaptation, Red Eagle wanted to make a feature film. Remember, this would been around the time that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies were bowling over audiences, and they wanted to throw their hat in the ring.
There was hardly a word about the status of that film for two years, until in June of 2006 they released another statement, this time about work on a Wheel of Time comic book. The statement also reiterated a live-action feature film was coming based on The Eye of the World.
It was clear that both Robert Jordan and his fans were growing tired of Red Eagle Entertainment dragging this out; they wanted the rights to go to someone who would actually do something with them. On August 22, 2007, Jordan wrote a blog post that betrayed some tension between him and the studio:
"I hear things now and then floating out in the air. For instance, I hear that word was floating about ComicsCon in San Diego that I am displeased with Red Eagle. Too true. Too very true. In a few more months that last contract they have with anyone on God’s green earth that so much as mentions my name will come to an end and we can see what happens after that. You see, among other things they forgot an old dictum of LBJ back when he was just a Congressman from Texas, when he famously, or infamously, said “Don’t spit in the soup, boys. We all have to eat.” Worse, Red Eagle though they could tell me they spit in the soup, or pee in it, if they wanted to and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them. You can’t apologize your way out of that with me, not that they tried. There isn’t enough money in the world to buy your way out of it with me. Not that they tried that either. So they get no further help from me. Once they are completely out of the picture, we’ll see what happens."
Jordan didn’t provide details on what exactly Red Eagle had been doing to so displease him, but their partnership was obviously not working.
Jordan wrote that blog post shortly before he died on September 16, 2007, at which point Stormlight Archive author Brandon Sanderson took over the writing of the series, and would go on to turn out the final three books. Meanwhile, Red Eagle Entertainment finally struck a seven-figure deal with Universal Pictures to make a Wheel of Time movie. A couple months after the deal was made, Red Eagle cofounders Rick Selvage and Larry Mondragon again outlined their intentions to adapt “a big-budget, live-action film” based on The Eye of the World, and it seemed like things were finally moving forward.
But as Wheel of Time fans know, a movie never happened, so something must have gone wrong. Four years later at JordanCon in 2012, Jordan’s wife and editor Harriet McDougal had this to say about the Universal deal:
"The year after my husband’s death, I signed a big, fat contract with Universal giving them the movie rights. They have the rights by contract to make a miniseries or movies of The Wheel of Time books, and they have seven years to get the first movie into theaters. And I’ve forgotten what the timing is on the miniseries."
It almost seems as if she was counting down the days until that contract expired, at which point the rights to her husband’s story would revert to his development company Bandersnatch Group, Inc.
The crappy quickie Wheel of Time pilot
Unbeknownst to McDougal, Red Eagle Entertainment was working another angle. On February 8, 2015, in the dead of night, FXX aired a sloppily produced pilot episode for a Wheel of Time show called “Winter Dragon,” which roughly adapted the prologue to The Eye of the World. It was 22 minutes long, starred Billy Zane as Ishamael, and was made purely so Red Eagle could fulfill the letter of the contract and hold onto the TV rights to The Wheel of Time a while longer, even though it had no intention of actually making this into a TV show.
The pilot is godawful. Watch if you don’t believe me:
Speaking to Io9, Selvage explained what was going on. “You probably know that a lot of pilots are put on the air at different times in different ways, and for different reasons… there’s always an air-date that you need to air something by… and that was certainly part of it.” He claimed the episode was “a pilot for a high-budget production television series,” again suggesting that there were plans to adapt the whole series, but fans saw the move for what it was:
FXX later confirmed that the pilot was “client-supplied programming,” meaning Red Eagle had paid to air it, something often done with infomercials. The morning after the pilot aired, a frustrated McDougal issued a statement on Facebook emphasizing her disapproval:
"This morning brought startling news. A “pilot” for a Wheel of Time series, the “pilot” being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post).It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.I see no mention of Universal in the “pilot”. Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way."
In response, Red Eagle Entertainment sued McDougal for slader-of-title, although the suit was later withdrawn.
The Wheel of Time makes its way to Amazon
As bizarre as it was, the airing of the pilot and the resulting legal scuffle seemed to clear the way for something new to finally happen with The Wheel of Time film and TV rights. In April of 2016, McDougal released a statement giving fans a heads-up that an announcement was coming soon from “a major studio”:
One year later, fans got the news that a Wheel of Time television series was moving forward at Sony Pictures Television. Sony would produce alongside Red Eagle Entertainment, but their role is unclear to this day. It was also revealed that Wheel of Time superfan Rafe Judkins was attached to write and serve as executive producer.
Another year later, in February of 2018, it was announced that the show was in development at Amazon Studios. Fast-forward to October, and Amazon officially ordered The Wheel of Time to series. “The Wheel of Time is endlessly fascinating and resonates hugely with fans as one of the best-selling global properties, and we were drawn to its timely narrative featuring powerful women at the core,” said Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios. “We’re thrilled to extend our relationship with devotees who’ve found the book series transformative and welcome new ones by bringing it to life on Prime Video for viewers worldwide.”
The Wheel of Time finally looked it was getting the glossy adaptation it deserved, but experience had taught fans that they weren’t out of the woods yet. It all almost felt too good to be true.
But by the time Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike was cast as Moiraine Damodred in June of 2019, fans could finally let themselves relax. We’ve followed the production since, and everything seems to be going swimmingly, from the casting to the sets.
The Wheel of Time fandom has had to travel a tough road to get here, but after years of empty promises and false starts, it’s finally time to stop being worried and start getting excited.
There’s no exact release date for The Wheel of Time set just yet, but expect the first season sometime in 2021.