Why The Wheel of Time succeeds as an adaptation (and The Witcher fails)

Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios /
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Not all adaptations are created equal. For every Game of Thrones, which translated its source material fairly faithfully (until it ran out), there are legions of adaptations like The Golden Compass or The Legend of Earthsea, where the soul of the original work has been sucked out, not to mention groan-worthy cash grabs like The Hobbit trilogy.

Since the success of HBO’s fantasy phenomenon, we’ve seen a swell of companies adapting fantasy and science fiction stories that they might never have had the daring to before. At the end of 2021, two big ones dominated the conversation: Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, based on the 15-book series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson; and the second season of Netflix’s The Witcher, based on the bestselling short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. While both adaptations include large changes from their respective source books, one managed it far more successfully. We’re here today to discuss why.

A note before we begin: Opinions and tastes are subjective, especially with reviews like this. Both of these shows have done things that some fans have liked and others have loathed. I’m not here to try and convince you that you should or shouldn’t like a show; enjoy what you enjoy. What I am going to do is dissect how these shows are in conversation with their source material.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about why The Wheel of Time succeeds as an adaptation while The Witcher fails. Of course, you should be warned that there will be SPOILERS for both shows as well as their respective book series below.

The Wheel of Time
Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc. Image: Jan Thijs /

Who is the Dragon Reborn?

Let’s start with The Wheel of Time. This is the tale of a group of young people who are whisked away from their sleepy village by a sorceress and her steely-eyed bodyguard; as you can tell, it starts out about as familiar as fantasy stories get. As we already started to find out this season, things grow more interesting the farther you get into the story, but at the start, The Wheel of Time might not feel like it’s reinventing the wheel much.

But how does the show stack up as an adaptation? There were some major changes made in the first season, including the cutting of locations and characters, several deaths, compressing storylines, and at least one major plot deviation that was likely the result of main cast member Barney Harris having to leave the production. In short, it felt like The Wheel of Time had to make some really difficult choices to adapt a basically unadaptable story. Was I sad to not see the city of Caemlyn this season? Sure. But it also made sense that the show could only go to so many locations in eight episodes and needed to focus on the ones it could get the most use out of. For instance, many of the events that happen in Caemlyn in the first book happen in Tar Valon on the show, Tar Valon being a city the story returns to again and again. Why not save some money and build a set you know you’ll be using for the long haul?

The inclusion of plotlines from other books, like the Aes Sedai politicking or Moiraine and Siuan’s romance, also served the story well. The Wheel of Time feels like an adaptation of the series as a whole, not a book-by-book thing. Which was always going to be the case, right? Showrunner Rafe Judkins has gone on record as saying that he hopes the show can last for around eight or so seasons. There are 15 books, including a prequel revolving around Moiraine. We were never going to see a one-to-one adaptation of this story; for logistical reasons, it’s just not possible.

On the flip side, what changes the show is making mostly feel like they are coming from the source material in some way or another. Moiraine and Siuan’s romance is a great example. This is book canon, but held very much in the background of the prequel novel New Spring. Judkins and his team took those “kernels” that Robert Jordan peppered throughout his series and blew them up to make more meaningful story arcs. For the most part, it really feels like that worked.

That’s not to say there weren’t hiccups. There were changes in the season finale I didn’t love, like separating the team for the journey into the Blight and cutting out two of the Forsaken. But again, they were mostly understandable since the show is playing up the ensemble nature of the story. The first book, The Eye of the World, focuses extremely heavily on Rand’s point of view, while the rest of the series is told from many perspectives. The show made the conscious decision to be an ensemble piece from the get-go, to give viewers a more honest idea of what to expect from the show overall.

In conclusion, it feels an awful lot like the changes and choices made by The Wheel of Time team were done with a lot of care and reverence for the source material. There was never a feeling that they were changing things for the hell of it, but because they were doing the best they could with the medium in which they were working.

Sometimes, the changes even ended up working out better for the story, as with the mystery over who the Dragon Reborn was. This was something the show played way up, and it worked really well. In the books it’s far more obvious that it’s Rand, since we spent more time with him. Here, first-time viewers could plausibly be in suspense.

There’s still a sense that The Wheel of Time is finding its footing…but to my mind it has never been a question that the show is trying really hard to do its best by Robert Jordan’s story.