When writer/producer Rafe Judkins was tasked with bringing “The Wheel of Time” — author Robert Jordan’s beloved 14-volume fantasy book series with a zealous following akin to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin — to big-budget life for Amazon Prime Video, he knew there would be challenges to satisfying longtime fans and luring in new devotees.
“I came into it already a fan of the books — [I] read them all with my mom when I was younger — so I already had the great burden of responsibility on my shoulders,” Judkins, a veteran of “Chuck” and “Agents of SHIELD,” explained during a press preview screening at Hollywood’s Neuehouse.
“A lot of it is about figuring out how to stay true to the heart of what’s there in the books, but also create something that a new audience can understand,” he added. “You don’t have the benefit of pages and pages of exposition that explain the world. You have to figure out how to tell it with visual cues.”
Throughout the adaptation process, Judkins had the aid of the late author’s wife Harriet, as well as Brandon Sanderson, who wrote the final three books after Jordan’s passing. “Brandon is super honest, saying, ‘I don’t think this works, for this reason,’ and then I’m like ‘OK I have to pay serious attention to this,’” Judkins revealed. “And then there have been times to where I’m like, ‘No, this is why we’re doing it. It’s a choice and I actually think it really works and it’s going to work for us long-term.’ And then we agree to disagree on it.”
Judkins also was mindful of just how fluent contemporary TV audiences have become with the conventions of blockbuster fantasy franchises, including “Lord of the Rings,” which was a powerful influence on “The Wheel of Time,” and “Game of Thrones,” which in turn drew inspiration from Jordan’s works. “There’s a lot of stuff in ‘Thrones’ that was kind of cribbed from ‘Wheel of Time’ but now will feel repetitive if we do it,” he said. “We try to lean into all of the things that are fresh, still, in ‘Wheel of Time, [of] which there is so much.”
If he leaned too far away from things that were at the core of the book series, he didn’t think it felt right. This is why, for example, the show stays true to the visual description of the Fade, a breed of shadowy, mounted riders even as it retains a surface resemblance to the Wraiths of Tolkien’s works.
“As you see the Fade move forward, we access all the things that are different about it than the Wraiths in ‘Lord of the Rings’ and try to bring those to the forefront,” he said.
One major benefit Judkins enjoyed was a serious commitment from Amazon — including two seasons and a lavish budget that allowed the production to build the expansive village of Two Rivers for the pilot, only to immediately destroy it and move on to further corners of “The Wheel of Time’s” far-flung world.
“This [pilot] episode feels huge, but we never go back to those sets: Every two episodes, the show keeps expanding and you go to new worlds, and that’s part of the journey, that’s part of what makes the books great,” said Judkins. “It’s exciting for me that this is starting to finally come out because I know the expansive places that it’s going in the next two seasons.”
“The Wheel of Time” premieres Nov. 19 on Amazon Prime Video.
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