A couple of years ago, in that near-forgotten era when we could travel almost freely, I canvassed social media as to what should be my relaxing but involving holiday read during a fortnight in Greece. One suggestion — and this is why you should never trust the literary advice of random strangers — was Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.
I started the first book full of bright hope. It would be my new Tolkien-meets-Game of Thrones. Besides the strong personal recommendation and the slew of five-star reviews on Amazon, what persuaded me was the fact that the late author had served two heavily decorated tours of duty as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. Then he went on to do a physics degree and worked for the US Navy as a nuclear engineer. How could a polymathic war hero like that fail to hit the spot?
Quite easily, as it turned out. The tranquil, innocent but jolly village at the beginning is a rip-off of the Shire; the heroes are essentially hobbits with their personality removed; the evil creatures chasing them (“Trollocs”) are just revamped Orcs, with the odd Dark Rider-like horseman thrown in for good measure. None of this would have bothered me — talent borrows, genius steals — were it not for the fact that the prose was so leaden, the dialogue so basic, and the characters so uninspiring.
Still, I thought, as I tossed the book aside: at least when the inevitable TV adaptation comes I’ll be able to see what I missed. Now, here it is courtesy of Amazon. And do you know what? I think the screen version might be even worse than the book.
True to the genre, all the characters have annoying, unpronounceable names (al’Lan Mandragoran; Nynaeve al’Meara; Perrin Aybara; etc). The most prominent of these in the action so far is Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) who belongs to a witch-like group of seers/guardians/spell-weavers called the Aes Sedai whom most ordinary folk seem to fear and detest.
I can quite understand this because they are crotchety, up themselves and with zero sense of humor. They are also, as witches are, very much into the idea of women being a special breed apart with deeper insight, more powerful connections with the Earth, and so on. I remember now that this clunky, New Age feminism is the other thing that really irked me about Jordan’s books. Perhaps, I excused him, it was a ploy he had adopted to get into his female audience’s underwear. Surely there could be no way a macho man actually believed this tripe?
Anyway, Moiraine is fine as far as she goes: a kind of cold but sexy-ish Gandalf, whose magical powers come in handy when someone needs a festering wound healed or when a village comes under attack from hordes of Trollocs who need to be fireballed to oblivion. But you don’t much like her because she is so withdrawn and mysterious.
Nor do you much like anyone else either. This is a particular problem in the case of the four young protagonists from the Shire-like village, one of whom, we gather, is unwittingly the Dragon Reborn who will liberate the world from the encroaching dark forces of the Shadow. “Gosh, which one of them will it be: Rand, Mat, Perrin or Egwene?” we are supposed to wonder. But we don’t because they just come across like petulant teenagers with no discernible personality.
At least Barney Harris, who plays Mat, can actually act. Unfortunately, this cruelly exposes the school play-level mediocrity of the others, who appear to have been cast for their physical appearance rather than for their thespian abilities. You might say that it was ever thus with drama series of this kind. But I don’t recall any of the youngsters in Game of Thrones being quite this wooden, even in the first series before they’d grown into their roles.
Which makes me wonder: why is this so markedly inferior to Thrones? It can’t surely be budget, because Amazon is hardly less flush with cash than HBO. And it can’t be all down to the awfulness of the books, which were, after all, mostly number one bestsellers (ninety million copies so far: the most successful epic fantasy series since Lord of the Rings). But something has definitely gone awry with the alchemy that decides whether or not a new TV series is going to run and run or fade swiftly into oblivion. Meddling studio execs obsessed with diversity may be part of the problem. Also, perhaps, the absence of a script editor capable of appreciating that Jordan’s portentous but trite and lumbering dialogue desperately needed a spice-up before being let anywhere near a TV screen. All I do know is that as far as The Wheel Of Time is concerned my watch has ended.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.