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The Wheel of Time First Reviews: Amazon Created an 'Inviting' Big Budget Fantasy, Critics Say

The streaming giant's adaptation of Robert Jordan’s book series will please die-hard fans, critics say, but some worry newcomers may not connect with the sprawling story and its characters.

by | November 16, 2021 | Comments

The next fantasy book series to get the television treatment is Robert Jordan’s hugely popular The Wheel of Time, which premieres its first three episodes to Amazon Prime Video on Friday, November 19.

Following the lives of five villagers whose reality is changed forever when a powerful woman arrives, stating one of them is marked as the “Dragon Reborn,” a reincarnated essence who may follow through on a path to either bring darkness unto the world or save it. The balance between light and dark is tested, bringing forth an epic journey for all the characters involved. Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney play magical warrior Moiraine Damodred and her bodyguard Lan Mondragoran, respectively, and lead the ensemble cast that includes Marcus Rutherford as Perrin Aybara, Madeleine Madden as Egwene al’Vere, Barney Harris as Mat Cauthon , Josha Stradowsky as Rand al’Thor, and Zoë Robbins as Nynaeve al’Meara.

Big expectations are riding on the series, considering it’s based on 14 books. Does it live up to the hype? Here’s what critics are saying about The Wheel of Time season 1:


HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO THE BOOKS?

If you’re a fan of the genre and just want to partake in the spectacle of an imaginary world filled with Not Orcs and Kinda Witches, you’re probably in for a decent time. (And if you’re a fan of Robert Jordan’s books, hoping these beloved novels will inspire TV’s next great fantasy show… well, lower your expectations.) – Ben Travers, IndieWire

The books have been adapted for the screen by Rafe Judkins, a veteran writer of nerd-friendly shows like Chuck and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a professed lifelong fan of the Wheel of Time series. Perhaps his approach will please fellow Robert Jordan obsessives, but as someone approaching the show as a total newcomer to the world (as I was to [Game of] Thrones), the appeal of the story — and, in particular, of the central characters — proved elusive. – Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone

It’s tough, though, to know what the average TV viewer, used to the cynicism of Game of Thrones and sarcasm of the MCU, will make of such an earnest saga of friends embarking on a clear-cut quest to save the world. Amazon’s The Wheel of Time is the show that Robert Jordan fans want, but who else does? – Megan O’Keefe, Decider

When The Wheel of Time does fire on all cylinders, it’s proof that it might actually be possible to fit the book into a coherent TV show. – Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge


HOW IS THE STORYTELLING AND WORLD-BUILDING?

The Wheel of Time

(Photo by Jan Thijs/©2020 Amazon Prime Video)

If this is an attempt to match what “Thrones” became in popular memory, Judkins and his team would be well-advised to recall that much of that drama’s first season was a high-stakes character drama, not a war with a new front opening each episode. This perversely gives the show a pinched and narrow-feeling universe, with its focus limited to what peril lies directly ahead. – Daniel D’Addario, Variety

This is a series that really could only be adapted by a studio with the ambitions and budget of Amazon, which is reportedly spending $10 million per episode to build and destroy elaborate sets and fuse CGI with practical effects to make its magic and monsters come to life. Every aspect of the production is lushly realized, from the intricate armors and costumes to the way Aes Sedai and their Warder guardians fight in concert with a beauty reminiscent of wuxia films. – Samantha Nelson, IGN Movies

That frenetic pacing and structuring of the story do make it somewhat difficult to follow at times — there were frequent scenes where a character might have a single line before moving onto the next, or ones that felt they were there just to dump exposition out. – Preeti Chhibber, Polygon

The show does generally look good, with sweeping shots of the lovely Czech landscapes, impressive costumes, and expensive-looking sets. The depiction of the primary form of magic (“channeling”), where characters are meant to be drawing in power from the world around them and weaving it into blasts of fire or bursts of air, is more hit or miss. Some scenes manage to portray it as powerful and compelling magic, while others consist of characters just standing around while white wisps of smoke fly around them. – Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge

The Wheel of Time novels have had the benefit of thousands of pages to explain the ins and outs of the fantasy world, but this series drops you in with minimal exposition. We are forced to quickly determine who the various factions are, their importance to the plot, and how magic impacts everything. – Alex Maidy, JoBlo’s Movie Network


HOW IS ROSAMUND PIKE’S PERFORMANCE?

The Wheel of Time

(Photo by Jan Thijs/©2020 Amazon Prime Video)

​​Pike’s sheer presence is often the most compelling thing in a given scene, and the show suffers even more during a stretch where Moiraine is sidelined by injury. – Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone

Pike is an odd, absorbing centerpiece. Even when she sleeps through an episode (literally), the “Gone Girl” star gives just enough to keep you invested in Moiraine’s good health and grand plans. (The actor’s measured approach also helps keep the show from tipping overboard when select colleagues go way too big.) – Ben Travers, IndieWire

​​Pike is more than up to the task, embodying the agelessness and wisdom Jordan wrote of, but layering in a needed thread of humanity — even if her perfected tear-filled eyes do get to be a bit overused at times. – Preeti Chhibber, Polygon


WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE CAST?

The Wheel of Time

(Photo by Jan Thijs/©2020 Amazon Prime Video)

The main cast perfectly embodies the characters who have been taking up space in my head for months, and showrunner Rafe Judkins cleverly juggles the show’s extensive lore. – Megan O’Keefe, Decider

The actors, aside from Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney, are forgettable and generic. The fact that Barney Harris departed at the end of season one to be recast by Donal Finn should be a testament to how interchangeable these characters are. – Alex Maidy, JoBlo’s Movie Network

After a few episodes the young actors do start to come into their own, but there’s a lot about the performances that feels hesitant or even tropey. That’s not helped by the fact that we don’t really get to know any of them with any depth, even when they split off into pairs. – Allison Keene, Paste Magazine

Abdul Salis is a real stand-out with his role of the painfully reprehensible Whitecloak Questioner Eamon Valda, part of a group of zealots who arbitrarily designate people as Dark Friends and who hate and hunt the Aes Sedai. He’s terrifying and his first appearance calls to mind John Noble’s Denethor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. – Preeti Chhibber, Polygon


Related: New The Wheel of Time Character Posters Debut


IS THIS THE FANTASY HIT AMAZON’S LOOKING FOR?

The Wheel of Time

(Photo by Jan Thijs/©2020 Amazon Prime Video)

In its early episodes this big Wheel has enough sweep, mystique and momentum to suggest that it can keep on turning and give Amazon the global hit it dearly craves. – Ed Power, Daily Telegraph (UK)

The Wheel of Time is an interesting attempt at adapting Robert Jordan’s behemoth of a book series, but it’s also dragged down both by its unwieldy source material and its efforts to twist itself into a second coming of Game of Thrones. – Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge

We’ll have to see next year how effectively House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings have used their budgets, but the underwhelming Wheel of Time is a reminder that money alone does not make a fantasy world go around. – Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone

The Wheel of Time can’t be the next Game of Thrones. It’s just not in the source material’s DNA. But Prime Video’s series has the chance to be the first true Wheel of Time, and that excites this all-too-earnest nerd to bits. – Megan O’Keefe, Decider


ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?

The Wheel of Time

(Photo by ©2020 Amazon Prime Video)

The Wheel of Time is too accomplished to be a total wash but not nearly distinct enough to set itself apart from everything else on TV these days. – Alex Maidy, JoBlo’s Movie Network

For all its intricate world building, “The Wheel of Time” tends to spin smoothest if you don’t examine its pieces too closely. – Ben Travers, IndieWire

The Wheel of Time has enough potential to ride past these initial frustrations thanks to a high budget and deep commitment from the actors to faithfully bring the magic of this story to life. – Jon Negroni, TV Line

“Wheel” seems able to satisfy new viewers and superfans alike, creating an inviting and rich world that isn’t too confusing to understand. – Kelly Lawler, USA Today


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