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What's it like to bring something you adore to life? For screenwriter Rafe Judkins (Chuck, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), author Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books have been a personal favorite for years, so when Amazon optioned the rights to adapt the books into a sprawling, big budget series and they needed a showrunner, Judkins was more than ready.
The series is set in an unnamed world in a time of magic with humans who can channel the "One Power." Women who can channel the power are part of the Aes Sedai of whom the incredibly powerful, Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), is one. She is on a quest to find a young man who might be a vessel for the malevolent Dark One. Along the way, there will be prophecies, monsters, power grabs, romance, and everything in between.
Because Jordan's books are so beloved by a fandom that has become legion over the span of four decades, Judkins' enthusiasm for the material is also tempered with the realities of adapting from one medium to another and the passions of this particular fandom. SYFY WIRE was able to talk with Judkins about the particular hurdles to mounting an expansive world-building series like The Wheel of Time, elements that he found integral to retain and the things he was willing to change.
As the developer, writer and showrunner of this adaptation, and as a fan, what did you really lean towards to help you focus on what the show needed to be?
For me, it's always about the characters at the core of it, and their emotional journey. I think it's the thing that people love about fantasy series that they read over and over. And it's the thing that they share with television series, like in any good TV show, if the audience can follow the emotional journey of your character, they will follow you kind of anywhere and do anything. I always fall back on that. There's unlimited decisions you have to make related to production, I mean, we were shooting during COVID. There's so many micro decisions and macro decisions that have to be made every day to hone it down to what you actually can put in eight hours of television that represents 1000 pages, and the hopes and dreams of millions of people. I would always fall back to: is this true to this character's emotional journey? Do we need this beat to follow Moraine and understand where she's going and what she's doing and why she's doing it? And that's what I always fall back on. And I feel like if we can deliver that to screen, then people will go on the journey with us.
Your ensemble is cast with a lot of new fresh faces and they are playing aged up versions of the characters in the books. Talk about making that particular change and why?
One of the key changes from the book series that was important to me to make right off was aging up the core four a little bit. In the space when the books came out, they were read as adult fiction. But if they would come out today with that same age group, they might be read as YA fiction. I think it's really important for the show that it still delivers in the adult space that the books were written in, so aging up those characters was really important to me. They obviously have lived deeper and longer emotional lives in order to be those ages, so we had to be realistic to that, too. A lot of the changes that you see in the first episode are just being true to the idea that these kids are 20 or 21, and your life is very different at that point than it is when you're 17. I think it's helpful because it gives this feeling that they have emotional lives and wants and needs from the world before Moraine walks into the town, that that's not the first day of their lives. For both of those reasons, I was really keen to make that change in the series. Even though I'm sure it will have ripple effects that some fans don't like, I think it's really important for us to do that. And to break new actors in these roles.
How did you go about casting these roles? Was it about pleasing book readers or your own fancasting of the characters?
We searched everywhere on the planet for these people. We saw tapes from every continent, except Antarctica. We saw people from all over the world. I myself watched hundreds and hundreds of tapes for every role. Our casting director watched thousands so we really cast the net wide. With me knowing the whole book series, when I saw them, I had to have a moment where I said, 'This is that person from the books. I know it's them, and I feel 100 percent confident in it.' I think that the people that we've found to play these roles, I'm so proud of these five. They're just incredible in the show. They deliver such complex and emotionally rich and grounded performances. And I think a lot of that comes from having Rosamund and at the center of it.
Can you talk about what Rosamund Pike brings to this whole adaptation as Moraine?
She is so committed to bringing this character, that means so much to so many people, alive in a way that feels grounded. That's been one of my most important things too in making the series, is just trying to ground everything so that you are not constantly pulled out and going, 'Oh, this isn't my world so I don't have to worry about this.' And so she provides that at the core. And I think everyone around her lifts to try to come to where she is. It's just something that we're so lucky to have in the show and has made the actor part of the show, which is obviously, one of if not the most important things we're doing is the people thing, these characters, and they're just incredible. I feel so lucky to have found Rosamund and that she has built this environment with Daniel (Henney) who plays Lan, everyone else around them wants to come and match their level.
What does her producer title mean in terms of her input in how you have put together the series?
She's been great in many different aspects of the project. It was really important to me that we have women on the producing team throughout. A.K. Shuman was my number two on the show, who's incredible. Marigo Kehoe from The Crown and The Queen and every single famous British show you've ever heard about. And then Rosamund and she really did function in a lot of different ways procedurally. She was really impactful in the creation of the "One Power" and what it looked like. I really wanted it to come from these women who are able to wield it and be able to look in Rosamund's eyes and believe that she was moving the forces of the earth around her. And so she was really instrumental in creating that and how we built it, and what the movements of it looked like. If I hadn't had her, my vision of it was nowhere near as complex or interesting as what we were able to achieve together. And that's when someone is working in a great producer capacity on the show is when they are making things better than they would have been if they weren't there.
The matriarchal element of the books are wonderful and not something we see in fantasy very often. Women in Game of Thrones or other fantasy pieces are usually side support. But this world is really featuring empowered women specifically. What were you most excited to be able to retain in your adaptation?
It was the thing that first excited me about the books when I read them was seeing these incredible women in this world where being a woman gave you power. I think in a lot of other fantasy shows, even when there are great female characters, they are great despite their gender. All of the female characters and Game of Thrones are standing up. Even though I'm a woman, I'm able to do this. And I think what's really cool about this series is that there is not just one character who is a great female character at the center of it. Most of the great characters at the center of the show are women and they wield their power in very different ways. When you see a multiplicity of different kinds of female power, that is really exciting to me. Finding ways to always stay true to that and bring that to life is really important because often our female characters are also in conflict with each other because they have different ideas about how they should be utilizing their power which we usually see for the male characters. It's been very important to us throughout the process. I think it's one of the most interesting and most successful pieces of the book series, so it's something that I feel like we have to pull up the TV to really be a faithful adaptation.
The Wheel of Time premieres with the first three episodes on Friday, Nov. 19, with new episodes available each Friday.