Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 5 - Season 1, Episodes 17-24

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. Over the next few months I plan to watch all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.
 
An excellent character-redefining moment.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Banner Saga 2

The world is falling into chaos. The gods are dead, the sun is frozen in the sky and a horde of dredge have erupted out of the northern wastes, destroying the lands of humans and varl before them. A great caravan has escaped out of the chaos, but its leaders have learned that the dredge themselves have been displaced by an even greater threat: a darkness that is spreading from beyond the north, consuming everything it touches. The last humans and varl converge of Arberrang, the greatest city in the land, to make a final stand and hope that the threat can be defeated.




Released in early 2014, The Banner Saga was a remarkable game. Using an art style reminiscent of mid-20th Century Disney animated films and excellent, turn-based combat married to Battlestar Galactica-style story of people on the run and having to deal with moral complexities along the way, it was an excellent, original game. It was, however, let down by repetitive, grindy combat and a questionable decision to combine experience points (for levelling characters) and money (for buying supplies and equipment) into the same mechanic, dramatically limiting your ability to progress through the game. It also had a punishingly hard ending, although this was fixed with some post-release patches.

The Banner Saga 2 picks up days after the end of the previous game. The grand caravan has destroyed the dredge Sundr, Bellower, but is still having to flee westwards. The game opens with your caravan escaping downriver by boat. You pick up some new characters along the way and their perspective, helped by a handy "Previously on The Banner Saga" intro, quickly gets everyone up to speed on the plot. The original game started in media res and you were some way into the game before things started making sense, but The Banner Saga 2 is a bit more welcoming in that it sets up the plot and actually resorts to helpful exposition on occasion.

Not long into the game a major event takes place (which is so epic that I refuse to spoil it) and the caravan has to divide into two forces. The new, second caravan is led by the varl mercenary Bolverk and his company, the Ravens, and consists of the more morally dubious and financially-motivated members of the caravan. It's fascinating to play as this group, because they are much more amoral and inclined to act pragmatically, whilst the other caravan (led by whoever survived the final battle in the first game) is more inclined to honourable behaviour. Alternating between the two groups is fascinating. Both have their own troubles to overcome, with the main caravan having to brave a magical forest and political infighting amongst the human clans, whilst the second has to travel through a terrifying underground landscape and confront the true scale of the darkness growing in the north. Both storylines unfold with pitiless inevitability. The story choices you have to make are often hard, and however you proceed there will be deaths and chaos.

Combat is much-improved from the first game. There are far more unit types on both sides than before, and the introduction of the centaur-like horseborn, several new human factions and new types of dredge (including a new Sundr) result in much more varied gameplay than before. There are also new battlefield obstacles that have to be negotiated and the ability to assign characters not in your main party to supporting roles. Combat was solid in the first game, but is absolutely superb in the second. You also get more renown for winning battles, which helps with the balancing the need to level up characters with keeping your followers fed.


As with the first game, it is graphically beautiful and the music is absolutely fantastic. But what this series has done so well is the atmosphere, the feeling of a land that is dying and slipping into oblivion and the last few survivors making a stand against the darkness no matter the cost. Few video games have managed to instill such a feeling of desperation into things (Mass Effect 3 and XCOM occasionally came close), and never so consistently. It's a gripping game that demands "just one more go".

The biggest problem with the game is length. These are low-budget but also low-cost games, so The Banner Saga coming in at around 9 hours in length felt just right. The Banner Saga 2 clocks in at just over 6 hours, which does feel a little too short. The pacing is tremendous and you certainly get your money's worth in terms of atmosphere and replayability, but the short length of the game did feel a little disappointing. But The Banner Saga 2 is the first game since Max Payne 2 (2003) to have such a short length but really sell it quite well. The story also ends on a cliffhanger, but considering this was a planned trilogy from the start, that's not a surprise.

The Banner Saga 2 (****½) is a short game but makes up for that with a gripping story, a fantastic world and tremendously entertaining, conflicted and haunted characters. This is a video game that can stand toe-to-toe with the best of fantasy literature for the world it has created. It is available on PC now and is coming to tablet and consoles later this year.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.

Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.


Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.

The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.

Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The Lost Reviews: Part 4 - Season 1, Episodes 13-16

Welcome to the Lost rewatch project. Over the next few months I plan to watch all 121 episodes of the TV series which aired for six seasons from 2004 to 2010. This is very much a rewatch thread, with the show watched with knowledge of what is to come in later seasons. If you've never watched Lost before, you definitely do not want to read this blog series.

Without further ado, let us continue after the jump.


Two of the less compelling characters on the Island, it has to be said.

The Wheel of Television: Parts 3 and 4

Following the news that a Wheel of Time TV series is now officially in development with a major studio, here are the third and fourth parts of my blog series The Wheel of Television: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen. It's worth checking the original posts for the interesting commentary from readers: Part 3 and Part 4.


Part 3: Shaping the Story
Originally published: 25 March 2012

 In the first two parts of this article series, I argued that the current plans by Red Eagle Entertainment and Universal to turn The Wheel of Time into a series of movies were impractical and unrealistic, and that adapting the books into an ongoing television series was more logical. This especially makes more sense in the wake of the success of fantasy TV projects such as Sky's Discworld TV movies and of course HBO's Game of Thrones. I concluded that getting the series made by one of the three big remaining cable channels (Starz, AMC or Showtime) was essential to give the project the right combination of high production values and a decent amount of time to adapt the complex storyline.



Story into Seasons
In the second article I suggested that it would be possible to adapt The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt (the first two books in the series) into one 12-episode television season. On paid cable, lacking advertisement breaks, this mean just under six hours to adapt each book to the screen (or three times as much time as a possible film adaptation). Whilst tight, this would be doable without too many storylines or characters cut. Later seasons could be more problematic (particularly adapting the 1,900 pages of the fifth and sixth books, The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos, into just twelve hours) though the hope is that the series would be such a success that later seasons could expand to maybe 16 episodes each (as AMC has recently done with the third season of The Walking Dead).

At the same time, the later books in the series - particularly the eighth through eleventh - have some pacing problems and issues that the TV adaptation would do well to avoid by compressing the more stationary parts of the story into a shorter space of time, and perhaps moving things around.


Overall, I envisage the following structure as being potentially successful (note: SPOILERS for people who have not read the books):

Season 1: The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt
This season introduces the principal storylines and characters. Thematically it is Rand's story of self-discovery as he uncovers the truth of his birth and his destiny and initially tries to reject it. Season finale: the battle between Rand and Ba'alzamon at Falme and the destruction of the Seanchan expeditionary force by the Heroes of the Horn of Valere.

Season 2: The Dragon Reborn and The Shadow Rising
This season sees Rand investigate the truth of his background and what he is fated to do. He decides to seize the reigns and take control of his own destiny and recruit his own allies. Season finale: Rand uniting the Aiel clans at Alcair Dal.

Season 3: The Fires of Heaven and Lord of Chaos
The turning-point of the series as Rand (and, to a lesser extent, his friends) become famous and major players in the affairs of governments as the continent falls into warfare and chaos. Season finale: the Battle of Dumai's Wells, naturally.

Season 4: A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers and Winter's Heart
Rand consolidates his gains and alliances, confronts the resurgent Seanchan and, ultimately, challenges the Dark Ones taint on saidin. Season finale: the Cleansing.

Season 5: Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams and The Gathering Storm
Rand's journey into the heart of darkness and, ultimately, out of the other side. Season finale: Rand's epiphany atop Dragonmount and Egwene reunifying the Aes Sedai in the face of the Seanchan threat.

Season 6: Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light
Rand finally confronts the Dark One. Season/series finale: the Last Battle.


Of course, if the first two or three seasons are successful it might be possible to extend the series to seven seasons and cover two books per season, which would be easier in many ways. However, the slowing of the pace in the latter books as the story expands to cover ever more storylines and minor characters and the moving away of the focus from Rand and the other core characters is something that I feel on TV should be avoided. Post-Dumai's Wells, I also feel the story should start accelerating and moving decisively towards the ending.

With this structure, it should be possible to get the entire story of The Wheel of Time done in six years and 70-80 episodes. The majority of storylines and characters from the books would appear on-screen and the adaptation would be relatively faithful, and certainly far moreso than in a series of film adaptations.

Next time: the challenges of showing the One Power, Trollocs, Ogier and massive armies on a TV budget.


Part 4: Practicalities
First published: 2 June 2013

In the first three parts of this article series, I argued that the current plans by Red Eagle Entertainment and Universal to turn The Wheel of Time into a series of movies were impractical and unrealistic, and that adapting the books into an ongoing television series was more feasible. This especially makes more sense in the wake of the success of fantasy TV projects such as Sky's Discworld TV movies, the BBC's recently-concluded Merlin and of course HBO's Game of Thrones. I concluded that getting the series made by one of the three big remaining cable channels (Starz, AMC or Showtime) was essential to give the project the right combination of high production values and a decent amount of time to adapt the complex storyline before going on to address the issue of how you structure the series from a top-down approach. In this part I address several major technical and practical issues standing in the way of adapting the books to television.




Sets and Locations
If there is one major cost saving that TV shows have over movies, it's sets. A film with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars can afford to construct a specific set for each and every scene, and use a different location in every other shot. TV shows spread their costs more widely by the use of regular, recurring sets. Think of the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek, the throne room in Game of Thrones or the school library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can spend a fair bit of money on an impressive set and then spread that cost over dozens of episodes.

With Wheel of Time, there is one rather huge problem: there is no single standing set that could be constructed and re-used a lot in the first season (if you recall, in the hypothetical plan we are discussing the first season would adapt the first two books, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt). The first two books are constantly on the move, taking the characters from the Two Rivers to Baerlon to Shadar Logoth to Whitebridge to Caemlyn to Shienar, and thence to Tar Valon, Cairhien and Falme. Later in the series we would get standing sets and regularly-appearing locations, such as the Royal Palace in Caemlyn and the White Tower in Tar Valon (which would debut in the first season, but would not be revisited until later), but it's a while before such places recur regularly.

This is fairly headache-inducing, although compensated for to some extent by how much of the first two books takes place outdoors. This brings its own headaches in terms of the expense and practical issues of location filming (dealing with the weather and so on), but at least is better than having to build dozens and dozens of different sets and then discard them. A surprising number of locations in the first two books are in fact pubs of different description (the Winespring Inn in Emond's Field, the Queen's Blessing, the inn in Cairhien that Rand, Hurin and Loial stay in etc). A standing 'pub set' could be built, possibly in modules, with walls and partitions that can be switched around. Combined with redressing and the use of different camera angles, this can turn one set into several different locations. The same principal can be applied to shops, houses and even palaces (the Royal Palace of Caemlyn could pull double-duty as Fal Dara, for example, if you dropped in a few partitions and redressed things).

For location filming, Wheel of Time does have some problems with how much of it is set in large cities (especially later on, when scenes unfold near-simultaneously in Caemlyn, Cairhien and Ebou Dar). Caemlyn, for example, would likely have to be a real medieval-looking city, possibly in Europe, just as both Mdina in Malta and Dubrovnik in Croatia have stood in for King's Landing on Game of Thrones. Given the weird and otherwordly nature of Shadar Logoth, on the other hand, it might be possible to get away with realising that city through small set-pieces and CGI backdrops (CGI is of course a powerful and useful tool but we are not at the stage yet where full CGI sets and locations are believable or affordable on such a scale).

As for where the series should be filmed, there are quite a few options. Eastern Europe is both affordable and would have the right look for most of the main continent. The Republic of Ireland (probably not Northern Ireland, since a lot of the more interesting locations have already been used by GoT) would also be an attractive option. Morocco or the American West (heavily CGI-enhanced) could also be viable options for the Aiel Waste.

Costumes
Costuming is probably the least-challenging aspect of the production, thanks to both Robert Jordan's clear descriptions in the books and the availability of costumes and costumer designers familiar with the appropriate period.

"Awesome. I want 100,000 of them for the next shot."

Prosthetics
Wheel of Time features a large number of non-human creatures, including the friendly Ogier and the hostile Shadowspawn: Trollocs, Myrddraal, Draghkar and so on. Some of these creatures appear infrequently enough that they can be rendered in CGI: the Green Man immediately comes to mind. Draghkar and Darkhounds also appear infrequently enough that this should be viable. Trollocs and Ogier are more difficult to achieve. Loial is a fairly major character with a lot of screentime. Rendering him in CGI would require a Gollum-level performance and technology to achieve satisfactorily, neither of which may be available on a TV budget and time schedule. On the other hand, prosthetics/animatronics large enough to depict the Ogier as described in the books may be stiff and unconvincing. This is something that would require screentesting to find the best solution.

It should be possible to depict Trollocs by just using large extras with prosthetics. A mix-and-match of prosthetics could be made available to blend the different animal parts together to make each Trolloc unique (or as unique as possible), rather like how the creatures themselves are created in the books. CGI would be used for scenes with large numbers of Trollocs (which is most of them) to render more of them in the background.

"More lightning bolts!"
"Not too many, they cost $10,000 a time!"

The One Power
The One Power is one of the most detailed magic systems ever created, with a lot of complex rules on how it works, how it's detected and what the different types of the Power can do. Depicting the One Power on screen risks looking cheesy - people sticking their hands out and firebolts roaring off - and depicting people glowing when they embrace the Source could be confusing (as only those able to use the Power can sense it when others are using it).

The best way to handle this is as it is in the books, with 'our' characters initially unable to see or sense the Power itself, only its effects (i.e. someone pointing and the ground exploding or mist appearing). As our core characters become more acquainted with the Power, then we can start to see POV shots from them, showing the glow of the Power (I'm thinking a subtle haloing effect rather than people blazing with the light of a thousand suns). We'll only see this if we have a POV character in the scene who can sense the Power, otherwise they'll just see the effects.

A related issue is how to handle the issue of Aes Sedai ageing. As book-readers know, Aes Sedai gain an 'ageless' appearance as they get older, so that it becomes impossible to tell whether a woman is in her 20s or 40s (and that appearance may be only a reflection of their true age, as Aes Sedai can live for several centuries). Such an effect would be prohibitively expensive to achieve with CGI - 'de-aging' Moiraine alone in her every appearance in the series would cost a fortune, not to mention the problem being exasperated when a dozen Aes Sedai appear in the same scene - so this would have to be a practical make-up effect. If unconvincing or too odd-looking, this may have to be an element from the books that is dropped or perhaps changed to something less notable.

There are obviously a lot more complexities and practicalities that would have to be addressed to make these books into a TV show, but these were a few thoughts on how you'd achieve some basic questions.

This may be the last entry in this blog series, though I may do one more focused on how you'd write and structure the first episode, to put some of these ideas into practice.

The Wheel of Television: Parts 1 and 2

Following the news that a Wheel of Time TV series is now officially in development with a major studio, here are the first two parts of my blog series The Wheel of Television: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen from 2011. It's worth checking the original posts for the interesting commentary from readers: Part 1 and Part 2.


Part 1: Bringing The Wheel of Time to the Screen
Originally published: 17 May 2011

In Hollywood success breeds imitation. A decade ago Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy made almost $3 billion at the box office. Over the last four years, a series of Discworld TV mini-series have been very successful in the UK, and last month HBO's Game of Thrones launched to rave reviews and strong ratings, being renewed for a second season almost immediately. It's likely that we will see a whole new eruption of fantasy projects in the next few years as Hollywood tries to cash in on the next big thing.


Almost certainly first on the list for some kind of adaptation is Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series of novels. The Wheel of Time is currently the dominant force in the epic fantasy subgenre. The thirteen novels (fifteen, including the guidebook and prequel) have sold approximately 50 million copies to date in more than two dozen countries, and the series will be attracting a substantial amount of publicity next year when the fourteenth and final novel, A Memory of Light, finally hits the shelves. Given the series' immense sales clout and popularity, some kind of adaptation has been on the cards for a while. About ten years ago, Robert Jordan sold an option to NBC, who were considering making a mini-series of The Eye of the World. Nothing came of this project after those pushing it at NBC departed. A Japanese animation studio contacted Robert Jordan with a proposal to adapt the first three books as a series of movies, but they only wanted to do the first three and change the ending of the third book to the ending of the entire series. Jordan turned down this proposal.

In the mid-2000s, Red Eagle Entertainment bought the rights from Robert Jordan to develop film, computer game and comic adaptations of The Wheel of Time. In August 2008 they entered into a partnership with Universal Pictures to develop a two-hour movie based on The Eye of the World. Three years on, there appears to have been no movement on this project, and it's unclear how much longer Universal's option has left before it expires. Whilst the success of Game of Thrones may inspire Universal to take another look at the project, I think it's more likely that we will see the project re-envisaged for television.

In a series of articles I'm going to be looking at the practicalities of bringing The Wheel of Time to the screen, considering its vast scope, huge cast and immense visual effects requirements. To start with, let's ask the most basic question of all.


Should This Even Be Attempted?

There is a strong opinion amongst a subset of Wheel of Time fans that no adaptation should even be attempted. This is a series of fourteen very large books, totalling 11,000 pages in paperback when all is said and done, featuring a cast of almost 2,000 named characters sprawling across dozens of major and minor storylines. The books are what they are. Why should they be brought to the screen?

The easy answer to this is that it's going to happen. At some point, whether it's next week or twenty years from now, there's going to be an adaptation of The Wheel of Time on screen. The books have sold too many copies and there is too much potential money in a successful adaptation for it to simply be left alone. As a result, it's better (I think) to be taking this as read and considering how it may be best achieved rather than simply hoping it won't happen.

In addition, working out how on earth you'd tackle this project makes for an interesting thought-experiment.


TV or Movie?

This is the next question and one that has driven a great deal of discussion over the years. The question results in a paradox which can be summed up concisely:
The Wheel of Time is too expensive to be a TV series. It needs to be a film.
The Wheel of Time is too long to be a film. It needs to be a TV series.
Basically, the books have too many huge battles, too much magic use, too many sets, too much location work and too many non-human creatures to be viable as a TV series. Only a series of movies capable of assigning hundreds of millions of dollars to two hour-blocks at a time can give the Wheel the visual look it needs.

At the same time, the books are too long with too many characters, too many storylines and too many subplots to be easily adapted as a series of films. To fit a 700-page novel (let alone the 1,000-page ones in the middle of the series) into two hours is impossible, which will result in epic cuts, with major characters and storylines having to be weeded out (great for Crossroads of Twilight, less so for The Eye of the World). Having fourteen films in the first place is also hopelessly unrealistic and impractical, splitting books across multiple films (an option apparently considered by Red Eagle) far moreso.


For me, the equation is a simple one to solve. The practical concerns about effects and budget are serious ones and should not be underestimated. However, the books don't exactly have a major battle sequence every five pages (and not one of the battles in the books so far rivals the battles that Game of Thrones will be depicting soon enough), whilst shows from Legend of the Seeker and Merlin through Heroes, BSG, Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have handled extensive special effects requirements on extremely modest budgets before. In short, the practical concerns can be handled or worked-around on TV. There is no way to address or work-around the cutting of major storylines and characters in a film adaptation.

Of course, some fans and critics would be happy to see a chainsaw taken to immense length and the vast cast of characters of the books, and certainly even a TV adaptation will have to be ruthless with some aspects of the story. But to work as a film or series of films, The Wheel of Time would have to lose major elements: the Seanchan and probably the Shaido would have to go for a start, along with many of the interim obstacles Rand faces on his quest to unite the world for the Last Battle. Most dangerously, the cutting would reduce Rand's story to its bare bones: a humble guy from a bucolic countryside who, with the help of his plucky friends and a wise mentor figure (albeit an attractive woman rather than an old guy) evades black-cloaked creatures and eventually goes to a volcano to confront the bad guy. Yeah, people might think they've seen that story before.

My conclusion is that if an adaptation must proceed, it must attempt to be faithful to at least the spirit (if not the letter) of the storyline set out in the books. Taking this hugely popular story and immediately ditching 90% of it makes no sense, so the movie option has to be dismissed (as Robert Jordan himself said many years ago). So now we can consider a TV show and all the immense impracticalities and challenges of that daunting prospect.

Next time I'll ponder how you shrink 11,000 pages of dense plotting into a workable outline for a TV series without destroying the story or scaring off viewers. This will include questions about the length and structure of the overall series, the length of individual seasons (can we tell the story of The Eye of the World in five or six hours, or does it need ten?) and what impact that will have on what needs to be cut and what can be kept intact.


Part 2: Structure and Season Length
Originally published: 4 March 2012

In Part 1 (which you can find here) I argued that a screen adaptation of The Wheel of Time would work much better as a TV series than a series of films, the option currently being pursued by Red Eagle Entertainment and rights-holders Universal Studios. As discussed in that article, the story would have to be substantially gutted to work even as six 2-3 hour films, and much of the story from the books would be lost. My conclusion was that a TV series would be the only viable way for the books to be adapted to the screen.


Cable or network?
Once the conclusion is reached that the story must be adapted to television, the next question is whether a deal should be pursued with one of the big, universally-available TV networks in the USA (such as ABC or NBC), or with one of the smaller, but usually more flexible, cable networks. If we assume that HBO would not be interested because of their commitment to Game of Thrones, that leaves stations such as Starz, AMC and Showtime as possible contenders. The smaller cable stations, like SyFy, would almost certainly lack the resources to tackle the project with adequate funding.

This question is important for practical reasons. Most notably, the networks usually have longer seasons than cable. If this was the sole issue, in fact, it would be a no-brainer to go with a network. With 20-24 episodes per season, it would be easy to cover two or maybe even three books a season, easily enough to tell the whole story. This would even include the duller moments later on, though I would still argue in favour of condensing events in the third quarter of the series to maybe half the length of narrative they currently span, if not less, to improve pacing.

Of course, there are drawbacks to being on a network. The biggest are money and how much of a chance the series would be given to prove itself before cancellation. Networks are notoriously trigger-happy on cancelling shows early, even when prior evidence shows this to be a self-defeating practice. For example, Seinfeld was almost cancelled at birth due to low ratings, but given another chance and went on to become one of the biggest American TV shows of all time. This tendency increases exponentially the more money is poured into a project. The head of ABC was fired for profligacy after greenlighting Lost's pilot with an astonishing $15 million budget, even though it rewarded that investment by going on to become the biggest thing on TV for a couple of years. A Wheel of Time TV show would require more than the standard $2 million-per-episode budget common to network genre projects (Game of Thrones's budget is more like $6 million per episode, for comparison's sake), which would make it much more likely to be dropped should ratings not match expectations almost immediately.

That said, networks have become more willing to give shows a chance in the last few years. Fox gave both Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles two seasons each to prove themselves before cancelling them, apparently learning from the short-termism that led to the premature cancellation of Firefly several years earlier (later shown to be a mistake after impressive DVD box set sales). They've also shown a willingness to invest more money if the show is a success: Lost's budget (after the generously-budgeted pilot) reached $5 million per episode by the final season, whilst Heroes enjoyed $4 million per episode until its final season, when the budget was slashed in the face of sharply dropping ratings. Still, the greater risk of immediate cancellation makes the networks an uneasy choice to pursue.

On cable, the issues are different. First off, the success of Thrones on HBO means that the other big cable networks will almost certainly be receptive to having a fantasy TV project of their own, especially one where the books are (or were, before Game of Thrones started on TV, anyway) even more popular with an even larger fanbase and an even greater name awareness. Also, whilst the other cable companies don't have HBO's impressive financial resources, they can usually muster up larger budgets than most of the standard networks. Shows like The Tudors (on Showtime), The Walking Dead (on AMC) and Spartacus (on Starz) enjoy significantly more resources than most network shows, whilst not quite being in HBO's league.

The trade-off for more money is shorter seasons. 8-12 episodes per season is normal on a cable network, and 16 episodes (for Season 3 of The Walking Dead or Season 4 of Oz) is the absolute maximum, usually only possible after the show has been a proven success. This is a major limitation in adapting The Wheel of Time for a cable network. If we assume 12 episodes (probably the maximum realistic figure for the first season, at least), that means either hoping the series goes for 10+ seasons (highly implausible) or condensing the story down, which, if not handled right, could takes us back to the movie problem of the project not being worthwhile in the first place.


Length of the seasons
So the question becomes, how much time is necessary to tell the Wheel of Time story on TV? How many episodes should each book cover? Looking at Game of Thrones on HBO, the 800-page first novel had to have a noticeable number of minor plots (mostly flashbacks) and characters shaved off to fit into ten episodes. If for Wheel we accept that we have to cover a minimum of two books per season (meaning a seven season show) and, on cable, only twelve episodes per season will be available, that gives us the prospect of fitting each Wheel of Time novel into just six hour-long episodes.

This initially looks dubious, until several things are factored in. First off, six hours is still twice the absolute maximum length of a potential Eye of the World movie, and more likely closer to three times. So it's still the better option from a time perspective. In addition, Robert Jordan's natural verbosity and tendency towards detailed descriptions means that fitting 800 pages into six hours is actually more straightforward than it appears. The Eye of the World is marginally longer than A Game of Thrones (306,000 words to 298,000) but a plot summary of the former is much more straightforward. The plot is more linear with considerably fewer characters overall, and certainly far fewer 'main' characters (at least at this point). Unlike Thrones, the narrative doesn't need to cover three distinct and major storylines (and several smaller ones) unfolding thousands of miles apart. There is a section mid-book where the characters divide into three groups and reconvene a few chapters later on, but this is still less problematic than the issues faced by Thrones in its first season. The Great Hunt, which would form the remainder of a first season, would be slightly more challenging (due to the characters being apart for a much larger part of the book), especially from a budgetary standpoint given the action that takes place at sea, but time-wise it could fit into six episodes even more easily than the first book (it's somewhat shorter, to start with).

In short, although it would still be something of a squeeze, it should still be possible to fit The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt into twelve episodes. Given the superior budgets available on cable, and the greater likelihood of the show at least making it to a full season before cancellation is a danger, this leads me to conclude that pursuing an adaptation on one of the bigger US cable channels is the logical way to proceed, despite the tighter time constraints.

With HBO unlikely to want to have a show competing with Thrones on their own network, one of these three is the most logical choice to make a Wheel of Time series.

Next time (and hopefully not a year down the line!): shaping the entire story into a TV series and how future seasons would face the challenge of adapting both the longer books in the series and also handling the 'slower' books later on.

PREACHER airdate and new pics

AMC have released some new pics ahead of debuting their new TV series, Preacher.


From left to right: W. Earl Brown as Sherrif Hugo Root, Ian Colletti as Arseface, Lucy Griffiths as Emily, Ruth Negga as Tulip O'Hare, Dominic Cooper as Jesse, Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy, Derek Wilson as Donnie, Tom Brooke as Fiore and Anatol Yusef as DeBlanc.

Based on the critically-acclaimed, highly successful graphic novels by Garth Ennis, Preacher is the story of a Texan preacher, Jesse Custer, who gets embroiled in a story involving vampires, demons and primordial dark powers whilst he searches for God. Literally.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are writing and directing, with Breaking Bad veteran Sam Catlin serving as showrunner. The TV series debuts on 22 May.

Netflix greenlights PUNISHER TV series

Netflix has greenlit a TV series of The Punisher. Spinning off from the second season of Daredevil, The Punisher will be Netflix's sixth TV series based on characters from Marvel Comics (following on from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders) and will see Jon Bernthal reprising his critically-acclaimed role as Frank Castle.



Steve Lightfoot, who worked on Hannibal as a writer and producer, will produce, showrun and co-write the new series.

Based on Netflix's scheduling and the lead time for their projects, it's unlikely we will see the first season of The Punisher until late 2017 or early 2018.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

WHEEL OF TIME TV series officially in development

The Robert Jordan Estate has confirmed that a Wheel of Time television series is in development with a major studio.



A more detailed announcement is to follow, but the Jordan Estate has confirmed that protracted legal disputes between themselves and Red Eagle Entertainment, who previously held the TV and film rights, have been resolved, clearing the way for a television series.

The timeline of previous events is as follows:

  • 1990: Publication of the first Wheel of Time novel, The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan.
  • 2000: NBC options the Wheel of Time as a network TV show, but drops the option after the people developing the series depart the company.
  • Early 2000s: A Japanese anime company proposes an edited version of the story which adapts only the first three books into an animated series and concludes the story there. Robert Jordan declines.
  • 2004: Robert Jordan sells the film, TV, comic book and video game rights to Red Eagle Entertainment, a rights-holding company, for $600,000.
  • 2007: Robert Jordan passes away from cardiac amyloidosis. Brandon Sanderson agrees to complete the novel series, working from Robert Jordan's notes.
  • 2008: Universal options the movie rights to The Wheel of Time from Red Eagle for "a seven-figure sum" and a film script for The Eye of the World is developed.
  • 2013: The final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light, is published. Around this time Universal drops its film option.
  • 2014: Sony Television develops an interest in developing a television series based on The Wheel of Time. No option is purchased, but they hold meetings with Red Eagle and with the Robert Jordan Estate.
  • January 2015: The media rights are due to revert to the Robert Jordan Estate (aka the Bandersnatch Group). Red Eagle self-produce a 22-minute test film starring Billy Zane as Ishamael and air it as a paid-for infomercial on FX, claiming this allows them to retain the TV rights. The Jordan Estate disagrees and requests legal clarification of the situation. Red Eagle count-sues for defamation.
  • August 2015: Red Eagle withdraws its counter-suit.

At the time Red Eagle withdrew its suit, there was speculation that this was part of a legal manoeuvre which would allow Red Eagle to retain a production credit on the project as it went forward. The full details should be made clearer in the coming days and weeks.


The question now is who has won the rights and where will the show end up being broadcast? I addressed this in my "Wheel of Television" blog series a few years ago (I may reprint and update in the coming weeks in light of this news), but we know that Sony were very interested in the project before the legal storm erupted. Assuming they retain that interest, they have to be the firm favourites to have won the rights. It is very likely that one of the major US cable channels would also be in the running, most likely AMC as they have the financial firepower, the timespan allotment (the 16-episode seasons they are giving - unnecessarily in some cases - to The Walking Dead would be pretty essential for The Wheel of Time), the genre savviness and the pre-existing Sony relationship (from Breaking Bad). Starz, Showtime and FX would also be other potential candidates to be interested. HBO is pretty much out of the running due to their refusal to double-dip in the same genre at the same time, or even within a few years of their previous genre show ending. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that Amazon or Netflix has swooped in on the project as well.

The Wheel of Time spans 14 novels, a prequel, two companion volumes and a computer game. Worldwide sales of the series are approximately 90 million, with over 56 million sales in the United States alone and another 5 million sales in the United Kingdom. It is the biggest-selling work of epic fantasy series* since The Lord of the Rings, dwarfing the sales of all other works in its subgenre, including Shannara (which has just had a second season of its TV adaptation on MTV greenlit) and The Kingkiller Chronicle (which has both a film and TV series in development at Lionsgate). Only A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series that Game of Thrones is based on) is in any danger of overtaking Wheel of Time in sales any time soon. In terms of unoptioned fantasy series, it was by far the highest-profile.

More news as it comes in.

* If you don't count Harry Potter as epic fantasy, which some people do, but that's a separate argument.

Timeline and Map of Joe Abercrombie's FIRST LAW world

Joe Abercrombie and his publishers have unveiled the complete world map (well, the explored bit, anyway) for his First Law novels, and a timeline of when the works take place.




The map shows all the lands that lie within the Circle of the World. Midderland, the island in the centre, is the heart of the Union and the location of Adua, the capital city. Styria, the setting for Best Served Cold, is the island or subcontinent to the east. The North lies to the, er, north with the Orsrung Valley (the setting for The Heroes) located in the mountains and hills south of Carleon. The Far Country, the setting for Red Country, is located to the west of Midderland. Dagoska and the Gurkhal Empire are to the south.

The timeline of stories and books is as follows, with novels in bold and short stories in italics. These short stories can all be found in the new First Law collection Sharp Ends, which was published this week.

566 (spring): A Beautiful Bastard
570 (summer): Made a Monster
573 (autumn): Small Kindnesses
574 (autumn): The Fool Jobs
575 (summer): Skipping Town 
576 (spring): Hell
576 (summer): Two's Company
576: The Blade Itself
576-77: Before They Are Hanged
577: Last Argument of Kings
579-80: Best Served Cold
580: Wrong Place, Wrong Time
584 (summer): Some Desperado 
584 (autumn): Yesterday, Near a Village Called Barden 
584: The Heroes
587 (autumn): Three's a Crowd
590 (summer): Freedom!
590: Red Country
592 (spring): Tough Times All Over
605: New Trilogy Book 1 (due in 2017 or 2018)

The new trilogy, which Joe is writing now, will begin 28 years after the events of Last Argument of Kings (although this may change).