Television today is plagued by unending aspirations to achieve a zeitgeist-shifting cultural monolith like HBO’s Game of Thrones—for reasons both obvious and valid. Incessant attempts to re-create the type of cultural footprint established by Game of Thrones, however, have primed audiences for gratuitous gore, sex, and dark plotlines. However, this may not be the direction that future fantasy adaptations trend. Not all fantasy stories are the same. And as the release of Prime Video’s fantasy series The Wheel of Time approaches, audiences should avoid expectations of the violence and general grimdark politicking that characterizes Game of Thrones.
Every fantasy story is unique in its plot, characters, themes, and worldbuilding. In other words, The Wheel of Time isn’t an off-brand Game of Thrones just because they share the same genre. That’s like saying Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 space opera Dune is a cheap imitation of a later, more culturally relevant space opera like 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope. The upcoming The Wheel of Time series is an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s epic 14 book series of the same name. In fact, the series’ first book was published six years before George R.R. Martin’s 1996 novel, A Game of Thrones. The Wheel of Time directly inspired Martin’s equally superb fantasy classic.
The series’ first season engages with the first three books of Jordan’s series, so we can expect the story to be generally full of more fantasy-ass-fantasy elements with a side of tropes. Imagine Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, wizened mystical guides, and a complex magic system. Martin’s series wasn’t really like that. Any prospective audience member for The Wheel of Time series should enter with an open mind. They shouldn’t expect the edgy, sensationalized storytelling in Game of Thrones. Instead, audiences should prepare to embrace a more Tolkien-esque, traditional fantasy world.
Both The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones are “high fantasy” stories. That means they take place in a fully imagined world entirely divorced from our normal reality. This is the opposite of a “low fantasy” story, like the Harry Potter series. That series takes place in the world as we know it. Game of Thrones helped familiarize a massive audience with the world of Westeros and a frankly dizzying number of characters. That acclimation bodes well for an audience that needs to become accustomed to the new fantasy world of The Wheel of Time. Game of Thrones’ mass appeal makes it a kind of fantasy gateway drug. It leaves its audience better-prepared to consume a new fantasy story with a more difficult barrier of entry.
Part of what makes Game of Thrones so (relatively) accessible is that world’s general lack of, well, fantasy. Sure, the dragons and the undead White Walkers distinguish the series from the quaint world of, say, Pride and Prejudice. But Westeros isn’t exactly the most magical world in fantasy literature. The world of The Wheel of Time, on the other hand, is chock-full of magic users, different fantastical races, and a less morally complicated, evil Dark One serving as the series’ big bad. Subverting classic tropes established from the genre’s onset makes Game of Thrones refreshing and unique; however, unabashedly embracing those same tropes lends a level of charm and familiarity to The Wheel of Time.
The most important thing for audiences going into The Wheel of Time series is to remember that it is not trying to be Game of Thrones, narratively speaking. A GQ article profiling The Wheel of Time’s production made clear that the budget Prime Video granted the show has been in the service of a singular directive from the world’s richest man, asking for “the next Game of Thrones.”
Jeff Bezos is probably speaking in cultural terms. However, incessantly equating the two series means The Wheel of Time may never gain enough traction to lead weekly watercooler discourse. Perhaps people will tune out once they realize there aren’t kids getting thrown out of windows at the end of episode one. The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones are, once again, very different kinds of fantasy stories.
Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series is initially a trope-heavy, fantastical epic that is in equal parts revolutionary and familiar. Fans of Game of Thrones will appreciate how The Wheel of Time is as character-driven as Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The story may include prophecies, the Dark One, and a fair share of plot-focused quests. But at its core, the massive, sprawling The Wheel of Time tale is about a group of kids who aren’t ready to leave home yet. They eventually learn duty is more important than desire.
That’s the beauty of fantasy: the way it allows its audience to consider the human condition in a setting sometimes entirely divorced from the real world and the tired conventions affecting our everyday lives. Game of Thrones allowed its audience to consider the ways power corrupts people, ideas of loyalty, and the inherent conflict of love and duty. Pitting a slew of morally gray, complicated characters against each other in an increasingly complicated political arena made for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. The series provided the same kind of thrill as following a political news cycle, without the bummer inherent in knowing politics affect your actual life.
The Wheel of Time isn’t as politically complex or morally gray as Game of Thrones. Its introspective explorations are thematically unique. Rather than creating a playground full of the same kind of cynical takes on morality that pervades Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time asks its audience to consider how they would conduct themselves in a world characterized by an apparent moral binary. It’s easy to assume you’d be the hero or that you’d do the right thing in any given morally clear-cut situation. But what if that meant giving up a life you love? The Wheel of Time‘s main ensemble aren’t inclined to seek adventure or to strive for power in the way so many Game of Thrones characters are. Instead their stories revolve around sacrificing their selfish desires and aspirations to better serve the greater good.
Both stories are equally entertaining examples of the complex thematic explorations that come with contemporary fantasy. Even if the themes explored and the methods of that exploration dramatically differ. Viewers should consume The Wheel of Time series on its own terms and accept it for what it is, rather than expect it to be any kind of Game of Thrones imitation.