Movie and television rights are an interesting thing. Often the licenses for adaptations are written in a “use it or lose it” way, pressuring studios to produce something if they want to maintain a potentially lucrative license. Every so often this results in the ludicrous situation of releasing garbage in the hopes of later releasing gold. Roughly ten years ago, Red Eagle Entertainment licensed the adaptation rights to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, a massively popular (and just plain massive) fantasy epic (which I spent nearly a year reviewing here). Since then they have apparently had trouble getting all of their ducks in a row and the rights were about to expire. The goal was purportedly to produce a television series. In a desperate attempt to extend their license, they decided to settle for putting out a pilot episode this year. Which they had to pay FXX to air in a late night paid-programming slot.
Suffice to say, the result is not exactly what fans were clamoring for.
Ladies and gentlemen, the new nadir of Billy Zane’s career.
Let’s start off with the good. Often when there’s a bad adaptation of the work, fans will accuse it of being an adaptation “in name only”; there are several movies out there that differ so much from their source material that nothing of the plot remains. That accusation cannot reasonably be leveled at Winter Dragon. Although it is only based on the prologue to the first novel in the series, it is mostly faithful to that prologue; indeed, most of the dialogue is lifted directly. For good or ill, this is a Wheel of Time adaptation in truth and that is Robert Jordan’s writing on the small screen.
Next, the marginally good. The casting choices aren’t terrible for the speaking roles. Max Ryan looks believable as Lews Therin Telamon and Billy Zane is competent actor who could make for a sinister Ishamael under the right director. And even on the pilot’s very limited budget, they try to incorporate visual elements of the books; the motif of having the book’s chapter icons spinning on a wheel is a decent idea. The downside is that it’s very amateurish; I am, at best, a moderately skilled hobbyist in 3D art, and I could have done as well as that 15 years ago.
And that brings us right into the bad. This was shot with what appears to be the thinnest of budgets. Special effects are effectively nil other than the inept 3D wheel intro, and this is critical as the prologue in the book ends with a dramatic use of magic — the pilot therefore differs in this respect, ending with a very quiet and unsatisfying note.
Director James Seda had only a few short films to his credit, and only one of those has been viewed by enough people to even have a rating on IMDb. I hesitate to place all of the blame on him, since it’s likely he was rushed into things as much as anybody else, but nevertheless there are definite weaknesses to the film that have to be laid at his feet. There are storytelling techniques that filmmakers use to make two-person dialogues more interesting to watch. None of them are brought out here; it’s just talking heads for most of the show. And the acting is simply poor. One gets the impression that Ryan and Zane were just handed the scripts that day; it’s stilted, hammy (and not in a good way), awkward, and Zane in particular seems disinterested much of the time. I’m not really familiar with Ryan’s body of work (I don’t recall his role in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but I know Zane can do better than this. That he didn’t indicates to me that he knew it wasn’t going to amount to anything.
Red Eagle Entertainment probably should have known the same.
Robert Jordan’s widow, the executor of his estate, made a public comment after its “release” that it was made without her knowledge or cooperation, and implied the rights may not have been Red Eagle Entertainment’s at that point regardless. Red Eagle Entertainment then proceeded to open a lawsuit for defamation, which was later dropped. Reportedly a new deal is in the works now to straighten out the rights. Whatever becomes of it, there’s an odd and interesting chapter in the story of the franchise… it’s just that it’s only the story about the pilot that’s interesting, not the pilot itself.