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Right Idea Wrong Execution

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

I have read the books cover to cover three times. I am familiar with the series, and have great respect for Robert Jordan.

But you can't truly respect another artist unless you're willing to acknowledge what you think are their mistakes.

I embarked on this project, trying my hand at adapting The Eye of The World for the screen, to better understand the process of screenplay adaptation, as well as the virtues and flaws of this series.

This has frequently begged the question: What should I do in this adaptation if I think Jordan had the right idea, but the wrong execution?

I've determined an answer to that question by thinking about how to handle what I consider to be one of the biggest flaws in the books: When men and women in this story share a scene together, their interactions are sometimes implausibly ignorant.

Masculine and Feminine Mystique

In the books, the men and women of the cast frequently remark how the members of the opposite sex are inherently irrational and their motivations, incomprehensible. There's a kind of masculine and feminine mystique that pervades this society.

In some ways, this does fit in a story that is as heavily gendered as that of The Wheel of Time. It also does a lot of work in lightening up the often intense narrative, especially when Jordan makes it clear that both of them are being a little ridiculous in diminishing one another.

But often, when men and women who've known each other their whole lives can only say "Ugh, men," or "Ugh, women" in response to each other's behavior, it really undermines what are otherwise compelling or complex character relationships.

I'm not objecting to biased or flawed characters. But since moments like these are usually played for comedy, there isn't enough exploration of this mindset for it to really count as a character flaw.

So in adapting the series, how do I evaluate this part of the narrative? Not only does it undermine the story, but it would definitely alienate a modern audience. But changing it would require a meaningful alteration in how character relationships are developed in the text.

What I try to do is look to what Jordan was trying to accomplish with these specific gender tropes: he's adding some needed levity to the often intense plot and character dynamics. I won't use these tropes, and in turn deviate from the text, but I'll do other things to maintain that same sense of lightness that is essential to balancing the overall tone of the story.

Effect Not Mechanism

The lesson here is when the plot mechanism doesn't work, don't throw out that entire component of the narrative. Look to the positive effect that the author was trying to accomplish with it, and try to find another way to get there. Whether it's because that mechanism wouldn't translate well to the screen, or that mechanism just wasn't working even in the original text, the solution is the same. I've applied this process to other issues I've encountered in the books, and will probably do a full write-up of which ones those are as I get further in my adaptation.

This often demands meaningful deviations from the text. But I think it's worth it if it's in service of bringing to life the fundamental virtues of a story.

I do want to stress that I don't plan to do away with gendered divisions in this society. Those are interesting and worth exploring in depth. I just think that this particular one could do with some revisions.

There is still the question of what one does in an adaptation, when one encounters elements in the text whose effects are entirely negative. You can find some of my thoughts on the question in this post on gendered souls in The Wheel of Time.

As a novelist myself (unpublished, but aspiring since folks tend to ask!), I understand that it is impossible to write a perfect book. That Jordan's work had flaws does not mean that it was bad. It doesn't mean that his fans, like myself, have bad taste for liking it.

It means that his work, like the man himself, was evolving and improving with time. And I'm starting to think that adaptation is just part of that evolution. Not dismissing what worked well in a series, but continuing to elevate its core virtues and address its flaws as a sign of deep and real respect for its creator's artistic journey.

To paraphrase Dalinar Kholin, of Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive: The most important step a man can take is not the first, nor the last, but always, the next.

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