Thursday, February 21, 2013

Introduction: Casting the Longest Series of Books I've Ever Read

So, welcome to this blog.

A little about why I'm doing this: I love fantasy novels. I write them in my spare time (not published yet, but also haven't submitted much yet) and I love reading them.

A few years ago, I read the Wheel of Time books for the first time. I'm just now re-reading them, now that the series is complete. When I first started this series, way back in the mid-2000's, the 11th volume, Knife of Dreams, had only just been released and Robert Jordan hadn't even announced that he was dying yet (RIP, Mr. Rigney). Now, he's been gone a few years and the series has been completed by Brandon Sanderson. So, back into this world I delve, and I must say I'm looking forward to it.

Needless to say, fantasy is starting (slowly, but surely) to crawl out of the gutter to which it has been assigned by the Literati. Thanks to the success of recent novels by the likes of George RR Martin, R. Scott Bakker and others, and the big- and small-screen success of fantasy adaptations like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and more recently Game of Thrones, the film and television industry is starting to actually see value in a genre previously dismissed as purely for nerds and kids. The industry has long loved adapting books to the screen, this trend toward adapting them to the small screen rather than making them strictly into movies can only be a good thing.

Now, before I go too much further, I'd like to direct you over to Werthead's blog for a simply excellent layout of both why The Wheel of Time is better suited to television than film, and how best to go about it. He makes a number of points (over three posts) that I've thought of over the years, such as how the length of the series (fourteen novels, the shortest of which is 238,789 words long!) really lends itself better to a TV adaptation. If you did it as films, he argues, not only would you have to gut the story to its barest bones, but you really couldn't adapt more than about three or four of the books. The Harry Potter series pushed it with eight movies, and I guarantee that if any one of the films had bombed, the rest would have not been filmed. Most film series aren't allowed to go past three to five movies. He also argues (and this is a brilliant point) that at its barest, the story is not much different from the countless "hero's journey" stories that have been filmed ad nauseum (I'm quite certain it would be compared to Star Wars or Eragon). So really, TV is best.

I argued online a few years ago with a guy who was just convinced that a Wheel of Time TV series would be a disaster because they could never produce the kind of visual FX, the thousands of extras, the battles, the make-up, the locations, etc. needed to do this right. And he's kinda got a point; whatever a Wheel of Time TV series will look like, I doubt it will look as polished as The Lord of the Rings. But with the advent of Game of Thrones, Spartacus, The Tudors, The Borgias, etc., plus sci-fi series (hey, FX are FX) like Battlestar Galactica, I submit that even if it doesn't look like it cost a billion dollars per episode, it's not gonna look bad. Unless SyFy does it, but then, even they had a couple of series (Battlestar Galactica and Caprica) that stretched a shoe-string budget pretty far and came up with some excellent FX).

But then there's the fact that, as I said, there are fourteen very long novels making up the main series (I don't count the prequel New Spring, which quite frankly adds nothing to the main narrative), so how can you squeeze that into a TV series, most of which get five to seven seasons at max? Well, again, Werthead argues that Robert Jordan's legendary verbosity combined with the languid pace of the eighth, ninth and tenth (and perhaps even more) novels are what mainly contributes to the length. He says that once you account for Jordan's pages upon pages of description of what characters are wearing or what the room looks like that the scene takes place in, or the dozens of random internal monologues each character seems to have, then that alone cuts down on much of the length, and if the later books where little seems to happen but Jordan goes on for chapter after chapter describing how little is going on are also cleaned up, then easily three or four books could fit into one season. Werthead even believes that with an average cable season of ten to thirteen episodes, you could still fit the meat of the plots from two to three books into one season. Maybe he's right, but only with major cuts.

Personally I think the cuts should go further than cleaning up Jordan's sometimes lazy writing. Thinking like a TV writer, with a finite amount of time, money and actors with which to tell the story, we're simply gonna have to cut some plot lines and characters, many of which fans consider necessary. The prime example I can think of is the entirety of the Bowl of the Winds/Ebou Dar/Kin storyline, which to my recollection adds nothing to the overall arc and is simply there to take up space. I haven't read the last three books yet, so once I'm done I may change my mind about that, but for now, that one, among numerous other plot lines, I think can safely be excised. For that matter, I wouldn't (and I doubt many other fans would) be too disappointed if the writers decided to take the Dexter or True Blood approach; adapt the first few novels more or less faithfully, then take your own direction using the same characters and the odd story arc. After all, most of The Wheel of Time's appeal comes from its characters, its mysteries and its OVERALL story arc. I sincerely doubt anyone's going to be yelling "But we never got to see the Bowl of the Winds plot!"

That said, it's hard to know until someone writes it whether or not elements of those plot lines, or characters introduced in them, will indeed be used in a TV series. Maybe they will be used, but only for, say, two or three episodes as a B-plot (I did say that Jordan's languid pace is what accounts for a majority of the length). Also, maybe some plot elements merely talked about in the book will be shown; therefore it's entirely possible that characters that do not recur in the novels just might do so in a TV series (just as an example, Be'lal springs immediately to mind).

With that in mind, I began casting this series. I am a huge fan-casting nerd, and I cast most of the things I read. Sometimes what I read actually does get made into a series and sometimes it doesn't, but when it does, sometimes my fan-casting choices actually make it to screen (I fan-cast Peter Dinklage, Jason Momoa and Conan Stevens in Game of Thrones while reading the books). Oftentimes they pick someone else, but that's not the point. The point is, fan-casting is fun.

But this series is huge, and contains an amazing number of characters. I admit, I limited myself as to which characters I would cast and which I wouldn't, and I still ended up with 148 characters to cast. That's...well, that's much larger than any TV series is going to go. I just simply couldn't decide which characters to leave out. Admittedly, some of them are from the plot line I said could be removed almost in its entirety. Others are characters that I am sure will be either extras or will perhaps show up as a guest star for one or two episodes at most.

My thought was; there are so many large groups in this universe that it will be easy to have somewhere between three to five regular or semi-regular performers to be the "face" of these groups with all the others being "featured extras" that may at some point have an episode focus on them. Remember in ER or Oz how they always tended to use the same extras, and how some of those extras were later turned into actual characters? Yeah, same thought here. Be it the Aes Sedai, the Aiel, the Black Ajah, the Asha'mon, or whatever, there will have to be a couple dozen regularly-seen faces milling about in any scene featuring them, even if only one or two episodes actually give them lines.

So, I cast them all.

Now, here's the thing; Wheel of Time fans have fan-cast and fan-recast this series to death. There are countless sites or forums for Wheel of Time fan-casting (exclusively Wheel of Time fan-casting!). But the problem is, most of these fans are casting the roles as if it's definitely going to be a movie (and Werthead and I both have stated why we feel TV is better, but Wert goes into more detail), and not just any movie, but the most expensively cast movie ever made, with countless cameos and/or huge actors in small roles. One site actually has Clint effing Eastwood in the role of Jaem, of all people. I don't even consider Jaem a large enough role to bother fan-casting. He'll likely be played by a stuntman/extra who never speaks.

Obviously the idea of casting major names in smaller roles isn't going to happen. Probably even some of the more major characters will be played by actors you've never heard of. So my approach was that of a casting director casting a television series, meaning smaller-named actors, especially in the smaller roles. I scoured IMDb for British (meaning from all British Isles), Australian, a few Canadian and even fewer American actors who mainly do TV work, and even then most of them I wouldn't call "TV stars"; they just get a lot of work here and there. I went low into the credits of British movies and found the actors that have only a few lines. Some of the larger roles I cast with recognizable faces, even if you can't remember where you saw them from. One of my choices (admittedly he'll look a little odd among the others, but I still think he'll work) is an 80's has-been who is still near and dear to the hearts of many.

A few more added thoughts:

I deliberately cast this as if it was going to be a Showtime television series in the same vein as The Tudors or The Borgias, but with less sex (if not less nudity; really, there's much more nudity in this series than people believe).

The main characters are now in their early- to late-twenties, not teenagers (and Nynaeve is a full-fledged adult). Talk of them being "boys" or pulling childish pranks will be removed. They will still live in the Two Rivers because no one leaves the Two Rivers, and Mat will be portrayed less as a prankster than as a rogue who enjoys gaming and women. I did this on purpose for the same reason that the Stark kids on Game of Thrones are all in their twenties or mid-teens, instead of being fourteen and younger, as they are in the books.

The "ageless" quality of Aes Sedai will be achieved by having actresses cast whose faces look anywhere from ten years older to ten years younger than they are. I mostly stayed away from the "elderly" (although some are in their sixties) because it's hard to look "ageless" if you're covered in wrinkles, so if an Aes Sedai character is very, very old, I cast a young-looking actress over sixty at oldest, but mostly stuck to actresses in their forties and fifties.

In my next post I'll give you the central heroes and some reasoning behind who I chose and why.

This blog assumes you have read all the books, so there are some pretty big spoilers ahead. If you haven't read the books, and don't want things spoiled for you, it's much better that you go read the books first!

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