Book-to-TV Adaptations: American Gods

I’ve always been a fan of books and tv-series, and if I find one I like, I always want more, in whatever medium. In the last few years, there have been several books to tv adaptations revealed that I’m really excited about. Shows like American Gods, Killing Eve, Good Omens, Amazon’s untitled Lord of the Rings project, The Watch, and a few others.

I thought it would be fun to talk about the ones I like, or are looking forward to. Let’s start out with a tv-series whose second season is set to premiere in only a few days, American Gods.

THE BOOK

American Gods is a much-acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman released in 2001. The book is a unique blend of Americana, folklore, world mythology, and contemporary fantasy. It follows the character Shadow Moon as he, after a prison sentence and the death of his wife Laura, takes a job as a driver and errand-boy to a man calling himself Mr. Wednesday. Together they set off on a fascinating road trip across America that will introduce Shadow to an eclectic and diverse cast of characters and put him right at the center of a war between two sides he never knew existed.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Orlando Jones, Peter Stormare, Brian Fuller

This is a Neil Gaiman book; it’s slow and weird. If that’s not your thing, you won’t like the book or the tv-series.  It’s also a book where your experience will depend on your interest in folklore and mythology. You don’t need any beforehand knowledge, but it will be a different experience if you don’t, not better or worse, just different.

That being said, many of the one- and two stars reviews I’ve read centers around people saying they don’t understand what the hell is going on, and they don’t enjoy the sometimes psychedelic dream landscapes or the overall weirdness.

My advice, if you’re a novice at mythology and folklore, is don’t be afraid to use Wikipedia. When a character is introduced, try googling the name, nothing you find will spoil any part of the book, but it will give you a quick backstory to the characters.

This is a big book, but the length depends on which edition you choose. For its tenth anniversary, the “authors preferred version” was released, which is roughly 12000 words longer. If you buy a small print paperback, it still comes in at over 600 pages. I just recently bought myself a large, illustrated hardback edition, not counting the illustrations it’s roughly 680 pages.

There are also two novellas set after the events of the book, Monarch of the Glenn, and Black Dog. Depending on which edition you pick-up, they might be included. There’s also a stand-alone novel, Anansi Boys. I hesitate to call it a sequel since, although existing in the same universe, it follows completely different characters.

There are plans for a sequel, although because of other projects and commitments, Gaiman has said it’s still in the plannings stages, and a good couple of years off.

THE SHOW

Available on: Starz & Amazon Prime

When I first heard about the plans to turn American Gods into a tv-series I had not read the book; it was on my TBR list, but so were many, many others. When I heard that Brian Fuller, who is behind one of my favorite tv-series of all time, Hannibal, was showrunner I immediately read the book in anticipation for the show’s release.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Orlando Jones, Peter Stormare, Brian Fuller

The firsts season of the show premiered in April 2017. It has eight, hour-long episodes and chronicles roughly the first 130 pages of the bok, with some events shuffled around to allow characters to enter the story sooner.

I enjoyed the first season, it’s visually stunning and awesomely weird the way only Neil Gaiman and Brian Fuller can be. Obviously, like most adaptations, it’s not a word for word retelling. The book is told very much from Shadows perspective, so changes had to be made to give the other characters personal motivations and individual storylines.

Season two is finally set to release on March 10th (2019) with another eight episodes. Brian Fuller has left as showrunner, and there’s been some production drama which has delayed the season and seen Gaiman getting more involved, writing at least one episode. But, the rumor mill seems to indicate that the show has already been renewed for a third season, or, is at least close to being renewed.

Early reactions are mixed but positive. From what I’ve read, season two, which is said to cover roughly another 150 pages of the novel, seems to be just as weird but a little more reined in. One reviewer described it as Brian Fuller’s artistic approach having to give way to a more straight forward narrative.

If that is a negative or a positive depends on your personal preferences, not everyone is a fan of Fuller’s style. Personally, I love his artistic approach, but I also feel that with season one, he sacrificed the story for incredible visuals. Minor characters from the book were given new or expanded storylines that were visually interesting but shifted the focus from Shadow. Other characters, like Orlando Jones amazing portrayal of Mr. Nancy, or Peter Stormare’s Czernobog was shamefully underused.

Going into the second season I’m fairly convinced that the show, with Fuller’s departure, will have had an artistic and visual downgrade, but if that allows for a more focused narrative than I think it might be worth it. Fuller’s style is amazing, but in the case of American Gods, the story itself is so filled with visual elements and over-all weirdness that it didn’t need adding to.

As for the future, in interviews, Neil Gaiman has revealed a five-season plan, although, of course, that plan depends on the network. Those five seasons would include the two novellas set after the events of the book. He’s also said that if the show survives that long a possible season six would take the story into events happening in the sequel he has planned.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman, Ricky Whittle, Ian McShane, Orlando Jones, Peter Stormare, Brian Fuller

Which is best, book or tv-series? Based on the first season, the book, definitely the book. If the show survives and is given a clear, creative style and narrative it has the potential to be a visually stunning and very entertaining adaptation of a great story. It’s fun, the actings great, the characters outrageously entertaining and because of that, they manage the leap from page to screen really well. But, so far, the book is definitely superior.

So, if you love the book will you like the show? That’s impossible to answer; it all comes down to how you imagine the characters. My cousin loves the book but can’t stand the show, it clashes completely with his idea of who Shadow is. In contrast, I think it’s a good portrayal considering the tweaks that had to be made to translate the character to a visual medium.

However, I’m (for the most part) a lot more “easy going” when it comes to adaptations. I have no problem separating a book from a show, movie, or a game. I can see them as separate interpretations that are independent of one another.

I know it’s a safe and boring answer but really, if you’re curious, watch an episode or two and judge for yourself.  Personally, I think the show captures the tone and feel of the novel, but I’m hoping season 2 will focus less on the minor characters and their revamped storylines and more on Shadow, Mr. Wednesday and the wondrous cast of characters they encounter.

So, what about you? Have you read the book, watched the show? How do you feel about them, do you agree or disagree?

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7 thoughts on “Book-to-TV Adaptations: American Gods

  1. Agree with this. I loved the breathtaking imagery of American Gods on Netflix. There’s a segment where the camera swoops down through an apartment block – I watched that FOUR times, it was so stunning. The map turning into a keyhole – Mr Nancy with the slaves – the TV screens talking to Shadow – so many amazing visuals. BUT if I hadn’t read the book I’d have been floundering. Really looking forward to season two to see how they pull it all together.

  2. Agree. When I’ve read the book, I automatically fill in the blanks in an adaptation without really thinking about it. That’s why I always try to read the book before watching an adaptation. It’s an absolutely stunning show, Brian Fuller’s visuals always are, but I’m really hoping for a more contained narrative in season 2.

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