American Gods is a 2001 novel from master fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. It’s one of my favourite books. It’s also a 2017 TV series that happens to be the best thing on television, and y’all need to know about both of them.
Now, you might have a reflex to judge this, if you’re like me and have really gotten over movies or horror anthology shows slapping the word “American” in their title for… why do they do that, exactly? Because American Beauty and American Pie were successful?
I get using it in American Sniper, because unless you really drape that story in aggressively jingoist patriotism all you have is a story about a racist who likes shooting brown people that does a terrible job of portraying PTSD, but what is, say, American Horror Story gaining by slapping “American” on the title? Is it necessary? Is it helping? When the international market is more important than ever?
But for any of you that do have my weirdly specific issue, rest assured that in this case, it’s earned. The rest of you probably just wonder why I’m still talking about this.
The basic plot of either American Gods is this: ex-thief Shadow Moon is released from prison just in time to attend his wife’s funeral. On the way he meets enigmatic conman Mr. Wednesday, who wants to hire Shadow to be his body man. Wednesday takes Shadow on a road trip through the back roads and small towns of America, where he learns a hidden truth: gods are real, and they’re everywhere.
People believe in gods because they exist, but gods exist because people believe in them. From the Bering Straight until relatively recently, every time that people came to the American continent and worshipped their god(s), said god(s) would appear in America. But worship dwindled, and with it, the gods’ stature and power. And in their place, new gods are rising, representations of what the modern world worships: Media, the Technical Boy, and their mysterious leader Mr. World. War is brewing between the old gods and the new, and Shadow is stuck in the middle.
Gaiman’s novel is a sweeping epic that still manages a languid pace, which is perfect for how the story unfolds. Shadow and Wednesday move from town to town, encountering and attempting to recruit gods from various pantheons, and Gaiman relishes in exploring how they’ve acclimated to modern day America.
And sometimes he just puts the main story on pause for a “Coming to America” story, about gods or human lives they’ve touched along the way.
It’s a story about faith, and how it affects people’s lives. It’s a story about immigrants, if “coming to America” wasn’t enough of a clue there. It’s a story where a major character can just hang out in small town Wisconsin for the winter and it’s still fascinating.
American Gods has been adapted to television in part by one of my all-time favourite TV writers, Bryan Fuller. Fuller was behind the delightfully whimsical fantasy procedural Pushing Daisies, and the gorgeously shot nightmare fuel that was Hannibal. That one’s particularly relevant.
Hannibal used the original Hannibal Lector novels as a loose guideline. Fuller’s team wove the backstory of the Red Dragon novel into some of the most compelling television you could ask for. The relationship between Hannibal and his friend/nemesis, haunted profiler Will Graham, is both hunter/prey (though which is which constantly shifts) and a touching yet seriously twisted bromance. And through all of his work is a visual flair unlike anything else on television.
Which makes him basically perfect to take on this story. The visual style of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal brings American Gods to lush life beyond what I could have hoped for, and the writers have an instant rapport for Gaiman’s characters. Ian McShane’s take on Mr. Wednesday is incredible, Ricky Whittle is nailing Shadow, and the guest cast is filled with great choices. Peter Stormare’s Czernobog, Gillian Anderson as the many faces of Media, Kristen Chenoweth as Easter… and I didn’t know Orlando Jones could even be as good as he is as African trickster god Anansi/Mr. Nancy, a character from the novel so beloved that he got a spin-off.
And all of that is putting aside the fact that they’ve formed an improbably compelling duo out of two more minor characters: Shadow’s dead wife Laura and Mad Sweeney the Leprechaun. The unapologetically unpleasant Laura Moon and the hilariously put-upon Mad Sweeney are such strong characters that Shadow and Wednesday can disappear for entire episodes and you don’t even mind.
Diverting From the Course
At first, they’re pretty faithful to the source material. Entire sequences in the first three episodes seem to be chapters lifted directly from the book and brought to exquisitely vivid life. Exquisite, gorgeous, sweet-yet-holy-hell-graphic life. That… doesn’t last. By the halfway point of episode five, we’re in completely uncharted territory.
Well, not completely, necessarily. They’re still on the same basic path, they’re just taking some diversions along the way.
Normally “diversion from the source material” is the opening salvo of a massive nerd rant about “How dare they change so-and-so,” but not today, readers, not. Today. Too many things I’ve seen have done well with diversions from their source material. Preacher spent its entire first season in a town that blew up in the first issue of the comic (with a villain who didn’t show up until year four), and it’s great. iZombie has almost nothing in common with the original comic and it’s one of my favourites. And apparently the novelizations of Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and something) have all sorts of superfluous characters and apparently go-nowhere plots (Lady Stoneheart seems to lift right out) that the show does fine without.
(By the way… TV fans spent five seasons saying “No spoilers no spoilers” to book fans, and then the very instant the TV show passed the books, spoilers everywhere. That was messed up, guys. That was a messed up thing we did. Or let the entertainment media do.)
But most relevant? Hannibal.
Bryan Fuller knew Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector novels inside and out, but his goal wasn’t to do a chapter-by-chapter remake of Red Dragon. Hell, it took two and a half seasons to get to Red Dragon. Instead he used the characters and backstory of the various novels to weave his own story about Will Graham and Dr. Lector, and it was amazing. So if he wants to add his own digressions, his own spin on Gaiman’s story, he absolutely has my trust.
Especially since Gaiman is an executive producer and is around to say “Yes, sure, do that, that’s neat.”
Similar to the highly underrated Before Watchmen comics– yes, I called Before Watchmen underrated, fucking fight me– Fuller takes single chapters and minor characters and brings them into the spotlight, expanding on characters only glimpsed in the book. And sure, fine, okay, there are plot points and character meetings happening in the back half of the series that in no way happened in the books. But you know what, that’s fine. It’s fine. Because A) if I haven’t been clear, they’re great, and B) the worst, the worst thing they could have done is try to just cram the entire book into one season. Even if it had been longer than eight episodes. Racing through this story would have killed it.
Okay, there is middle ground between “racing through the story” and “padding said story with new stuff,” but I refer you back to point A. If Fuller going off-book brings us Corbin Bersen as a white nationalist Vulcan, Lost/Justified’s Jeremy Davies as Jesus Prime*, and an early confrontation between Wednesday, Crispin Glover as Mr. World, and Gillian Anderson as Media as Marilyn Monroe? I say bring it on.
*The novel admits the existence of various regional Jesuses but avoids having any turn up. The TV show has dozens.
So Which Should You Try?
Well that’s kind of up to you. Both are excellent in their ways. I guess the question is, are you in it for the destination, or the journey?
If you want to know the full story ASAP, the show is no help. They are in no rush to get through the events of the novel. The first eight-episode season barely makes it a fifth of the way into the book. (Sure, spending two entire episodes on non-Shadow/Wednesday stories and one entire episode and chunks of two more on new Shadow/Wednesday stories slowed them down just a smidge.) I doubt they’ll even reach Lakeside, Wisconsin until season three or four. So if you’re impatient, read the book. Just devour it. Get all up in all 600+ pages of that long and winding sumbitch. Then read it again and savour each chapter.
Sure but you’ll know how it ends. Might end. Assuming the ratings stay high enough to see it through, the TV show might not end with the end of the book. In addition to the spin-off, Anansi Boys (which some have said Gaiman wrote to prove that the late, great Terry Pratchett didn’t write all the jokes in their classic collaboration Good Omens), Neil Gaiman is reportedly working on a sequel. And since he’s better at getting these written than George RR Martin*, it’ll be done and in stores by the time the series catches up, and that’ll be another five seasons right there.
*Relax, Song of Ice and Fire fans, by “better” I just mean “faster.” I’m not saying Gaiman’s objectively a better writer than Martin. You might have inferred it, I might be thinking it, and it’s true, but I didn’t say it.
And take it from someone who’s read the book multiple times… knowing where they’re headed isn’t detracting from the ride. I mean, you heard me mention the new stuff, right? And my opinion on it was clear?
On the other hand, if you don’t mind spending a few years making your way down a long, winding, and fascinating road, and would rather have no idea where it’s going, then watch the show. I’ll do my best not to spoil anything for you.
But pick one. Book or TV series, it’s going to be brilliant. So pick one. Read it, watch it, get on it.
Get on it.
Get. On. It.
(This has been “Dan heartily endorses American Gods.” Thanks for tuning in, see you next time.)