Anyone with a finger to the pulse point of Nerdom knows that when it comes to myth and fantasy, Neil Gaiman is one of the visionaries. His Nebula award-winning novel, AMERICAN GODS, published in 2001 is often said to be the best of his fantasy fiction, or really, any of his fiction, and yes… they’re pretty much right.
The novel in its meandering drawl, is everything and nothing at all like a road-trip story. It depicts a world where all the god’s and goddesses that human civilisation has ever held belief in (and some before humanity) are right here on Earth, specifically, they're trapped in America. The story centres on Shadow Moon, a self-convicted ex-con who, in the wake of personal tragedy, begins working as a bodyguard for con-artist Mr. Wednesday (who’s really one of the older gods, try and guess who!).
Together Shadow and Wednesday travel across America recruiting old Gods to wage war against a new pantheon of Gods. Those of technology, media, money and celebrity, who are all trying to wrest power from the old gods. It’s violent, fantastical, unexpected, and surprisingly American (not for the title but for Gaiman being a born-and-bred British gentleman, or a morbidly dressed punk-librarian, really either fits). Distilling America down into black scratching’s on paper, GODS depicts the different states and towns of US of A with their fitting minuscule Americanisms- it’s really quite the feat to make something that just feels so very American that is in no way contrived or belittling. Alongside this, GODS is also as much about the immigrant experience as it is about America, the main story and Gaiman's Gods, having as much to do with coming to American as to living there.
The universe of GODS is massive with a tenth anniversary edition of the work being sold with an additional 12,000 words (12,000 entirely crucial words in my opinion) to the main story, as well as numerous short stories and even a spin-off ANANSI BOY'S all written by Gaiman all in the same universe. GODS is expansive, detailed, fascinating, and oddly (for again, its meandering tone and slow slow pacing, that is all so deliciously and frustratingly Gaiman-esque) refreshing. A novel that defies expectation.
The crux of that I think rests on the shoulders of giants, or rather Shadow Moon. Shadow is a nice guy and I mean- he's a nice guy. Not the creepy Nice Guy trope of a dude who believes he’s forever victimised by the evil women who won’t ‘give him a chance’. I mean he is genuinely a nice person; with a quiet sense of integrity and nobility that’s really rather touching. His relationship with his wife Laura (rife with problems but not in the way you'd expect) is weirdly one of my favourite aspects of the book. She calls him Puppy and I melt inside because; despite their problems they’re both so loving and sweet to one another- I could gush for an age about this relationship so I’ll just keep moving.
‘Hey,’ said Shadow. 'Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.’
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
'Say “Nevermore”,’ said Shadow.
'Fuck you,’ said the raven.
The story itself has a bizarre narrative flow, not in the experimental way of poetry but for the weight of the research behind the piece. It's made up of undercurrent sub plots and stories, weaving multiple main stories throughout these so that any real sense of action-and-consequence plot is echoed most of the time only briefly. The real story is the characters, the real story is America. GODS paints itself as a modern dream-scape one moment, and painfully mundane the next, with it's byways and highways, making American Roadside attractions into delightful or just plain weird moments. In reading, it’s easy to see that GODS is actually doing something a little different. Not just different, but challenging.
The pacing is slower than anything I’ve ever read outside of non-fiction. The imagery darker, almost gothic. It takes the idea of a road trip and makes it gritty, unreal and larger than anything it would normally be. Gaiman through his prose makes you feel it- the aches after a long car trip, the annoyance of car travel and all combining a surreal fantasy element that creates an almost pseudo-America in the mind of the reader. Maybe this is actually what America is like- a battleground for the old gods and the new, a place with shape and history and life- never too fantastical, but always removed from the everyday. This, coupled with Shadow- our eyes and ears into the otherworld- makes the whole thing more three dimensional.
For a story so unique, so rich so expansive how is it that some studio (HBO *cough cough*) hasn’t snatched up the source material?
Well, actually they have.
The AMERICAN GODS TV series is happening. Filming has officially begun on the 10-episode first season. Shooting will be in Toronto and will continue in various American Locations. Set to hit our screens in 2017. In getting a glimpse (or five hundred) of the trailer shown off at this years SDCC, I have to agree with Gaiman when I say it's looking 'shit hot' (which is apparently a good thing?).
STARZ, the same network that brought us the half-naked and tomato-blood show SPARTACUS ("Jupiter’s cock!") announced their own take on AMERICAN GODS in 2014, and this year at SDCC they showed the first fruits of their labour. Through tweets, interviews and behind the scenes, STARZ has proven to be just as fanatic for the cult-hit as the rest of Gaiman's fans- almost being hand-picked by Gaiman himself to carry the proverbial mantle.
Studios haven't been too kind to book adaptations (in films even less so) but GODS fans got physically pumped when Bryan Fuller (PUSHING DASIES, WONDERFALLS, HANNIBAL) was revealed as show runner. His projects always lean themselves to the supernatural so he's well suited to the roll. Combined with his strong knack for disturbing and unique visuals and his co-show runner found in HEROES writer Michael Green, it seems like GODS fans and Gaiman have hit the lucky jackpot.
That being said, all three; Gaiman, Fuller and Green have told fans that the show won't be a straight adaptation of the novel. Something that has been met with mixed feedback. I think it's a suitable choice for the story given the drastic change of medium. Gaiman's reductive narrative style, the character focus and road-trip story itself, only littered with brief interludes of action and plot, isn't suited to long-form TV. And it seems the STARS team feel the same way.
It'll be: 'fanfiction, in a wonderful way,' says Fuller adding, 'In success we may have spin-offs...that follow the lesser gods in greater detail than you might in the main series.' And I've gotta say, in spite the deviation from Gaiman's plot (which surprised me and tricked me and had my pulling on my hair) I'm pretty excited .
I actually can't tell you how amped I am for the show. The cast looks fantastic, the story (thus far) beautifully interpreted. And, there's just so much about that trailer; the character’s casting (Shadow-played by THE 100's Ricky Whittle, and Wednesday-by Ian McShane, in particular) that's so spot on! The whole hyper-real and southern gothic direction they seem to be taking is inspired and that version of 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' (song featured) *Kisses Fingers* it's gorgeous!
GODS as a novel has become one of those comfort books for me, like a close friend, one you've known for years and even when you don't see each other for a while, you can always catch up over a cuppa and pick right back from where you've left off. The first time I finished GODS, i went right back to the beginning and read it again wanting to catch all of the little clues I missed out on in the first reading, and re-read all of the sections I'd dog-eared and loved (yes I'm one of those abominations, fight me).
With the TV adaptation, Gaiman himself seems nothing but happy with the way the show is turning out. He's said that he knew GODS was in good hands when he asked that the only thing he wanted 'in stone' was that the diversity in GODS be maintained for the cast of the show. No white-washing.
No white-washing; isn't that bloody refreshing?
In the past, Gaiman's been proven to outright refuse request adaptations of his work for years, knowing how most studios push for things like white-washing or queer-erasure. The latter, a point- particularly close to my own heart; as two of my favourite queer characters from GODS are already being talked about having their roles expanded in the series, with actors Omid Abtahi playing Salim and Mousa Kraish reoccurring as the Jinn. And though my other favourite queer character Sam Black Crow hasn't been cast yet for season one, there's no doubt she'll play a large role throughout the rest of the series *squee!*
It's refreshing, again, that Fuller and Green have been very forthright and open talking about the importance of cultural sensitivity, ethnic diversity and even gender diversity in their TV adaptation. 'When you have so much that is about people’s cultures coming in, you need to be culturally literate in all respects,' Green adds, 'you’re dealing with ancient mythologies and gods. Those come from places and look a certain way. That just set the tenor of the whole thing.'
Gaiman is frequently consulted, particularly in the area of casting. 'The fun thing is, we’re not colour-blind casting, we’re actually very consciously aware of colour in the cast and ethnic specificity, because the book is so culturally specific,' says Fuller. 'There have been times where a character has been described as having very dark skin, and we’ve made a suggestion to Neil, and he’s like, ‘Oh, that actor is black. The character needs to be Indian. Even though it’s written that they have very dark skin, the character is absolutely Indian and it needs to be an Indian actor.’ That’s been kind of a great relief, because it’s a map that we just stick to.'
To anyone who's read the book you know at times the story can be a bit of a sausage-fest, and it's actually great to hear that, with the more 'fanfiction' form Green and Fuller are taking with the series that they can expand the vision of GODS and grow some of the 'fantastic female characters' that Gaiman created.
And I think oddly enough, that's why I'm so excited. I love AMERICAN GODS but even I can admit it has its problems ( particularly the above-mentioned dick-fest), and in talking about that there's such a sense of completeness to the work that even with the couple short stories and spin-offs provided by Gaiman, that I'm still- like many fans- left wanting more.
It's of no doubt to me that AMERICAN GODS is one of Gaiman's best works, although many of his novels are good. I truly think, before 2017-you should read it. That you should let the story make you happy and sad and laugh and pull out your hair and go back and read it all over again because 'Damnnit you didn't see...coming!'.
The TV show is going to give us an opportunity to discover a 'whole new world' inside of a story we already know. For once I'm more than happy to see an adaptation taking on a different path from the original source material- using its canon as a guidebook and less of a Google Maps route (smooth-as-fudge road-trip allegory right?!)
'If you’ve read it [GODS] before,' says Gaiman, 'You are definitely ahead of the people who have not read the book, but we have surprises for you, too.'
'However you come to this,' says Fuller, 'you’re in good hands.'
And you know what? I actually believe them.