I can’t avoid writing about the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
I watched the eighth episode of the first season, the last of the season, about a week ago as I write this. I’ve been thinking about what I watched since then.
I’ve been doing a second reading of the novel at the same time. I just finished up Chapter 11 today, and I’m well past the halfway point of the novel. I’ll still be reading it for several more weeks (at the sedate, even leisurely, rate of one chapter per week), but I’ll have finished the book again long before the second season premieres. I’m also listening to Alastair Stephens’ podcast Storm’s On The Way at the same time. This Point North podcast is about both the Starz television show and the novel. I’m a few podcast episodes behind but plan to catch up sometime this week.
I’ve waited a week to let the television show fully sink in, so that I would be able to write a fair and unbiased review.
First, let me say that I don’t ever want to be considered one of those people who says that the book is better than the movie. It usually is, of course, but it’s usually not about being better or worse. It’s about being different. Reading a novel and watching a television show or movie represent different storytelling media. I am loving the Gaiman novel again, but I don’t think I would want to watch a page-by-page rendering of the novel on a television show, if it could even be done successfully. Eight episodes probably wouldn’t have gotten us past the checkers game with Czernobog. It’s possible that I’m exaggerating, but it’s no lie that the book is much more detailed and more densely textured than a television show could ever be. And even in these magical days of CGI special effects, the human imagination remains more powerful.
That said, this is still an amazing television series. It comes very close to capturing the pictures Gaiman painted in my head as I’ve been reading the novel again. Very close.
The casting in American Gods is about as good as it could possibly be. Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday was a stroke of genius. I can’t see anyone else in the role now. Ricky Whittle is also a perfect Shadow Moon. The novel never explicitly states that Shadow is a black man, but it never says he isn’t either. It works well in the series. Pablo Schreiber is a great Mad Sweeney, the tall leprechaun, and Emily Browning plays the living dead Laura Moon to the hilt. These are our main characters this season, but the supporting cast is just as strong. Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy, Peter Stormare as Czernobog, Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya, Gillian Anderson as Media…and on and on.
I don’t think there’s a true casting misfire in the bunch. I wasn’t really bothered that Technical Boy was changed from an overweight, acne-ridden young man to a slender rave kid. And Crispin Glover’s innate weirdness seems right for Mr. World. Having just read the chapter with Easter in it, I might have preferred a more volumptuous woman in the role; however, I like Kristin Chenoweth, so I give that a pass as well.
Having achieved casting near-perfection, the next standard I hold an adaptation up to is its faithfulness to the source material.
While not as perfect as the casting, I would still rate this category as an overall “good” as well. The television show follows the novel fairly closely at the beginning of the series, and then begins to veer a little off-course, to the side roads of the side roads, so to speak. The timeline is shuffled around a bit, and some scenes are just flat-out omitted, while new ones are invented out of whole cloth. The important beats still seem to be there.
I thought this season would culminate in a meeting of the gods at the House on the Rock, but that didn’t happen. I’m sure it’s still coming. It seemed to be the natural season-ender. Instead, we get Wednesday and Shadow’s meeting with Easter, which is completely different than in the novel, and shifted forward in time. On television, we get dozens of versions of Jesus at Easter’s little party. As far as I know, that never happens in the novel. I kind of liked it in the last episode, but it seems almost intentionally controversial.
Not to spoil any part of the story, but it seems to me that Mad Sweeney should already be dead before the events at the end of this season. He’s still alive and has been on an extended road trip with Laura Moon in a stolen ice cream truck. Something else I don’t think is in the book. I like Mad Sweeney, though, and don’t mind him still being around.
While not wholly faithful, the story is still engaging and entertaining. And I’m honestly not certain about everything’s that going to happen next. I don’t mind that, either.
In summary, I’ve liked the first season of American Gods a lot and recommend it to all fans of fantasy and speculative fiction.
No, it’s not better than the novel. Nor, in my opinion, is it as good.
It’s different. And it’s good in its own way.