AMERICAN GODS: Comparing the Book to the TV Show

AMERICAN GODS: Comparing the Book to the TV Show

Editor’s Note: Meet Cara, a new contributor to The Fairy Tale Site. She has been a Neil Gaiman fan for years, and here she presents the “book lover’s” perspective on the television adaptation of Gaiman’s novel, American Gods.

These days it’s hard to remember the world of 2001, when American Gods was first published. There was no Facebook, no YouTube. No smart phones or tablets. Wireless internet was newly interesting and Google was still a risky startup. Embarrassedly cringing at our recent Y2K fears, Americans were skeptical of the rapidly developing online world.

The world is different now, so this exploration of the soul of America needed some minor upgrades. Starz’ American Gods series does this smoothly, retaining the sense of the past that defines the book. The gods still demand our devoted attention, though they be much diminished in this world. Technology is no longer optional, but fully integrated into every aspect of life, making the melancholy, nostalgia-tinged world of the gods seems all the more heartbreakingly obsolete. Gods and roadside attractions are no longer relevant, except perhaps as an ironic Instagram post.

The gods are desperate and needy in the series. Much of the humor of the book’s gods is lost. Wednesday’s initial appearance sets him up as pitiful and frail. The book’s Wednesday starts to charm you from the first moment, and sure, we see that eventually in the series, but that first faltering moment colors our real introduction to the character. Perhaps it’s meant to make him seem more wily and manipulative, but the jarring shift from one moment to the next makes him seem unreliable and inconsistent.

The gods in the series are clinging to existence and clutching the last remnants of the memory of power. Whereas in the book, they are more down, but not out. Cloris Leachman’s Zorya Vechernyaya was disappointing, though not through any fault of the actor who is probably the most perfect casting imaginable for that role. In the book she’s funny, sharp, and giving Wednesday’s some serious side-eye. In the series, not giving any spoilers, the tone of their interaction focuses on something different, and the tone of their entire Chicago visit feels off somehow. Why cast such a great comic actor in one of the most humorous roles, and then not make it funny?

The Starz adaptation of American Gods can do something the text can’t though. It brings to life scenes of American backroads that are foreign to many, a mythic, chrome-plated America that is difficult to imagine if you haven’t deviated much from the interstates and bypasses. A world quickly disappearing to make room for housing developments. We are losing the kitsch and the bizarre to a kind of homogenized suburban nation of chain stores and outlet malls. A world where one place in the U.S. is indistinguishable from another. Dilapidated barns are repurposed into charming kitchen walls on home renovation shows, and no battered old dresser is safe from the clutches of a Pinterest makeover.

We are also experiencing this through the very media that the book presents as sinister. The written word delivers text directly to your brain for interpretation. Sure, Gaiman gives plenty of description in the written text, but each individual has their own understanding of the world Gaiman is describing. The gods, as they do in real life, mean different things to different people. The series presents the story to us in a way that has already been filtered to create a coherent depiction of a surreal world. The television or computer screen itself is a filter and a frame, and in a series where Media itself is a character, this has to alter our consumption of the narrative.

The brutality and violence of the series sets a harsh and unforgiving mood. Neil Gaiman’s “Sorry about all the blood…” introduction is appropriate. Part of that is the nature of a visual medium. Fear and desperation can subtly insinuate themselves into your consciousness in text in ways that are difficult to achieve onscreen. In the same way, television can play on visuals in a way that would require a far too elaborate passage of description than most texts can afford to include. At one point the saturated colors of the blood, the grass, and the sky make a spectacular Rothko-esque image. The show is dark, but beautiful.

There will be complaints by the book’s devotees. I have my own concerns. The coin tricks seem clunky, when they appear at all. Without giving anything away, I am curious about what appears to be a significant change to the character of Mr. World. The non-appearance of the enemy in the first Coming to America tale erases the significance and humanity of those enemies, reducing them to an inhuman and almost supernatural phenomenon. But overall the show is an incredible depiction of the conflict between crumbling ancient icons and a sterile but gleaming modern world.

American Gods premieres Sunday, April 30, on Starz.

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