The news that Neil Gaiman’s seminal novel American Gods is finally greenlit by US network Starz for a TV series (after years stuck in development) doesn’t surprise me at all. If anything, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner to a truly great book too big for a film adaptation.
The book’s story follows an ex-con called Shadow Moon who’s roped into a plot by down-on-his-luck Norse god Odin (going by ‘Mr Wednesday’) to band together other fading deities from a variety of cultures to take on the “new gods” of America. These include gods of computers, media, conspiracy (as personified by some men in dark suits) and intangible gods of the stock market who would rather let market forces take out their enemies than deal with them directly. The old gods are generally no longer believed in by Americans, so their power has faded – but with Shadow’s help, they might have a chance to rake back some of their dignity and prestige.
All of this might sound a bit offbeat and complicated, but I think that plays into TV’s strengths in a world where The Killing, True Detective and The Honourable Woman are critical smashes. The novel’s focus on fantasy also stands it in good stead in the wake of series like Game of Thrones or Outlander, with the series boasting a huge ensemble cast of vibrant religious and folkloric characters ranging from the playful Mr Nancy (aka African trickster-spider Anansi) to Mr Jaquel, a version of Egyptian God Anubis who runs a funeral parlour.
American Gods’ strong focus on quirky or unusual rural America might also endear it to viewers, with key locations including the world’s largest carousel and a small town with a terrible secret that could tap into a Twin Peaks and Fargo-like well of eccentricity.
But beyond comparing it to other shows, American Gods is just a bloody good ride in print that I believe could work really well on screen. It’s an epic and episodic adventure that has a great arc (and mystery that I won’t spoil) at its heart, and with Gaiman on board as an executive producer I’m hoping a lot of that can be preserved in the transition.
Some parts of the novel might be a little tricky to adapt on TV, of course – the novel’s depiction of Jesus as a successful, office-bound baseball cap enthusiast might be a little controversial to some people – but overall I think the TV adaptation has a chance to be as successful with viewers as it was with book readers back in 2001. Thank the gods.