An introduction to American Gods

How Neil Gaiman’s novel became a series that’s “Avengers with gods”

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Published in 2002, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods could have been unfilmable. Comprised of a cross-America road trip visiting the avatars of European, African and Middle Eastern gods as they faded from human memory, the book is a heavily symbolic, 500-page tome with a drawn-out narrative that didn’t exactly lend itself to film. 

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Gaiman himself said (with typical lyricism) that the prospect of seeing American Gods onscreen was “as likely as projecting it onto the moon every night” – yet 15 years later here we are, with American Gods the TV series on the brink of its US and UK debut (on network Starz and Video On-Demand service Amazon Prime respectively).

Appropriately enough, Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller had kept the faith.

“One of the things that Michael Green and I saw very clearly in reading it 15 years ago – it felt like such a wonderful rich toybox to unpack, and play with,” Fuller, who co-created the series with Green, tells me. “I knew it really wasn’t a movie. So I think both Michael and I were waiting for people to figure out it wasn’t really a movie. And, then we swept in.” 

“I read the book when they offered it to me, and actually I thought it was a perfect blueprint for a TV show because it left so much space,” agrees actor Ian McShane.

Said blueprint goes roughly like this: released from prison due to the death of his wife, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) finds himself hired by a mysterious figure named Mr Wednesday (McShane). Working as Wednesday’s bodyguard and chauffeur, Shadow begins to realise that the curious figures Wednesday is introducing him to are fading embodiments of classical Gods, who are threatened by the emergence of powerful new Gods like Media and Technology.

“The central idea is that people’s beliefs calcify into gods,” explains actor Bruce Langley, who plays new god the Technical Boy. “And they take these gods with them as they believe in them. And then when they stop believing in them, they essentially abandon them.”

“So America, a nation of immigrants – there’s a whole load of abandoned Gods. Whole load of old Gods now trying to survive – then enter a bunch of quote/unquote “new gods”, this shiny new ones taking people’s belief.”

“Interestingly enough, I don’t think anyone really can describe it,” offered lead actor Whittle. “There’s nothing like this out there on TV. I think Bryan came up with the shortest sentence, which was ‘Avengers with Gods.’”

There’s slightly more to the book than this basic team-up idea, however, including the resurrection of Shadow’s wife Laura (Emily Browning) and several short vignettes depicting the modern versions of classical gods existing in the present day. And this new TV version adds even more, with the series also expanding and updating the material to fit both contemporary mores and the altered pace of broadcast TV.

“Some events or characters that may have been introduced later in the book, we’re bringing in earlier and starting to weave into the story in a little more aggressive way than is in the novel,” Fuller says.

“The fun of adapting the book is that there is so much material in the book that we can just lift right out of those pages and put them into the show.”

“I think if a book I was a huge fan of was adapted, I would much prefer to see new elements added and people taking their time with it, as opposed to it being compressed and then you miss things, you lose things,” Browning offers. “I think it’s definitely a better way to go.”

The epitome of this expansion comes from the fact that this first series will only focus on the first fifth of Gaiman’s original novel, with the rest spelled out by subsequent seasons.

“We wanted to make sure that we were having patience with the storytelling, and according out the structure of the book,” Fuller says.

“What you read in the novel should feel like the abbreviated version of the story, and what you see in the television show is a much longer, and more elaborate interpretation.”

The series also makes an effort to expand the number of female characters, with both Browning’s Laura Moon and goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) given larger roles than they had in the book.

“I started reading [the book] before we shot, but very quickly stopped because it was too much information to take when the show is really quite different from the book,” Browning tells me. “And my character especially, because she’s barely in the book and she’s in the show a lot.”

“The book is essentially a sausage party,” Fuller says plainly. “It is Wednesday, and Shadow, and they’re in a car, and they’re exploring America, and looking to recruit gods, and…I love writing women, and I particularly love writing dead women. So there was a treat in expanding Laura’s role, as well as expanding Bilquis’ role.”

So yes, there are a few changes and updates necessary due to the changing times we live in– but in other ways the basic story of the original story couldn’t be more relevant, with the cast and crew agreeing that American Gods’ themes of immigration, religion and intolerance have become all the more timely in recent months.

“It was written in 2001, and it’s never been more current,” says led actor Whittle. “And fortunately for us, this was in the can before Trump became President, but it’s so current now, because we touch on many of the things that are in debate at the moment. “

“It’s a very timely show about immigration, faith,” McShane adds. “People’s attitudes towards each other. And their disappointments, and their hopes, and their wishes and their dreams.”

“Looking at American Gods prior to the Trump election, and then post the Trump election…there are two completely different interpretations of the storyline,” Fuller says.

“We open most of the episodes with a ‘Coming to America’ story of a god making their way to America and finding themselves disconnected from everything that made them who they were previously.

“And I think once we start telling stories with compassion, and start seeing faces of individuals that we empathise with, we can only add to the conversation about what are the issues with immigration, what exactly are the fears, and why is it after thousands of years of evolution that we still revert back to very primal lizard-brain issues of tribalism and fearing the other.”

If people do respond well to these challenging ideas, it’s safe to say that American Gods has plans for the future. The vast majority of the book will still need to be adapted, with Fuller and the cast also hoping to return to adapt some of Gaiman’s already-published spin-off short stories and a mooted sequel that the author is currently working on.

“This has got legs to run for a very long time, and I’m not going anywhere,” Whittle says succinctly.

And based on positive reviews and the fan excitement so far, they may just get their wish to keep telling the tales of this most peculiar of pantheons. Sometimes, shooting for the moon pays off.

American Gods begins on Starz in America on Sunday 30th April, and is available to stream on Amazon Prime from the 1st May

Published in 2002, Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods could have been unfilmable. Comprised of a cross-America road trip visiting the avatars of European, African and Middle Eastern gods as they faded from human memory, the book is a heavily symbolic, 500-page tome with a drawn-out narrative that didn’t exactly lend itself to film. 

Gaiman himself once said (with typical lyricism) that the prospect of seeing American Gods onscreen was “as likely as projecting it onto the moon every night” – yet 15 years later here we are, with American Gods the TV series on the brink of its US and UK debut (on network Starz and Video On-Demand service Amazon Prime respectively).

Appropriately enough, Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller had kept the faith.

“One of the things that Michael Green and I saw very clearly in reading it 15 years ago – it felt like such a wonderful rich toybox to unpack, and play with,” Fuller, who co-created the series with Green, tells me. “I knew it really wasn’t a movie. So I think both Michael and I were waiting for people to figure out it wasn’t really a movie. And, then we swept in.” 

“I read the book when they offered it to me, and actually I thought it was a perfect blueprint for a TV show because it left so much space,” agrees actor Ian McShane.

The cast of American Gods introduce the series

Said blueprint goes roughly like this: released from prison due to the death of his wife, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) finds himself hired by a mysterious figure named Mr Wednesday (McShane). Working as Wednesday’s bodyguard and chauffeur, Shadow begins to realise that the curious figures Wednesday is introducing him to are fading embodiments of classical gods, who are threatened by the emergence of powerful new deities like Media and Technology. 

“The central idea is that people’s beliefs calcify into gods,” explains actor Bruce Langley, who plays new god the Technical Boy. “And they take these gods with them as they believe in them. And then when they stop believing in them, they essentially abandon them.” 

“So America, a nation of immigrants – there’s a whole load of abandoned Gods. A whole load of old Gods now trying to survive – then enter a bunch of quote/unquote “new gods”, these shiny new ones taking people’s belief.” 

“Interestingly enough, I don’t think anyone really can describe it,” offered lead actor Whittle. “There’s nothing like this out there on TV. I think Bryan came up with the shortest sentence, which was ‘Avengers with Gods.’” 

There’s slightly more to the book than this basic team-up idea, however, including the resurrection of Shadow’s wife Laura (Emily Browning) and several short vignettes depicting the modern versions of classical gods existing in the present day. And this new TV version adds even more, with the series also expanding and updating the material to fit both contemporary mores and the altered pace of broadcast TV.

“Some events or characters that may have been introduced later in the book, we’re bringing in earlier and starting to weave into the story in a little more aggressive way than is in the novel,” Fuller says. 

“The fun of adapting the book is that there is so much material in the book that we can just lift right out of those pages and put them into the show.” 

“I think if a book I was a huge fan of was adapted, I would much prefer to see new elements added and people taking their time with it, as opposed to it being compressed and then you miss things, you lose things,” Browning offers. “I think it’s definitely a better way to go.” 

The epitome of this expansion comes from the fact that this first series will only focus on the first fifth of Gaiman’s original novel, with the rest spelled out by subsequent seasons.

“We wanted to make sure that we were having patience with the storytelling, and according out the structure of the book,” Fuller says. 

“What you read in the novel should feel like the abbreviated version of the story, and what you see in the television show is a much longer, and more elaborate interpretation.” 

The series also makes an effort to expand the number of female characters, with both Browning’s Laura Moon and goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) given larger roles than they had in the book. 

“I started reading [the book] before we shot, but very quickly stopped because it was too much information to take when the show is really quite different from the book,” Browning tells me. “And my character especially, because she’s barely in the book and she’s in the show a lot.”

“The book is essentially a sausage party,” Fuller says plainly. “It is Wednesday, and Shadow, and they’re in a car, and they’re exploring America, and looking to recruit gods, and…I love writing women, and I particularly love writing dead women. So there was a treat in expanding Laura’s role, as well as expanding Bilquis’ role.” 

So yes, there are a few changes and updates necessary due to the changing times we live in – but in other ways the basic story of the original novel couldn’t be more relevant, with the cast and crew agreeing that American Gods’ themes of immigration, religion and intolerance have become all the more timely in recent months.

“It was written in 2001, and it’s never been more current,” says led actor Whittle. “And fortunately for us, this was in the can before Trump became President, but it’s so current now, because we touch on many of the things that are in debate at the moment. “

“It’s a very timely show about immigration, faith,” McShane adds. “People’s attitudes towards each other. And their disappointments, and their hopes, and their wishes and their dreams.” 

“Looking at American Gods prior to the Trump election, and then post the Trump election…there are two completely different interpretations of the storyline,” Fuller says.

“We open most of the episodes with a ‘Coming to America’ story of a god making their way to America and finding themselves disconnected from everything that made them who they were previously.

“And I think once we start telling stories with compassion, and start seeing faces of individuals that we empathise with, we can only add to the conversation about what are the issues with immigration, what exactly are the fears, and why is it after thousands of years of evolution that we still revert back to very primal lizard-brain issues of tribalism and fearing the other.”

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Pablo Schreiber, Whittle and McShane in American Gods

If people do respond well to these challenging ideas, it’s safe to say that American Gods has plans for the future. The vast majority of the book will still need to be adapted, with Fuller and the cast also hoping to return to adapt some of Gaiman’s already-published spin-off short stories and a mooted sequel that the author is currently working on. 

“This has got legs to run for a very long time, and I’m not going anywhere,” Whittle says succinctly.

And based on positive reviews and the fan excitement so far, they may just get their wish to keep telling the tales of this most peculiar of pantheons. Sometimes, shooting for the moon pays off.

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American Gods begins on Starz in America on Sunday 30th April, and is available to stream on Amazon Prime from the 1st May