Across the fields, highways, rivers, bridges, mountains, and skyscrapers of the great American landscape, a fight is brewing between gods of old and new.
On April 30, fans of Neil Gaiman’s nearly 20-year-old Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel American Gods will finally get to see that “magical and mad” battle brought to life on Starz.
Gaiman’s almost 800 page, nearly 200,000-word fantasy epic follows a culture on the brink. The “old gods” who crossed both land and sea alongside the nation’s earliest Americans, and the “new gods,” all powered by generations of assimilation and development, are gearing up to duke it out for control of the love, admiration, and attention of their human disciples.
Praised for its rather timely immigrant narrative and metaphorical debate over “the good old days” versus the impending new, “better” ones, the book and show’s greatest achievement goes far beyond its ability to be relevant in Trump’s America, an era of Muslim bans and border walls.
Gaiman’s novel (and now TV series), which has weathered nearly two generations of cultural tension and progress, asks two very simple and perpetually evocative questions: What do we give power to, and how does that define us?
It is for that reason that American Gods may be one of the most resonant — and controversial — productions TV has seen in years. But getting the book off the page and onto our screens, like crossing the ocean and vast swathes of land to arrive in “America,” wasn’t a totally easy endeavor. And not entirely in the ways we might think.
Hardcore fans of Gaiman’s book will remember talks about its potential small screen adaptation back around 2011. At that time, HBO was the network interested in a potential adaptation. According to Gaiman, while the process of getting American Gods ready for audiences had its own set of hurdles, the biggest wasn’t, in fact, one of TV’s most common: Development hell.
“It’s kind of become a story that this was in development for a long time,” Gaiman said. “It really wasn’t. What happened was, in 2011 we pitched it to HBO. There was an executive at HBO who was really smart, really nice. Got it, loved it, bought it. By the time we handed in the first draft of the script, she was no longer there.”
As a result of one exec leaving, Gaiman and the future of American Gods at HBO became an oddly meta moment between “the old” and “the new,” the latter of whom didn’t “really get this thing.”
“We did another draft and polish for them, and they were like ‘This is weird. We don’t really know why it was born. Here, let’s give it back to you.’ The moment it came back, it came back with an enormous amount of relief. They were glad to be [rid] of this weird thing, we were glad that it wasn’t going to be at a home that wasn’t going to understand it.”
It wouldn’t be until early April in 2014 that Gaiman would attempt to bring his beloved novel to life again. And this time, facing perhaps the truest hurdle: can it actually be made?
“The first of April 2014 I flew up to Toronto and I met with Bryan Fuller. I said, ‘Do you want to do American Gods?’ and Bryan said something really encouraging which was, ‘I don’t know how you’d do it, but I love it.’”
Gaiman’s world, which features characters, myths, and metaphors that have the capacity to be universally understood, is not so easily imagined for the screen. Seventeen years after it was first published, American Gods is still somewhat socially provocative and at times tests the very limits of our most cutting edge production tech. Those challenges are something the author openly acknowledges. It is also why it should come as no surprise that even showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green weren’t sure they could peel Gaiman’s world off the page.
“The thing from the book that knocked me out the most, that when I saw it finished I went ‘Oh my god, this is real’ was actually the Salim and The Jinn sequence,” Gaiman said. “I wrote it and I do remember looking at that chapter and going, ‘I’m really proud of this chapter and if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that you’re never gonna see that on screen.’”
For those who don’t know, the sequence in Gaiman’s novel is a love scene between a Muslim male salesman and a middle eastern male cab driver. The process of deciding whether they could pull off some of the more elaborate visual effects, on top of whether American audiences were ready for the intimacy of that scene (as well as the many other either visually explicit or culturally sensitive moments in Gaiman’s book), were perhaps the bigger hurdles to producing an adaptation that would do the book and readers justice.
The potential for having numerous sequences that upset or offend certain viewers may also be a challenge going forward in terms of audience size. Lucky for source material purists, Gaiman wasn’t interested in toning things down or appeasing people who might find aspects of the show disagreeable.
“Had you told me 20 years ago that by simply describing American Gods as an immigration-positive, racially diverse television series in an interview, when that interview was printed you would get cries to boycott the series, I would have not understood what you were talking about,” Gaiman said. “The comments coming in were like ‘We will boycott this mad, left-wing show.’ I’m going, ‘You’re not technically boycotting it. What you’re doing is the old-fashioned thing of not watching it. It’s a little bit different. It sounds less impressive.’”
As an immigrant himself, Gaiman finds that particular metaphor in his series to be one of the most important, and one that is neither fundamentally incorrect in who it includes or unworthy of preserving as is in the TV adaptation.
“The process of writing fantasy is the process of making metaphors real…. Say I have a metaphor for something and that metaphor, if I take it literally, becomes a thing. I can now write about the immigrant experience as one in which you bring your culture with you. You come from somewhere else, whether you came here voluntarily or you were dragged here in chains or sent here in a prison ship, or however you came, you brought culture with you. And then you abandoned it.”
“The book was written after I moved to America,” Gaiman said. “Certainly I was an immigrant. I had never thought of myself as an immigrant, I had never planned to be an immigrant, and yet I was a guy with a green card, living in a foreign country, reading books about the immigrant experience. Trying to understand America, so reading lots of stuff about the history of America. Understanding how people got here, how we got this thing.”
Part of understanding “how people got here,” for the author was driving around America, uncovering the nation’s odd, magical and sometimes uncomfortable history. Some of which, like the House on the Rock, made it into the book. The moment Gaiman knew what his novel was going to be, when “it all came to coalesce,” and he thought Gods actually happened around 1998 or 1999 though.
“[I was] looking at a tabletop diorama of Leif Erickson in Reykjavik, Iceland and you could see the little-dotted line going from Iceland to Greenland, and Greenland into Newfoundland, and then they’d go back again. I thought, ‘I wonder if they took their gods with them?’ Then there was a beat, and I thought, ‘I wonder if their gods went back with them when they went home again?’ And suddenly I had a book.”
In spite of there being so much talk of the gods, you’ll be hard pressed to find many “mainstream” gods of old in Gaiman’s universe. Despite his creative infatuation with those who rule the skies and our lives, the author was more interested in getting relative unknowns to help tell his story–and with good reason.
“I tended to try and cast people that you might not have heard of,” Gaiman revealed. “I really liked the fact that it’s a book about people who are forgotten, who are out there on the edges. Also, part of it was that I had to justify to myself–even if it was tenuous, even if the science was dodgy–that you could find these gods walking around America,” Gaiman revealed. “Which is actually why there are fewer of [the Greek gods] then there are a lot of others. With the Egyptians, there was a lot of weird stuff where they found lumps of copper [in Eygpt] that were apparently mined in Wisconsin. And there’s cocaine or traces of coca leaf in some mummies which may indicate some kind of trade.”
In around a week, Starz will set its main character Shadowmoon on his path, bringing its first round of gods to life and reminding Americans of their long, tumultuous and still complicated journey with identity. But Gaiman, Fuller, Green and series director David Slade, will take it one step beyond a simple and obvious Trump era metaphor that leaves little room for examining the ways we are and aren’t responsible for our identities. A step that’s always been at the heart of Gaiman’s story–the battle between who we once were, who were are now, and the struggle to find ourselves within that duality and dichotomy.
To fans’ (and somewhat Gaiman’s own) delight, Fuller, Green and Slade have stuck to the essential source material. So much so, they’re prepared for when Gaiman’s “American Gods” sequel hits shelves and they get new source material.
“I had to do a J.K. Rowling kind of thing with the guys right at the very beginning and go ‘Okay, I have not yet written American Gods 2, it’s on the giant list of things I have to get to one day… but let me to you these important things about the plot,’” Gaiman said. “‘These lines of apparently inconsequential dialogue and these bits of conversation in the book which are things as adaptors you might well go oh, we’ll leave that out, are actually the grappling hooks by which we attach the ropes… so it’s important that that character is in there and that that line is said.”
While the TV team worked to authentically bring as much from the book to the screen, even using, according to the author, “98 percent” of Gaiman’s own dialogue for a sequence, certain things have changed.
“I honestly don’t think that the ideas have particularly changed,” Gaiman said. “The nature of things have changed, you know?”
That includes gods, who–when the books were written in the 90s–looked a little different than they might nowadays.
“Technical Boy is one of those places where it was very interesting watching the reaction online when pictures of people went up because everyone went, ‘Oh, yes! This is exactly how I envisioned this character. This is how I’ve envisioned this character. This is how I’ve envisioned this character. What the fuck have they done to Tech Boy? Is this a body issue thing? Why isn’t he the fat kid in the trench coat?’ And [I’m] going because he was the fat kid…. But that was a world in which I would talk to technical boys… and they would explain to me that they had figured out a way of using only AOL and a modem [to get] a pizza delivered without having to talk to anybody.”
“What I love about the new Technical Boy is he is sort of riding much higher than the old Technical Boy,” Gaiman continued. “Now we’re in a world where people have actually figured out how to make money out of [the internet], and much more than that, they’ve figured out how to use [it] to drain our time, our love and attention.”
At Technical Boy’s core, however, “He’s fundamentally a snotty brat who is absolutely terrified that something else is going to come along,” Gaiman explains. “He knows that he has it all and something else is going to do to him what he did to broadcast, radio, print media, the railroads, and the telegraph.”
That kind of sticking to the character and its larger message about a facet of American identity is something Gaiman feels the TV team has done for all of his characters, including through several added scenes like “a sequence with Gillian Anderson as David Bowie in a limo,” according to Gaiman. And while sticking to the source material seems to be a generally smart move, when it comes to “American Gods,” it is in some ways imperative to telling a very complex story about seemingly black and white issues: right and wrong, progress and regression, who we are and who we want to be. And all through characters that are often–like American identity–very gray themselves.
“I think one of the things that’s made fairly clear as we continue is, this is not good versus bad. Some of the new gods are assholes but some of the old gods are assholes. It’s not a clean good or evil thing, nor should it be. It is much more fractal than that.”
American Gods’ 8 episode first season premieres April 30 on Starz.