By JAMIE LANG
“American Gods,” the novel, is 16 years old now. I read it for the first time 10 or 12 years ago and it was my inroduction to the Gaiman oeuvre and a gateway drug into the low-fantasy genre which I now hold especially close to my heart. All I knew when I started was that part of the story took place at Spring Green’s House on the Rock, which is my heaven on earth.
To this day it is still the only book I have read twice back to back. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s a piece that made a profound impression in that it was so unlike anything I had experienced before. All that being said I really did, and still do, love the book. If you already enjoy or want to watch the show, you should do yourself a favor and read the book. Before or after? I don’t think it matters, but read it.
So the book is now a series on Starz with Brian Fuller show running. Fuller and Gaiman are comparable in many ways. Each has a style that is singularly theirs, each is an auteur in their field, and each has taken genres and themes that might otherwise not be welcome in the mainstream-zeitgeist and made them really fucking cool.
The series does a better-than-expected job of getting everything from the books that should be there into its first 8 episodes, while expanding on a number of characters and tertiary plot lines that the book tended to leave only hinted at, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The title is probably the safest description of the thing. That is to say it’s about all of the gods, past and present, who have made their way inside America’s boarders. The gods of Gaiman´s fantasy world are real, corporeal beings with supernatural abilities. The old gods are being rounded up by Wednesday, more popularly known as Odin, the Norse god for whom the day of the week is named. The role is played masterfully by Ian McShane, an actor who so well typifies the school of thought that the best performance artists can now be found on TV. McShane’s Wednesday has the potential, with a few more seasons, to be a historically good TV character…
Second only to Gillian Anderson’s Media. Media’s increased presence and impact in the show versus the book are the most welcome and well executed changes, due largely in part to the iconic actress’ range and ability, in combination with Fuller’s particular visual style. If every frame is a painting, then the stills of Anderson’s Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie, and Lucy (“Hey, you ever wanted to see Lucy’s tits?”) should go down as masterpieces.
The protagonist of the story is Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle. A prestidigitation wiz recently released from prison early after his wife and best friend were killed in a car accident, Shadow runs into Wednesday and, after a bad bet, conscripts himself to the services of the Norse god. Book shadow is a bit more reserved and willing to roll with the punches of the fantastic world in which he finds himself than show Shadow. Show Shadow is more skeptical and grounded in reality. He spends most of his time in situations he can’t explain or control, all the while still trying to recover from the complete u-turn his life has taken since his release from prison.
Other gods are played adeptly by seasoned TV vets like Pablo Schreiber (“Orange is the New Black”), Crispin Glover (“Back to the Future”), Kristin Chenoweth (“Pushing Daisies”) Orlando Jones (“Mad TV”), Peter Stormare (“Fargo”) and Cloris Leachman (“Young Frankenstein”).
Here it seems only fair to laud the performance of Betty Gilpin. You might not recognize her name and although her part in the show is small, she makes every scend in which she appears better. She can also be found as one of the leads in Netlifx´s new series “Glow.”
Whereas the series often does a first-rate job of adapting book to screen, the part of Laura Moon, played by “Sucker Punch” lead Emily Browning may be a harder pill to swallow for book readers. Browning´s performance is well executed, but the part is a far cry from Laura in the books. Book Laura is a mystery, coming and going without warning and without a fraction of the bitterness of show Laura. Book Laura is likable despite some of her actions, while show Laura is unlikeable because of them. Show Laura is un-remorseful and largely unsympathetic.
Overall book lovers should be thrilled with the series. It is a strong and truthful representation of the book and leaves plenty of room for future exploration of one of Gaiman´s most popular properties. It also proves another great example that while books often make dumpster-fire movies, in a long-form format like TV, there is far more potential for creating something of value.
If you like low fantasy, if you like Neil Gaiman, if you like Brian Fuller, then read the book and watch the show. “American Gods,” isn’t for everyone, but if you like it a little, you’ll probably love it a lot.