My main issue with the Starz Channel original series American Gods is that I don’t get the satisfaction of saying, “The book was better.” That is not to say the show is more entertaining or compelling than Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name. The issue is that the show makes some pretty significant changes to the characterizations and situations that, being that only season one is out, I don’t know whether or not will it will pay off in the end.
My knee-jerk reaction was to see the changes as a negative. From the very first frames, depicting Vikings sailing to the land that would be America, the book depicted the captain of the ship trying to get out of being sacrificed in the name of Odin but through divine intervention is forced to carry out the sacrifice. A similar scene played out on the show but changed some key details and didn’t play up the magical aspects as much. Also, the early CG effects were underwhelming and had a habit of making the supernatural elements look silly.
From those first moments, I watched each episode with an eye for differences. Shadow Moon, the protagonist, played by Ricky Whittle, seemed softer and more affected than I imagined him.
Shadow’s wife, Laura, played by Emily Browning previously starring in Sucker Punch, seemed to possess a coldness to her both pre and post-mortem.
Instead of her detachment mostly being a result of her no longer being alive. She also had a much larger role in the show, which was the case with several smaller character such as the Leprechaun Mad Sweeney, played by Pablo Schreiber, who you might recognize as Pornstache from Orange is the New Black.
Mr. World is present and making moves earlier, instead of his more puppetmaster-esque presence from the book. The show added a sequence with Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, and added a confrontation between Mr. Wednesday, Easter, Mr. World with Media and Technical Boy, and several iterations of Jesus Christ, who is mentioned but never actually appears in the book.
It wasn’t really until that point, at the end of the first season, that I started to appreciate the differences between the book and the show. Much of Gaiman’s story takes place within Shadow’s mind.
He is a salt-of-the-earth man that is thrown into extraordinary, supernatural situations and a lot of pages are spent with him trying to come to grips with what is happening around him. The show has to express the same themes without the use of introspection.
To accomplish this, American Gods shares the limelight with Laura, Mad Sweeney, and Salim, a man who came into contact with an Ifrit Jinn. Also, old and new gods alike get more focus, and we see them making moves in the background that were only suggested in the book or are wholly new.
Luckily, all of the parts are well cast, I could watch shows dedicated entirely to the adventures of Laura and Mad Sweeney, or Mr. Ibis and Anubis, or Media, Technical Boy, and Mr. World, or even Easter and the many different Jesuses (Jesi?).
Every character was compelling, the gods especially are larger-than-life in their flaws and strengths and exude their divinity.
This show brings up the old question: What should be the goal of adaptation? Should an adaptation attempt to present a property exactly? Should it capture the essence of a story while not being shackled to it? Should it only keep the elements it wants and chuck the rest? There are good and bad examples of each endeavor. After one season, American Gods has been faithful but not fanatic.
My only concern following the season finale is that I don’t know how the show will be able to pull off some of the events that come later in the book because of the changes in characterization and the circumstances of interactions.
I’m concerned because I liked the book. I enjoyed the way that everything culminated in the book’s climax. However, I acknowledge that Gaiman’s book is more concerned with the journey than the conclusion. The show feels like a Game of Thronesian take on American Gods, where we see the Machiavellian maneuvers of the characters.
Season two is still nearly a year away, so there’s a quite a wait to find out how the actions of the season finale play out on the larger plot, but after its first eight episodes, I count myself among American Gods’ followers.