Adapting a novel as beloved as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a fantastical, genre-bending journey through mythology old and new, with a sprawling cast of colourful, mysterious characters and an equally extensive list of locations, would be an intimidating undertaking for even the most ambitious of scriptwriters.
Published, to great acclaim, in 2001, it is, in Gaiman’s own words: ‘a big book about America, and about the things that people brought to America from all over the world, and especially the gods that they brought with them, and then abandoned. It is also a book about the new gods that were arising in America – the gods of telephone, of media, of the internet, of Wall Street.’
But the challenge has been taken on by writers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and will arrive on UK screens, via Amazon Prime in early May. And, according to enthusiastic audience reactions to the first episode, which premiered at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, they’ve done Gaiman’s epic masterpiece proud.
The central premise of the novel is that gods and mythological creatures exist only because people believe in them; they are created by ‘thoughtform’, the combined time, attention and worship humans devote to them. Immigrants to the United States brought with them ancient spirits and gods, which have diminished in power as people's belief in them has waned. New gods have arisen in their place, including media, celebrity and technology. Against this backdrop, Shadow Moon, a recently released prisoner, and an enigmatic conman, Mr Wednesday, travel across America, recruiting the old gods to do battle with the new.
Starring Ricky Whittle as the ex-con Shadow and Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday, the vast cast also includes Gillian Anderson as Media and Kristen Chenowith as Easter.
Official reviews are embargoed until mid-April, but its stars and creators were on hand at the festival to talk about what viewers can expect from the much-anticipated adaptation. Here’s what we learnt:
1. Sixteen years after the book’s publication, the eight-episode series could not be more timely
‘We were both big fans of the book, and really wanted to put on screen what was in our heads when we first read it,’ said Green, whose writing credits include Sex and the City as well as Gotham and Alien: Covenant. ‘The book is pretty joyful - it celebrates lots of things that we love about America.’
However, the political context in which it will be released has lent it new weight and relevance. ‘It is definitely a different show than the one we set out to make,’ acknowledged Fuller, creator of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. ‘We are now telling massive immigration stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants, so we have a strange new platform to start a different kind of conversation.’
2. Even ardent devotees of the book will be in for some surprises
‘Even if you know the book well, hang in there – there’s a lot more to see,’ said Fuller. The duo have played fast and loose with the original timeline as well as fleshing out characters who featured only sporadically in the novel.
‘You are not going to know which way we are going, which way is up or down, who is doing what,’ said Whittle. ‘It is reveal after reveal, and it will have you riveted.’
3. It’s less - in Fuller’s words - of a "sausage-party"
‘We knew we needed more female energy in the story, so we were excited to expand several of the female characters that were in the book, including Laura Moon, Bilquis, and Audrey,’ said Fuller.
That could be tricky, one might assume, in the case of Laura Moon; Shadow’s wife dies early on in the story. ‘But she comes back and ends up protecting Shadow from afar,’ said Emily Browning, the Australian actress who plays her. ‘She is his sort of slightly awful guardian angel.’
Audrey, meanwhile, is the widow of Shadow’s best friend, who has been killed, along with Laura, in a car accident. ‘We don’t see Audrey a ton in the book, so I was filling in, imagination-wise, a lot about what she was like,’ said the actress Betty Giplin. ‘I decided that before the accident, she was a vocal fry, appletini kind of girl, and this revealed her cavewoman self.’
4. The show represents what America looks like today
‘So much of the book is based on other cultures and ethnicities, so it gave us an opportunity not to be colourblind in our casting, but to be very colour-focussed, to represent cultures and ethnicities with actors who also represent those cultures and ethnicities,’ said Fuller. ‘Neil was very adamant that every actor that we cast must be representative of who they were in the book…and it gave us the opportunity to represent America with faces that represent America, with all kinds of actors from a variety of backgrounds.’
5. But…the British invasion of US television continues apace
As seems to be almost compulsory for US-made television now, three of the show’s lead actors – Whittle, McShane and Bruce Langley, who plays the ever-evolving, thoroughly terrifying Technical Boy – are British. Whittle, most recently seen in The 100, began his career on the teen soap Hollyoaks, while McShane is as famed for playing the roguish antiques dealer Lovejoy, as he is for his more recent big screen roles in John Wick and Pirates of the Caribbean.
‘It’s an immigration story and that’s very easy to relate to, as an immigrant myself,’ said Whittle, who, along with McShane, is now firmly US-based. ‘America is this incredible melting pot, and that’s what is so beautiful about it.’
6. Mad Sweeney is about to become your favourite scene-stealing leprechaun
Were one to conjure up an image of a leprechaun, he probably wouldn’t look much like Pablo Schreiber. The tall, dark Canadian, who played dockworker Nick Sobotka in The Wire and George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez in Orange is the New Black, is almost unregonisable as the boozy, bar-brawling Mad Sweeney, a king from an old Irish folk story. The self-described leprechaun gives Shadow his magical golden coin, and with it, his essential essence.
‘Once he loses his spark, his life force, he spends the rest of the season chasing a woman to get it back – which, I think, as men, we can probably identify with,’ said Schreiber. ‘Looking for ourselves in someone else is a very interesting journey, and one that he goes on throughout the season.’
7. Technical Boy has undergone a radical transformation
The deity of all things digital, in Gaiman’s novel, Technical Boy is a nerdy, overweight, basement dwelling internet troll. On screen in 2017, however, he looks more like a teenage YouTube heartthrob, all swaggering confidence and blonde quiff, with more than a hint of Justin Bieber.
‘He has evolved in such myriad ways from his original iteration because technology evolves and updates so quickly, and he is borne of that impetus,’ said Langley. ‘Hands up who has a smartphone,’ the young actor requested of the audience at SXSW - a film, music and innovation festival which is wholly dominated these days by the powerful tech industry – and a roomful of hands were duly raised. ‘Thank you for your worship,’ he quipped.
‘Technology is becoming more and more integrated into our lives as time goes on, and is now the biggest driving force of the future of our entire species in so many different ways.’