The Sunday Magazine: American Gods

One of the great things about all the choice we now have for our video entertainment is it has ushered in an age of television and movies that can find the right way to adapt a literary source. When I was a teenager and we would have these discussions about what actor would play what beloved literary character; in my head was “never gonna happen”. Now, even the most fractious literature can be turned into vision. When I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman back in 2001 I thought “never gonna happen” because a complex pastiche of vignettes and stories seemingly would never translate to a smooth visual narrative. Turns out it has happened as the first season of American Gods is wrapping up on Starz.

The central premise of Mr. Gaiman’s story is because America was founded by immigrants each brought the gods of their home with them to this new country. It allowed each of the Old Gods to find a foothold to provide enough worship and sacrifice to keep them going. As we enter the present day there are New Gods; Technical Boy, Media, and Mr. World. The story is America has arrived at a tipping point where the New Gods can potentially remove the Old Gods from the country, probably dooming them.

The protagonists in the story are Shadow Moon who is released from prison after serving his sentence only to find out his wife Laura dies in a car accident. On his way home, he meets Mr. Wednesday who hires him as his bodyguard/assistant. Shadow becomes the reader’s, and viewers’, window into the machinations of the world of American Gods.

Neil Gaiman (l.) and Bryan Fuller

This is difficult story material to tell visually except the person they hired to do it is one of my favorite television creative minds; Bryan Fuller. Mr. Fuller has a way of telling fractured fairy tales as exemplified by his series Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies. It turns out many of the themes of American Gods are ones already explored in those previous series.

Throughout the first season Mr. Fuller has overseen an adaptation which I am much fonder of than the book it is based upon. I liked Mr. Gaiman’s book fine but I have never adored it as much as most who are fans. Mr. Fuller’s adaptation I am brought in to in a way the book didn’t. The reason is Mr. Fuller has made a change to the book and it turns out to be for the better.

Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber) and Laura Moon (Emily Browning) on the road

As I mentioned Laura Moon dies in a car accident. She is brought back to life after which she meets a leprechaun who stands six feet tall. For his own reasons, Mad Sweeney wants to help Laura fully resurrect from her walking dead woman status. Throughout the first season their relationship is like an odd couple road comedy. It is funny and the actors are fantastic in the roles, Pablo Schreiber plays Mad Sweeney and Emily Browning plays Laura Moon.

In the book, they play supporting roles to Shadow and Mr. Wednesday. In the television series, they are almost the main reason to watch. It culminated in the penultimate episode titled “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”. The episode used one of the more interesting plot devices in both novel and series. Sprinkled throughout are vignettes titled “Somewhere in America” followed by a date. Each mini story tells of a God and how it deals with its worshippers in America. The tales are narrated by Mr. Ibis who works at a funeral parlor with Mr. Jacquel. Mr. Ibis is compelled to write these stories down as they come to him. “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is an entire episode in which Mr. Ibis relates the story of Essie MacGowan. How she ends up in American and brings Mad Sweeney with her. Ms. Browning also plays Essie. The episode displays the parallels between Essie and Laura. Where we see how it all turns out for Essie we are left wondering if that is also in store for Laura. Mr. Schreiber is having a gigantic amount of fun playing Mad Sweeney. In this episode, he gets to show off what he can do. If you have any desire to see if the series is to your liking this is the episode to try. Here is the funny thing almost everything in this episode is not in the book.

Mr. Ibis as played by Demore Barnes

I’m not sure if that is going to be a problem in the long run because what has made me enjoy American Gods the series more than the book has been Laura and Mad Sweeney. I know where the book heads from the ending of this season and there are still are still big moments for both but not a lot. Even though I am worried; this is what makes Mr. Fuller such an engaging storyteller. He has a way of creating characters with whom I want to spend hours watching.

The first season has just come to an end so you can binge watch all eight episodes if you want. Also, the book is a great beach read. Both have their pleasures and there are seemingly enough differences that experiencing both, enhances both.

Mr. Gaiman’s universe of Gods, Old and New, fighting for the attention of Americans has found the right time along with the right visionary in Mr. Fuller to turn “never gonna happen” to something patently untrue.

Mark Behnke

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