After many years in development hell, having been passed from network to network to no avail, fans were delighted to finally witness the premiere of the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Developed by Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Heroes), with heavy involvement from the author himself, the epic story of the war between the ancient gods of Egyptian, Norse and Slavic mythology and the new gods of modern culture made its way to the small screen with a flurry of rapturous reviews.
What seemed to many to be an impossible book to adapt cohesively has so far shown itself to be an ambitious genre-bending spectacle of myth, action and immigrant narrative. Starz have already renewed American Gods for season 2, which will please Gaiman fans, and now gossip is swirling about the future of the author’s other works. Fuller and Green have been mulling adapting the American Gods spin-off, Anansi Boys, which focuses on the African spider god Anansi (Orlando Jones) and his sons, although the rights to that are for the moment still owned by BBC. However, the adaptation that has Gaiman fans truly giddy is that of his magnum opus: The Sandman.
Like American Gods, it seems as though everyone has had a go at trying to make Sandman into a film or TV show. The most recent attempt, a movie starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, fell apart, and the project’s status is now up in the air. Widely considered to be one of the seminal works in comic book history, Gaiman’s The Sandman ran 75 issues from 1989-1996, along with a variety of special and mini-series, with the most recent published two years ago. The central story followed Morpheus, better known as Dream, and his siblings, the personifications of Death, Destiny, Delirium, Despair, Destruction and Desire.
To reduce the rich, intertextual concept-twisting tale to a one-line family drama doesn’t come close to doing the property justice. The comics tackle everything from superheroes to Shakespeare, from Biblical lore to ancient mythology, from the beginnings of time to places unknown. Its cast is an expansive array of strange and empathetic characters, its stories as different from one another as one could possibly imagine. Turning it into a mere movie has always seemed like an inevitable failure waiting to happen, but a TV series, in the “Peak TV” era of ambitious big-budget projects, makes far more sense. If it is to happen, it’s only right that Bryan Fuller and Michael Green be the ones to take on the gargantuan task.
Fuller is arguably TV’s most underrated showrunner (and/or most celebrated by those in the know). After establishing himself in the industry by writing for Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and Voyager, he began developing his own material, which was defined by mixing of the mundane and fantastical. Wonderfalls was a slacker coming-of-age story featuring talking gift shop memorabilia; Dead Like Me imagined the afterlife as a bureaucratic workplace comedy; and Pushing Daisies turned the procedural trope on its head with a technicolor mish-mash of romance and necromancy. These series were critically acclaimed and developed cult followings, but none of them sustained consistent ratings and were all cancelled after two seasons or less (Wonderfalls only made it to four episodes). There didn’t seem to be a place for Fuller’s unique brand of delightful horror on network TV. And then along came Hannibal.
Upon its announcement, most viewers had little interest in a TV show prequel adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter novels, which had already been made into several movies (with diminishing returns). Most predictions envisioned the show as a CSI-style forensic procedural which would adhere to expected tropes and soften the novels’ grotesque edges for a pre-watershed audience. Fortunately, NBC seemed willing to provide Fuller free reign over the material, and the end result was, arguably, one of the best shows of the last decade. Hannibal is a truly bizarre series that has no right to be as inventive and boundary-pushing as it is. Acting as a prequel to the novels (except for The Silence of the Lambs, which NBC could not secure the rights to), Hannibal showcased Fuller’s greatest attributes as a creator while remaining faithful to the spirit of the material. It’s a genre-skewing horror-thriller with elements of Cronenberg, Argento, Jodorowsky and The X-Files. Mind-bending scenes fans never could have expected to see on NBC were shown in all their dazzling grotesque beauty: From crime scenes where victims are posed as angels with flayed skin on their backs acting as wings, to the raven-featured stag that haunts the protagonist’s nightmares.
On top of being home to some of the best visual sights on TV, Hannibal developed some of the most fascinating characters, taking familiar figures from pop culture and rejuvenating them for a new audience and tone. There was even a dash of twisted romance as the protagonists’ relationship broke across boundaries of friendship and opposition to become something deeper and bleakly passionate. It was astounding that NBC allowed it to remain on the air for one season, let alone three, but with Hannibal‘s cancellation came a new wave of appreciation for Bryan Fuller – a showrunner of vast influences whose perspective on adaptation allowed for a truly transgressive cultural experience.
Meanwhile, Michael Green is no stranger to the world of film and TV either. While Heroes remains his most famous work (Fuller also spent time as a writer for the show), his most fascinating work lies in his least known project, NBC’s Kings. Starring Ian McShane (who plays Mr. Wednesday in American Gods), Kings was a Biblical story for the modern age, transporting the story of King David to an alternate modern day America where the country is an absolute monarchy named Gilboa. McShane’s King Silas has a crisis of faith when he believes an outsider to the family, a soldier named David, has been anointed the new monarch by God, and plots to keep a grip of his power while warring with his own family. Even though the show struggled with ratings and was cancelled after one season, it’s a bold and fully-committed experiment that melds prestige-TV scale with soap opera family drama. It was just silly enough but also utterly dedicated to its esoteric story. Even though Green is better known for his striking screenplay work on film, including this year’s Logan and the upcoming Alien: Covenant, TV remains his ideal medium, with the length and foundations to fully explore his most ambitious ideas.
Any attempt at adapting The Sandman will require a team with experience in handling tricky tones, deft skill in translating difficult material to the screen, boldness in tackling the bizarre and grotesque, and the ability to work well with a large cast. Even a passing glance at the back-catalogues of Fuller and Green will reveal that this duo is ready to take on the challenge.
Gaiman himself has expressed satisfaction in working with them, critics are universally flocking to American Gods, and audiences are loyal to their prior shows. Starz and Fremantle have been vocal in their desire to keep working with this most ambitious and talented of creative teams, and there would be no better way to make use of their exceptional skills than allowing them access into comic book history’s most dream-like of worlds.
American Gods airs Sundays @9pm on Starz.