While many will argue that the book is always better than the show or film, there are plenty of examples that can be enjoyed on both levels, and Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a prime example. Both the book and the Starz show are incredible pieces of art and entertainment that work as standalone features, but they definitely have their differences.
It's true that some TV adaptations seem to hurt the original material, and that sometimes a book isn't as compelling as part of its show. That's why we can appreciate and enjoy these two versions of American Gods as separate entities with lots to offer.
Laura Moon sure has issues. From attempting to off herself with bug spray to dallying with her husband's BFF in order to simply feel something in her otherwise lifeless world, she makes it hard for us to connect or even care about her sometimes. When she protects Shadow, it feels too little, too late.
In Gaiman's work, she isn't nearly this complicated. Even their meeting is purer. The jaded wife doesn't want to do some casino scheme but is brought on a blind date by Audrey and Robbie, and Shadow "had kissed her good night, that night, and she had tasted of strawberry daiquiris, and he had never wanted to kiss anyone else again." Their altered story in the show hurts their relationship, driving it to be more shocking as competition among so many other modern TV stories.
A distraught Audrey approaches Shadow at Laura's funeral and reveals the specifics of her death, which involved cheating on Shadow with his best friend, Robbie. The drawn-out scene on top of Laura's grave seems unnecessary since it wasn't nearly as dramatic in the book, where an angry Audrey simply gives Shadow the news and doesn't demand sex from him out of a sense of revenge.
Still, the incredible Betty Gilpin is wonderful in the role, and she's given even more airtime in scenes like assisting Laura with not looking like a corpse as she walks around... as a corpse. There's also the need to expand roles in order to make a single book into a miniseries. Audrey also returns later and we'll probably get a chance to see that in the show.
One of the ways the show expands Gaiman's world and enriches his stories and characters is by furthering the role of Salim, a salesman from Oman. In the book, he's only used in a brief moment to illustrate how people and magic interact in the modern world, but in the show he's much more fleshed out. He gives us one of the most incredible scenes featuring gay characters in fantasy and he remains a part of the plot later in the show.
Not only do we get to see Salim search for the jinn, who gave him his new fate, but he also travels with Mad Sweeney and Laura, helping to create a more cohesive plot.
On the Starz show, the Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, is known for one of the most talked-about acts that's also used in the book. Fans have been particularly pleased for its inclusion, especially given the violent nature of the tributes the rest of the old school gods demand.
But viewers may not know that Bilquis was a prostitute in the original material. Using an online dating service to locate her tributes may be a modern update to the book, but it lacks a bit of the urgency and desperation that all of the gods are feeling. It also kind of puts her among the newer gods of tech instead of the Old Gods. Still, dating app hookups can be just as urgent and quickly executed as a solicitation on the street.
It makes sense for Anansi to have a big role in American Gods. He has his own book, after all, and he adds some much-needed representation to the lineup of gods. It's not that he's not in the book at all, but he doesn't even make an appearance until the House on the Rock scene, and he's introduced to Shadow by Czernoborg. He's also an old man.
This is a fantastic difference in the show—not only because Orlando Jones is brilliant in the role, but because the youthful Anansi in his sharp suit, demanding a ship of slaves revolt and attack their slavers, is just like the trickster god should be. It depicts how he's just as ruthless as the other Old Gods in getting what he wants.
One of the plots of the show that took a very interesting turn from the book was how Bilquis interacts with Technical Boy and the favor she owed him. In the book, he takes pleasure in mocking and murdering her, but in the show, he offers her a chance to be relevant and adored in the modern world by introducing her to the aforementioned dating app.
This helps the show on its already shaky ground regarding the goals of the New Gods and gives the Queen of Sheba more airtime in the program. But it does present some questions regarding how her story will be resolved since it's already vastly different from the book.
In Gaiman's book, Jesus and Vulcan don't even appear, but both make appearances on the show. Gaiman did want Jesus to be in the book, but he ended up only mentioning him instead of making him an actual character.
Vulcan is merely used to further Wednesday's war on the New Gods, as he represents what happens to the Old Gods when they make alliances with the enemy. He is directly against the representation of the New Gods in the book, where they are all mostly down and out and ready to either go to war or to fade into nothing. The alliances forged between some of the Old and New Gods is new as well.
How did one of the minor players of the book become such a beloved part of the show? The Irish "leprechaun" steals every scene he's in, making it difficult for showrunners to stick to his original story, in which he perishes after losing his coin, even if they wanted to.
This will be a spoiler for those who haven't caught up with the show yet, but Mad Sweeney's fate has left many a fan upset. It's back in line with the book, albeit conducted in a much different fashion, so there's no reason why his fate should change, but who knows? The show has taken other dramatic turns away from its source material and Pablo Schreiber is a fan favorite. Laura alone has proven that anything is possible. Also? He's not a leprechaun.
Neil Gaiman is a master of the art of subtlety, and he deftly weaves the theme throughout American Gods without ever being obvious about Shadow's eventual fate to complete Wednesday's plan. He mentions hanging many times without outright stating that it's going to happen to Shadow, and it's one of the many things that make the book so effective.
Modern attention spans and a visual TV medium don't give us room for this subtlety, so the show goes right to the heart of the matter in the very first episode, where Technical Boy's goons attempt to take him out by hanging him. The change is needed in this context since it would be difficult to implement it the way Gaiman had done originally.
One of the ways that the show muddles the message of the book is that the New Gods want the Old Gods to join them in order to somehow become more powerful. This doesn't make much sense since the Old Gods are supposed to be losing power, so how would they even help the New Gods at all?
In the books, it's all out warfare pitting the Old and New Gods against one another, which makes much more sense. Given how down and out so many Old Gods are, their plot to become relevant again is much more reasonable. New Gods like Technical Boy even destroy Old Gods like Bilquis in the pursuit of being the top gods. This doesn't feel nearly as urgent when they're invited to take part in the New Gods' world.