After years of speculation, hype and several aborted attempts to bring it to the big and small screen, Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel American Gods is finally coming to television. The Hugo-winning sci-fi fantasy novel is often regarded as one of Gaiman’s best – high praise given his impressive back catalogue – and its mythological road trip story was prime for adaptation. For the longest time, though, it seemed that an adaptation would never come to fruition, as various writers and producers tried to get the project off the ground and just couldn’t manage it.
Fortunately, two of television’s most acclaimed showrunners have joined forces with Starz to commandeer the project to completion, and the fruits of their labor recently premiered at South By Southwest, which is something of a rarity for a TV show. The rest of us will have to wait until April to catch it, but until then, we’ve got our own primer ready to keep you up to date on American Gods, what to expect, who to look out for, and why you should be excited.
American Gods follows Shadow Moon, a former convict whose release from prison is mired by the news of his wife Laura’s death. Alone and with no prospects, he finds himself working as the bodyguard for a mysterious huckster who calls himself Mr Wednesday. He soon discovers that his new boss is in fact the Norse god Odin, and he’s leading Shadow on a cross-country trip to find and recruit the gods of old – including those from Egyptian, Slavic and African mythology – in order to take on the new gods – manifestations of that which modern society worships the most, from technology to media to cancer. Soon, worlds collide and war is inevitable.
Neil Gaiman has long been fascinated by themes of mythology, religion, folklore and Americana. His groundbreaking comic book series The Sandman explored a variety of stories through the lens of The Endless, seven siblings who were the human personification of various entities - Dream, Destiny, Death, Destruction, Despair, Delirium and Morpheus (also known as Dream). To reduce the comics to a few lines of description could never do them justice, but Gaiman's fascination with mythological and religious quandaries and iconography forms a crucial foundation of its expansive ambitions. American Gods is less sprawling but no less ambitious in its aims: To explore how faith evolves, and the impact it has on a nation.
News of a TV adaptation began swirling after Gaiman mentioned HBO's interest in taking on the project at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival. The following November, the Hollywood Reporter confirmed this news and noted the involvement of Tom Hanks's Playtone Productions' plans to make 6 whole seasons, with an estimated $35-40m budget per season. This was probably too ambitious for 2011, and the project never went into production. In November 2013, Gaiman revealed on Reddit that, while a series was still in the works, it would not be with HBO. Michael Lombardo of HBO later said that the show was abandoned due to script issues, and so the rights lapsed.
Fremantle Media picked them up in February 2014, then announced in July that Starz would be developing a series with Hannibal show-runner Bryan Fuller and Michael Green from Heroes. Starz quickly greenlit a full season of eight episodes, and shooting took place in March 2016 in Toronto.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Bryan Fuller made his name as a writer and executive producer on the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and Voyager, then moved on to creating his own shows, which were critically acclaimed but generally short-lived, due to poor ratings. While his work has never garnered huge audiences, those who do watch them tend to be very enthusiastic fans. As well as working on Heroes with Green, Fuller has established himself as one of television’s most inventive minds: Wonderfalls told a post-college ennui story with a collection of talking gift-shop souvenirs as guides; Dead Like Me re-imagined the mystery of death as a mundane bureaucratical system of reapers; and Pushing Daisies turned technicolor candy sweetness into a twisted paranormal detective show.
Then there was Hannibal. Fuller’s take on Thomas Harris' cultured cannibal interpreted the iconic villain as a God-like figure of malice and chaos, embroiled in a baroque society of hallucinogenic murders and grotesquely beautiful dreams that were part Cronenberg, part Lynch, and all Fuller. The show never garnered huge audiences, but its dedicated fanbase – who call themselves Fannibals – still organize events, including the recent HannibalCon, and hold out hopes for a fourth season, even close to two years after the series was cancelled. In many ways, Fuller is the ideal person to adapt American Gods: He’s as fascinated by death as Gaiman; his visual style mixes dream-like oddness with cinematic melodrama; and he’s an expert in faithfully adapting other creators’ material while imbuing it with his own sensibilities.
Michael Green is no slouch in this department himself. Heroes is his most famous television venture but he's also worked on Sex and the City, Smallville and Everwood. His own creation, NBC's Kings, shares a lot of ideas with the world of American Gods in its modern interpretation of the biblical story of King David as a political drama (although sadly it only lasted one season). More recently, Green’s made a name for himself in film, working on major upcoming projects like Logan, Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant.
Gaiman has been key in writing and developing the series, and directors working on the first season include some of Fuller’s former collaborators, David Slade (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Vincenzo Natali (Splice) and Guillermo Navarro (longtime cinematographer of Guillermo Del Toro), all of whom worked on Hannibal to give the show its distinct visual sensibility. Joining the fold are Adam Kane, another Fuller favourite with directorial credits on Heroes, Being Human and UnREAL, and Floria Sigismondi, director of The Runaways who has made award winning music videos for David Bowie, Rihanna and Marilyn Manson.
The show also represents a big step forward for Starz, who have recently established themselves as major power players in the cable TV wars, thanks to the seismic success of Outlander and other shows like Black Sails. For now, awards attention has generally eluded them, but American Gods could quickly bridge that gap.
Ricky Whittle, best known to American audiences for The 100 but more recognizable to Brits thanks to Hollyoaks and his time as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing (he got to the final!), will be taking on the much coveted leading role of Shadow Moon. Whittle is one of the lesser-known actors involved with the show, whose ensemble is jam packed with the kind of actors other shows would kill to have. Emmy winner Ian McShane will play Mr Wednesday – a perfect piece of casting – while Emily Browning will play Shadow’s late wife Laura (being dead doesn’t stop her from playing an active role in the story).
Fuller is known for bringing back some of his favourite actors to his various shows, and the FullerVerse is in full effect with American Gods: Jonathan Tucker, Gillian Anderson and Demore Barnes from Hannibal turn up as various gods, Pushing Daisies' Kristin Chenoweth plays Easter, and Fuller's favorite actress Beth Grant, who has appeared in many of his shows, will also make a brief appearance. Newcomers to the fold include Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Cloris Leachman, Orlando Jones (Sleepy Hollow), Peter Stormare (Fargo) and many more.
WHAT TO EXPECT
In a 2016 interview with The Observer, Gaiman confirmed that the first season of American Gods would only cover the first third of the novel, stopping at the House on the Rock. That doesn't cover much ground in terms of story - indeed, the novel is more of a sprawling road trip of mood and character than a tightly controlled plot-driven piece - which hints that there may be further additions to story to keep momentum going for 8 episodes. If the show is picked up for a second season, it will cover the Lakeside section of the novel, then the remainder will be wrapped up in the third season. Should Starz wish to go for the whole six seasons and a movie package, there is certainly room to further interpret or continue on from that point. Gaiman himself has written two short stories following Shadow after the novel ends, and talk of a full-length sequel has been floating around for over five years.
One fascinating addition to the show that was absent from the book is a new character, Vulcan. Created by Gaiman himself, Vulcan is based on the Roman god of metalworking and volcanoes, but in this context he is the manifestation of America's gun obsession. Given current events in the country, this suggests the show's willingness to embrace contemporary ideas and fears, and explore them through the genre lens. There’s no shortage of modern day fascinations and fetishes that could be personified and placed within the world of gods old and new.
All signs are that Fremantle Media are happy with the show so far, and have already signed Gaiman to a first look deal for any future adaptations, which could bode well for the American Gods spin-off Anansi Boys, the story of the African spider god and his family. Whatever the case, audiences won’t have long to wait to see the world of the gods and their impending battle.
American Gods premieres on Starz on April 30th in North America, and will follow shortly after on Amazon Prime in the UK.