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Why Adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for TV Is a Bad Idea

Predictably, nerds went bonkers over the news that Starz is developing a TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-selling prose novel, American Gods, to be helmed by Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller and Heroes scribe Michael Green. “Holy hell,” declared. “We are freaking out.” “Everything is good and right with the world forever and ever amen,” proclaimed geek-news site The Mary Sue. “HOLY CRAP BRYAN FULLER IS DOING AMERICAN GODS HOLY CRAP,” mused Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson.

Okay, let’s slow down here. There’s no doubt that Gaiman is one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy writers of his generation, and Bryan Fuller is more than capable of creating top-notch magical realism (he created Pushing Daisies, after all). But this news does not deserve such unrestrained optimism. Put simply: American Gods has not aged well, and will need some serious retooling to make it watchable today.

When Gaiman’s novel hit shelves in the summer of 2001, its central conflict was already more than a little dated — and now it’s downright cringe-inducing. The narrative follows an ex-con named Shadow as he finds himself enmeshed in a war between the gods of the Old World (Odin, Anubis, Anansi, and the like, all masquerading as mortals) and a gang of cocky, narcissistic new gods of America. Unless you’re a tech-fearing Luddite, Gaiman’s depiction of those nasty New World deities should make your eyes roll.

The dastardly lineup of evil new gods includes Media, goddess of television, whose Faustian offer to Shadow is as follows: “We can make you famous, Shadow. We can give you power over what people believe and say and wear and dream. You want to be the next Cary Grant? We can make that happen.” Oh, so the “media” — that perpetually ill-defined bugaboo for complainers everywhere — has too much power in modern life? Wow, stop the presses.

But scenes with the new gods’ ringleader, known as the “technical boy,” would be the hardest to swallow for a mid-2010s audience. He represents technology and the internet, and is painted as a fat, whiny kid with acne who thinks the world owes him fast food and faster cars. To wit, here’s a threat he tells Shadow to deliver to one of the old gods: “He has been consigned to the dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow … Tell him that language is a virus and that religion is an operating system and that prayers are just so much fucking spam.”

Oh, brother. Can you imagine dealing with dialogue like that in a modern prestige-cable drama? Even if you update the details (no doubt the Starz version of the technical boy will be constantly Instagramming and texting), that kind of condescending technophobia will be creaky at best and stomach-churningly tone-deaf at worst. Plus, in a world where Chinese internet-users outnumber Americans by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, it’s insulting to say an American male is the personification of the internet.

Ultimately, the gods’ war is resolved before it can become a bloodbath, thanks to Shadow telling both sides that they each have good and bad aspects and should just get along — a dull bit of “on the one hand/on the other hand” centrism if there ever was one. But it’s clear from the text which side Gaiman thinks is worthy of our respect and attention: the myths that predate the Information Superhighway. Ironic, isn’t it, that the Starz news spread with such passion in blog posts and tweets? The technical boy would be proud.

Then we get into the uncomfortable depictions of race and gender. Brace yourself for thinkpieces galore. Gaiman is not a racist, nor are his characters particularly offensive on the page. But there’s a difference between what works in text and what works on the small screen, especially in a TV landscape where so many gains have been made against stereotyping.

Fear for the man chosen to play the Afro-Caribbean trickster god Anansi — or, as he’s known in the text, “Mr. Nancy.” He’s a major player in the tale; an aging bon vivant who smokes cigarillos and speaks in a West Indian patois. And boy, when he speaks, he says some stuff that will not sound good on the small screen. “[T]here still ain’t nothin’ out there in the world for my money that can beat a big ol’ high-titty woman,” he declares in his first appearance. “Some folk you talk to, they say it’s the booty you got to inspect at first, but I’m here to tell you that it’s the titties that still crank my engine on a cold mornin’.” Yikes.

If Fuller and Green stick to the source text, we’ll also be treated to the Queen of Sheba, an African goddess living as a prostitute who literally devours men with her vagina. We’ll meet a Middle Eastern djinn who works as a cab driver. We’ll even get a wily Irish leprechaun who drinks himself into belligerent stupors.

And perhaps most offensive, we’ll get the book’s Big Statement About America, which is bizarrely insulting to Native Americans. Near the end of the novel, a Native American with magical powers named Whiskey Jack tells Shadow he’s not a god, but rather a “culture hero,” because the land we call America “is not a good country for gods.”

“There are creator spirits who found the earth or made it or shit it out, but you think about it: who’s going to worship Coyote?” Whiskey Jack tells Shadow. “[W]e never built churches. We didn’t need to.”

Really? No houses of prayer? How, then, do you account for the Longhouses the Iroquois built for their prayer ceremonies? And no true gods that anyone bothered worshipping? That’s an insane generalization about more than ten thousand years’ worth of spiritual culture across an entire continent.

There’s one other cultural shift since 2001 could trip up the American Gods series: the oversaturation of flawed, macho male protagonists in cable dramas. Unless the series undergoes a truly radical change in its TV adaptation, we’ll end up with a show about a tough guy struggling with inner conflict, a sexy man fighting his demons and solving problems in a changing world. Snore.

None of this is to say American Gods is a bad novel in terms of storytelling. Despite its datedness, it’s an extremely entertaining read filled with vivid scenes, goose-bump-inducing vignettes, and often-gorgeous prose. Fuller and Green are smart guys, so perhaps they’ll jettison or modify all the stuff that could trip the show up. And Neil Gaiman is no doubt aware that some of what he wrote doesn’t quite work these days; if so, in his role as executive producer, he can offer guidance on correcting the course.

Still, we shouldn’t rush to anoint this upcoming text-to-TV translation as the next mind-blowing thing quite yet until we see whether the source material can work in 2014. In the meantime, let’s keep our fingers crossed that there’s truth to the rumors about Gaiman’s masterpiece, Sandman, finally making it to a screen near you. That would be something worth tweeting an all-caps “HOLY CRAP” about.

Adapting American Gods Is a Bad Idea