There are a lot of pitfalls for a TV adaptation of a book: translating the characters onto the screen doesn’t always go the way it should; finding ways to replicate a book character’s interiority (this is where the final season of Game of Thrones failed); bulking up or trimming down various plots as needed; rebalancing various characters’ roles to improve on the original (see: The Magicians).
In the case of Good Omens, a new Amazon miniseries based on the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book of the same name, one of the trickiest elements of adaptation works astonishingly well. The experience of reading Good Omens, maybe first and most intensely, is the sense of its voice. A chipper, breezy, insouciant, and simultaneously dire sense of humor carries through the book’s silly story about the apocalypse, and the combination of lightness and darkness in its tone is an impressively fitting match for a book about an angel and a demon who become friends. It’s a narrator’s voice, a very self-consciously booky voice, full of self-satisfied vocabulary and jokes about the nature of text. Good Omens is a book about books — specifically, about the Bible and a goofy, made-up prophetical text called The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch — and the story, which is ostensibly about good and evil and humanity and the end of the world, is more specifically about the way we interpret and fail to interpret texts.
That premise presents a high degree of difficulty, adaptation-wise. Narrator voice is always hard in TV; so few series can nail voice-over in a way that doesn’t feel clunky, and the process of figuring out how to translate style in language into a similar style of TV storytelling is even harder. What exactly is the visual version of a prose style that goes, “God does not play dice with the universe; he plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time”? What does it look like to tell a story about a fallen angel who “did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”? Without those smirking, smug, delicious capitals in “Saunter Vaguely Downwards,” that phrase is only half as funny. What do smug capital letters look like as a style of TV?
The answer, in this adaptation, is visual busyness, cute signpost markers, and stamped-on images to help denote dates and locations, and a hefty dose of a literal Voice of God as a narrative through line. (God, in this case, is played by Frances McDormand.) Much of the original dialogue has been transplanted into the script, and the series’ brisk, snappy editing style — specifically its whooshing transitions from one scene to the next — go a long way toward replicating and re-creating the book’s wry tone. It is self-consciously constructed as a silly, constructed thing. When you watch the series, which premieres on Friday, you get a visual version of the book’s gleeful wordiness. That’s no small feat.
The other major success of the series is its two lead characters, the good angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the bad angel Crowley (David Tennant). Aziraphale is a plummy, upper-class gentleman; a delicious, fragile collection of nervous chuckles, aristocratic hobbies, and restrained emotion. Crowley, equipped as he is with Tennant’s long spidery legs, is every inch the Fallen Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards. He slouches across the screen, sneering and cocking one eyebrow and blasting Queen from his car speakers. Together, he and Aziraphale have all the zinging chemistry of a deeply felt if emotionally avoidant male friendship, and their bond gets more fun the more they realize that they, themselves, don’t actually understand what makes one thing good and another thing evil. Good Omens works best when Tennant and Sheen are both onscreen, politely deferring to one another about how to deal with the end times.
Things do get wobblier when Good Omens turns to the side characters. They are plentiful, but unevenly characterized. There’s a witch named Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), a witch-hunter called Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), a variety of other demons and angels (most notably Jon Hamm as Gabriel and Anna Maxwell Martin as Beelzebub), and delightful, small appearances by Nick Offerman, Bill Paterson, Michael McKean, and Miranda Richardson, among many others. It is a big, exciting cast full of characters with a lot of possibilities, but none of them leap to life with quite the same distinctiveness as Aziraphale and Crowley.
That’s especially notable when it comes to Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), a young boy who’s actually Satan Incarnate, meant to trigger the end of the world. He sits at the center of all the machinations about how the apocalypse plays out, but Good Omens doesn’t have much of a grasp of who he is, and does very little with his charming kid friends beyond giving them cute introductions. Anathema is similarly underdeveloped, and the obligatory Four Horsemen (Brian Cox, Mireille Enos, Lourdes Faberes, Yusuf Gatewood) do remarkably little marauding given their legendary, apocalypse-signifying, terror-inducing status.
The fact that the minor characters are so much weaker than the two leads unbalances the ending a little. The original Good Omens book was co-written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; Pratchett sadly died in 2015, but Gaiman was significantly involved in the adaptation, including writing the screenplay. The ending of Good Omens is a classic Pratchett-esque mechanism, familiar to any readers of his massive Discworld series — many pieces, most of them either unrelated or held together by only the most tenuous threads, suddenly bump and stumble and collide into one another to make an ending. When it works, it feels like watching many disparate fictional parts suddenly come together to make a Rube Goldberg machine, with everything neatly sliding into place and the conclusion rolling along smoothly. But in order to make it work, each piece already needs to have some meaning of its own. Each character has to stand on their own before they can get pieced together into the bigger structure. It’s what makes the ending feel transformative rather than rote.
Good Omens does not quite succeed at this. Even though the major pieces are there — Aziraphale, Crowley, Satan, God, apocalypse — the minor bits aren’t magical enough on their own. It doesn’t quite pull together as a great, glorious, goofy Almighty plan. But it is still fun, and stylish, and it has enough of the book’s original quirky spark to feel worthwhile.