When Neil Gaiman’s American Gods comes to television next month, it’s going to look a little different than fans of the book remember — and its creators hope they’ll take away a subtle political message alongside the myths and magic.
“Our first task of adapting is to make the show that we wanted to see as an audience member,” said Bryan Fuller, one of the showrunners. But “it’s definitely a different show than we set out to make, because the political climate in America shat its pants,” he said. “We are now telling massive immigration stories in a climate that vilifies immigrants. And so we have a strange new platform to start a different kind of conversation.” Fellow showrunner Michael Green agreed. “The book is joyful, it celebrates a lot of things that we love about America, and have since become weirdly odd about America,” he said.
Neil Gaiman echoed the sentiment on Twitter after the panel. “I don't think we preach,” he told a fan. “And we didn't think we were making a politically relevant show, just adapting a book about immigrants and America.” His novel is about a modern-day conflict between old gods, conjured into being by immigrants who believed in them, and would-be replacements created by new media and technology. Its protagonist Shadow Moon is drafted into the struggle by the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, played by Ian McShane of Deadwood and John Wick.
With Gaiman’s blessing, the show will be departing quite a bit from its source material. The 100’s Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow, boasted that people who have read the book will still be surprised by the adaptation. “Even hardcore fans will not have a clue about what’s going on,” he said. The timeline is being reordered, and a few female characters’ roles — including those of Shadow’s undead wife Laura, the forgotten god Bilquis, and Laura’s former friend Audrey — are being expanded. Laura’s role especially, said Green, would let the series show events in the book from a different perspective. “The book tends to get in too much of a sausage party with Mr. Wednesday and Shadow,” joked Fuller.
The showrunners say they also tried to assemble a cast that accurately represents the book’s diverse pantheon. This is one of the things that attracted comedian Orlando Jones, who plays a Ghanaian trickster god going by the alias Mr. Nancy. “It seems extremely poignant while at the same time extremely powerful to be in the position of the voice of a nation,” Jones said. “The conversation of race is one that we’ve avoided for quite some time. The show, he said, “allows us the platform to not preach but to talk about our beliefs and how our beliefs bring us together, as opposed to how they tear us apart.”
It might touch on real-world issues, but if the pilot is any indication, the show will also be very weird. Among other things, effects artists had to find a way to represent, as Green puts it, “what it means to be a being made of thought-form.” The resulting stylistic flourish, which he calls “godflesh,” appears in the pilot as something between Videodrome and a postmodern art installation. “We wanted the show to operate on various levels of reality,” Green said. “There's the people you see on the bus and might think they're a little strange... and they're a god.”
American Gods’ pilot was screened in advance at SXSW; it will premiere on Starz on April 30th.