In American Gods, Neil Gaiman weaves a complex and brilliant tale of old gods fighting for relevance in a world that is rapidly becoming the domain of the new gods—gods of technology, of media, and of perceived progress. It’s a long book, with only a small handful of moments that drag, but it is a true literary adventure.
The announcement that an American Gods series would air on Starz raised some skepticism. It would have big shoes to fill. Much of the story includes exposition, after all. Though the perspective in the book shifts, it largely focuses on Shadow Moon (played in the series by Ricky Whittle, who is big enough and looks don’t-fuck-with-me enough to play the character). The complications of translating a book into any other form of media are pretty similar across the board, so it came down to who would be doing the translation. Bryan Fuller, whose most recent work on Hannibal garnered a very loyal fan following, was announced to be involved, and one by one the names of those who would play the gods were announced. And then the waiting game began.
There are some understandable updates…
At the time of this piece, two episodes have aired. The series premiered on April 30th with its first episode “The Bone Orchard”. Story-wise, it’s fairly loyal to its source material. Any changes are, arguably, to the shows benefit. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Wednesday, which starts off in a rambling and desperate plea for airport employees to understand his ticket is first class, is a visual representation of Gaiman’s character. He’s likeable, but clearly devious. His on-screen chemistry with Whittle plays out just like Shadow and Mr. Wednesday’s interactions in the book do. There’s an element of tension, some uneasy trust, and a generally enjoyable to watch dynamic. Pablo Schreiber is a delightful, charming Mad Sweeney, and his fight with Shadow was easily one of the high-points to the first episode. Orlando Jones simply is an intense depiction of Mr. Nancy, breathing a great deal of life and animation into the character (even if some of the bits with the spider are a little silly looking).
The episodes, thus far, start with a Coming to America segment, showcasing some of the past portions of the novel wherein worshippers of the old gods arrive in America and bring their gods with them. It helps, narratively speaking, to balance out the show by including these portions of the story as a starting point before returning viewers to the present situation Shadow Moon, Mr. Wednesday, and the others are in.
Cinematically speaking, American Gods is beautiful. Each shot in itself is framed to tell a story. Shadow is made to seem small in prison. The fight scene between Mad Sweeney and is as wild and unpredictable as Mad Sweeney’s fighting style. Even the scene with Bilquis—yes, that scene—is handled in a way that is loyal to the book while still coming across as tastefully done, but the second episode makes up for it with an abundance of worshipping that was added since the book’s writing. There are some understandable updates. Technical Boy’s limo is brought to life by way of a virtual reality helmet. There are cell phones, which Mr. Wednesday clearly is not a fan of. It’s been some time since American Gods was written, and it makes sense for the show to reflect these changes and embrace them.
By Phil Gorski