Starz, a pay-for cable station in the U.S., has been making some really good series over the past few years. They’ve spent a lot of money on them and it shows in the casting and production. Several have been based on popular books including:
Pillars of the Earth based on Ken Follett’s novel (World Without End was the sequel to Pillars but was not produced by Starz)
Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s series, heading into season 3 (I can’t wait! I must blog about this one, too!)
The White Princess – Phillippa Gregory
American Gods based on Neil Gaiman’s novel
American Gods has recently just finished it’s first season on Starz. I read the book several years ago and though I don’t remember a great deal of detail, I do remember that I liked it but it was also one of those books where you feel like it’s doing your head in, as well. It’s filled with a lot of characters and there’s a lot of references to gods and mythology. The series is very good though there are quite a few differences from the book. A lot of it is extra detail added and more focus put on some characters that were only minor ones in the book. The first season is going to cover about a third of the book and, from what I’ve read, the second season will take a lot of material from the Lakeside storyline in the book. There’s also a sequel, called the Anansi Boys and there may be plans to work that in. If so, it’s likely the series go run for a few years. Gaiman is also writing a sequel but that won’t be out for a few years yet.
The casting is superb with Ian McShane as the central character Wednesday aka Odin and the (rather lovely) Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon. The real standouts for me have been Emily Browning as the undead Laura Moon (and also as Essie McGowan) and Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeny, the leprechaun. The rest of the cast is excellent as well and there are some very well known names.
The basic premise is the Old Gods of mythology have lost their power as people forget them and turn to new ones (technology, media etc). The Old Gods have come to America with various groups of people who brought their beliefs with them and we see a lot of the stories of those Gods’ arrival. Wednesday has decided to bring all the old Gods together to start a war with the new Gods in order to defeat them and bring back the power of the Old Ones and he enlists the help of Shadow Moon, a recently released convict whose wife has just died. Shadow is mainly his bodyguard and goes through much of the first season confused about what’s going on around him and having some very bizarre visions and dreams as well. Then there’s his wife. She comes back to life thanks to a magic coin from a leprechaun. She’s a walking dead sort of gal, though, with flies buzzing around her and later, maggots as she slowly starts to rot. The makeup here is fantastic, as she gets paler and grayer looking, with eyes slowly clouding over and dark circles under her eyes.
There is a lot of violence and there is sexuality. It’s a series for grown ups and it’s smart and edgy. You aren’t spoon fed or hand held in this one. You’ve got to pay attention. Everything means something even if it isn’t always obvious. The differences to the book seem to be more enhancements. The book was written in 2001 and there have been a lot of changes in the world since then. Obviously, the Gods of Technology and Media are going to be updated, for example.
There’s a very good interview with Neil Gaiman here. I like what he has to say about his original vision for his work vs how it ends up translated to screen. “You try to push it towards the thing that you have in your head, but you know that not only do you never get there, you also know that the joy and the magic comes from seeing what other people have in their heads.” He also says that while the casting for some characters is vastly different than how he wrote them, they are doing such a superb job that if he were to write a sequel, those characters would sound a lot more like the versions that the actors brought to life.
Books to screen can be a very precarious tightrope. I think that a series is the better way to do it rather than a 2 or 3 hour movie. You have so much more scope for keeping in a lot more detail and it lends itself to enhancement as well (as long as it keeps within the spirit of the book). There are some things that just don’t translate from page to screen but if they do it well, the choices that they make will work just as well. I think, after watching this series, I might have to reread it before the second season comes out next year. American Gods is proving to be very popular and well received and we certainly give it thumbs up from our house.