Television auteur Bryan Fuller is back this spring, with the long awaited TV adaptation of American Gods, which looks like the most lavishly designed new show on television and stars a flat-out improbable cast that includes Ian McShane, Crispin Glover, Cloris Leachman, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Kristin Chenoweth and Ricky Whittle.
There’s plenty of reasons to be excited about the man behind Hannibal and Pushing Daisies launching his next big project, not least that American Gods has been captivating readers for over 15 years now. It looks an awful lot like its sprawling story about ancient gods and the nature of the American experience will be captivating television viewers as well.
OK, but what is American Gods?
American Gods is a novel, written by Neil Gaiman, about a surrealistic version of modern America that is secretly inhabited by the weakened and old spirits of every god of every religion that had ever been brought to the country’s shores. It came out in 2001, and in 2002 it nabbed the Best Novel award from five separate scifi/fantasy awards slates, including the Hugos, the Nebulas and the Locus Awards. It’s sold more than 1,000,000 copies, and been translated into more than 22 languages.
Broadly, you might call American Gods a work of the urban fantasy genre, although it takes place primarily in “flyover country” rather than cities, on places best reached by a long car trip, in diners and roadside attractions and in towns that used to be someplace but aren’t any more, not really. A lot of its settings are liminal, heightening the surreality, taking place at rest stops, hotels, tourist traps and abandoned spaces, in airplanes, trains, cars and temporary apartments.
Its basic concept teases an urgency and a storm on the horizon from the start, but its plot meanders where it chooses, often taking significant detours. The narrative is also frequently broken up by short stories that build out the fantastical world that the characters inhabit, but aren’t necessarily ever related to their actions.
In other words, it’s kind of uniquely suited for the episodic format of a television show.
In 2011, Gaiman announced that he was in talks with HBO to adapt the book to series. In late 2013, however, HBO abandoned the show in preproduction, with president of programming Michael Lombardo saying “We tried three different writers, we put a lot of effort into it. Some things just don't happen.” In 2014, it was announced that Starz had picked up where HBO had left off, and that Bryan Fuller would serve as showrunner with Gaiman as a “very involved” executive producer.
Which is good, because it gives the writer a chance to improve upon a story that is now almost 15 years old — and was intended to speak to an ever-changing idea of the paradoxes of modern American culture.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What is American Gods about?
The central conceit of American Gods might be summed up like this: When people came to the land that was or would become the United States of America, they brought their gods with them. From migratory prehistoric tribes of humans to Viking settlers, African captives to Irish and German and Middle Eastern immigrants and even some traders and settlers whose visits to America were lost to history, like the ancient Egyptians — all brought their local belief in supernatural spirits, demigods and legends.
Those gods and legends are still here today, vastly weakened as belief in them has waned — but still living. Still eking out existences as con men, drifters, funeral home owners, sex workers, retirees. They still have a bit of their power, and so do certain spaces in America — but maybe not the places that you’d expect.
Firm alongside that establishing idea are two others. First, that America is not a good place for gods. This much all the deities in the book can agree upon; the country is a barren field where belief grows weak and dry. Second, that a war is coming between the old gods and a new, powerful generation. “Gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television.”
And into that war is swept our protagonist, a man with the unlikely name of Shadow Moon. Shadow is nearly finished serving a three year prison sentence. All he wants now is to return to his beloved wife, Laura, and his job as a personal trainer at the gym that his best friend, Robbie, runs. When Laura dies unexpectedly in a car accident, Shadow is released a day early, shocked, grieving, and very much at a loss. The discovery that Robbie also died in that car crash, and that Laura and Robbie were having an affair succinctly destroys Shadow’s plans for walking the straight and narrow and shakes the faith he had in his late wife.
Amongst all of this, Shadow is approached by a mysterious figure, Mr. Wednesday, who seems to operate as a sort of con-man. Wednesday wants Shadow to work for him, to be his bodyguard, his driver, and to run errands. With his old life almost entirely wiped away, Shadow reluctantly agrees, and finds himself embroiled in an inscrutable new world of unspoken customs, subtle rules and ancient magic.
Mr. Wednesday is engaged in the difficult task of uniting the old gods in America against the oncoming onslaught of the new. At his side, Shadow travels the length and breadth of the continental United States, meeting strange gods and stranger people. Throughout the novel he is plagued by recurring dreams of a man with a buffalo head, who may or may not represent the land of America itself, and recurring visits from his dead wife, who has risen from her grave to protect him and discover a way that she might live again.
According to the showrunners of American Gods, the first season of the show will cover about the first third of the book, with many changes. Some characters will be given expanded roles, others very changed ones; some subplots will be eliminated, and new ones may be invented. Gaiman has also acknowledged that certain characters need a significant update to be relevant to a modern audience. Case in point: the Technical Boy, who was written as an embodiment of technology — and technological communication — in an era before iPhones, before Twitter, before Facebook and even before Gmail.
But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about the gods of American Gods. In the novel, the identity of a god is rarely stated directly. Instead, the reader must lean on hints and context clues, and ideally their own knowledge of comparative mythology and world religions. However, it is possible to definitively state the identity of many of the book’s most central figures. We’ll list the ones who are most relevant to the new show here.
The Old Gods
Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane)
With his one glass eye, Mr. Wednesday is Odin, the All-Father of the Norse pantheon. He charms and cons for a living, has a taste for whiskey and blonde, blue-eyed women, and is pulling every last favor and allegiance he can to unite the old gods.
Bilquis (Yetide Badaki)
Known only as Bilquis, Yetide Badaki will be playing a character based loosely on the the legendary (and semi-Biblical) figure of the Queen of Sheba. She plays a relatively small but incredibly memorable role in the novel — her introductory chapter is either very arousing or one of the most terrifying things you’ve ever read. Or both.
Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber)
Mad Sweeney says he is a Leprechaun, and an associate of Mr. Wednesday. More likely, he’s a living remnant of Suibhne mac Colmain, a figure of the Irish epic Buile Shuibhne, a king cursed with madness and wandering. Sweeney is one of the first gods that Shadow comes into contact with in the novel. The two duel over coin tricks — a hobby that Shadow picked up in prison as something to pass the time — and eventually with fists, once everyone is drunk enough.
Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones)
Mr. Nancy is the modern guise of Anansi the spider, the folklore character of the Asante people of Ghana, who became a widespread trickster hero in the oral tradition of African slaves in the Caribbean and New World. He is talkative, charming, unabashedly sexual and loyal to Mr. Wednesday.
Mr. Nancy may also be the star of Neil Gaiman’s novel Anansi Boys, which centrally features a modern incarnation of Anansi in America. While there are similarities and hints that the Anansi of Anansi Boys is the same as in American Gods, it is never outright stated. Still, it’s possible that the folks behind the American Gods television series may pull from it as source material.
Easter (Kristin Chenoweth)
Ēostre is a pre-Christian Germanic goddess who had a month — now April — named after her, and a major spring festival that may or may not have included the sacrifice of hares and eggs. Which is to say, she is the reason we refer to “the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ” as “Easter.” Theoretically, she is also the reason that fertility symbols like bunny rabbits, candy and painted eggs are associated with the holiday.
Easter appears but briefly in the novel. Because her rites are still enacted in her name, she remains somewhat more powerful than her other ancient peers, but since most of the mortals performing those rites don’t even know she ever existed, she knows too well how vulnerable and thin that power is.
Czernobog (Peter Stormare)
Czernobog’s name means “black god.” He is a pre-Christian Slavic deity about whom very, very little is known. It would take more words to describe the media that has featured references to him (Fantasia, Kingdom Hearts, Pacific Rim) than it would to describe what we definitively know about his role in Slavic mythology. Sources have described him as an evil god of misfourtune. He may or may not have had a good counterpart, but if he did, his counterpart’s name has been lost to history.
In American Gods, he is an elderly man with a vaguely Eastern European accent, another of Wednesday’s closest allies. He and Shadow make a fateful deal over a game of checkers.
The New Gods
Mr. World (Crispin Glover)
Mr. World is the closest parallel the new gods have to Mr. Wednesday. His identity is shrouded heavily in the novel, and he barely appears until the story is almost over. But in terms of his domain of belief: Mr. World is a god formed from America’s fear and belief in the ominous “them,” the surveilling “they,” the men in black who cover up all the nasty truths — the massive conspiracy at the heart of all history. His, well, agents are often mortal operatives who believe they’ve gone over to the private sector, each with a ludicrously obvious codename: Mr. Town, Mr. Wood, Mr. Stone.
The Technical Boy (Bruce Langley)
The youngest of the new gods, but perhaps the most powerful, is the Technical Boy, a god of computers and digital communication. In the novel, he is an obnoxious, non-threatening figure. He’s full of his own power, pudgy, socially inept and possibly — literally — addicted to connectivity. He may turn out to be the character most changed in adaptation to television. Fitting, as the internet is undoubtedly the aspect of modern American life that has most changed since 2001.
Media (Gillian Anderson)
Media is a perfect role for Gillian Anderson, a veteran of Bryan Fuller productions. Media is a god of ... well, hopefully you already figured it out. In the novel, Shadow stops watching television after she starts appearing to him through it — offering him fame and fortune if he’ll convert to their side. Memorably, in one scene, she talks to him in the guise of Lucille Ball, in the middle of a late-night rerun of I Love Lucy, and asks him if he wants to see “Lucy’s tits.” He turns the set off before she can finish unbuttoning her shirt.
With American Gods actually appearing on television screens for the first time, who knows the sort of surreal stuff the production will be able to do with Media. We’ll have to wait and see.