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If you are a major fan of Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods,” and have been jonesing for a faithful adaptation, you are going to really love Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s new adaptation of the story (which premieres on Starz on Sunday, April 30th). If you haven’t read Gaiman’s novel, well, you’ll probably be a bit confused at the early goings on, as the show doesn’t waste time explaining the minutia of the plot (or providing definitive identities to several characters). However, I suspect you will also enjoy the series (provided you are ready for Fuller and Green’s patented use of blood, sex, and beautiful imagery). If you are like me and have read Gaiman’s novel, enjoyed it, but weren’t particularly enthralled with the characters or story, then American Gods the television series will likely leave you a bit cold.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, American Gods tells the tale of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), a recently released convict who dreamed of coming home to his lovely wife, Laura (Emily Browning), but instead finds himself partnered with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and immersed in the escalating battle between the ancient gods and the new in the American Midwest.
Now, I wanted to love the series. I’m a major Fuller fan, having loved each of his dearly departed shows (particularly Hannibal, which I reviewed for this site), and I was really looking forward to seeing what he could do with Gaiman’s imaginative story. After all, a war between the ancient gods of our ancestors and the current gods of technology, media, and the like can only improve with Fuller and Green at the helm. But after watching the initial four episodes released for critics, I was left feeling something was missing.
Oh, there’s plenty to laud in the production. As expected, the show is gorgeously shot (David Slade, one of Fuller’s frequent collaborators, directs the first three episodes with his usual eye for color and shadow). And the cast is top notch. Ian McShane is even better than I imagined he would be as Wednesday. It’s McShane’s best work since his time on Deadwood, and Wednesday certainly has quite a bit in common with good ol’ Al Swearingen. There’s a lightness and great sense of fun in the performance, and it’s impossible not to feel drawn to the character whenever he appears on screen- and miss him when he’s absent. Pablo Schreiber holds the screen as Mad Sweeney, the really tall leprechaun, and Gillian Anderson’s brief appearance as Media is really something (even if the entire sequence is taken verbatim from Gaiman’s novel). I also found myself captivated by Emily Browning’s work as Laura Moon, a character I never particularly cared for in the novel, but whose episode four showcase is wonderful.
Less successful is Ricky Whittle’s Shadow Moon. Yes, he’s, for the most part, the audience surrogate in the early going of the series, so one can’t expect the character to explode off the screen. But throughout the four episodes I watched, Whittle was overshadowed at every turn by his co-stars. His blank stare and lack of real emotional intimacy with the other actors begins to grate, especially in the fourth episode, where Shadow’s relationship with Laura needs to feel real. You don’t get the sense he loves her nearly as much as the story dictates, and it’s hard to understand why Laura remains tied to him when there are better options around.
But a lackluster performance from the show’s leading man alone wouldn’t be enough to give me pause about the series. My worry comes from just how faithfully Fuller and Green have adapted the novel. This is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel that I have seen, and that troubles me. One of the things I loved the most about Fuller’s Hannibal was his willingness to bend and expand on moments from the show’s source material. And while there is nothing wrong with choosing to closely hew to a novel, I was hoping for something more out of these initial four episode. Considering Fuller and Green aren’t particularly concerned with explaining what exactly is going on (which works if you are familiar with the story, and works to put those less familiar with the story in the same boat as Shadow, but which might backfire depending on how much confusion a segment of the audience is willing to accept under the promise that things will eventually be explained), there is certainly room to expand the characters and give us some deeper insight into our main players.
That isn’t to say it’s a line by line adaptation. Bilquis is given the additional scenes she was denied in the novel (and yes, the most infamous scene from the novel is present and handled in an interesting manner), and the Djinn arc results in an absolutely majestic (and the most graphic cable drama) gay sex scene I have seen. But the patchwork storytelling of the series’s initial three episodes (each of which opens with a compelling vignette before jumping into seemingly unrelated present day action) seems more concerned with getting the lines and moments from the book exactly right rather than letting the characters grow into something more on the screen. The fourth episode, which takes us back in time to better understand Laura Moon, is the best of the lot, as it gives us the opportunity to get into the head of one of the story’s key characters. But by the end of the episode, we certainly know more about Laura, but less about Shadow.
I realize that adapting something like American Gods to the screen isn’t a simple endeavor. After all, it was often dismissed as a story too unwieldy and meandering (not to mention graphic- in terms of blood, gore, and sex) to really translate off the page. And I am absolutely planning on riding out the entire season with the series, because I have faith that Bryan Fuller can build on these four episodes and get his groove back. But the lack of clear focus and slavish dedication to Neil Gaiman’s novel have me worried that this might not be the adaptation fans of the novel were hoping for.