How do you take a surreal, reality-bending novel like American Gods and faithfully adapt it to television? Turns out, it's easier than you think — you just do what Starz did and tap Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller, and you're already halfway there.
Of course, even though Fuller is well suited to the task of bringing Neil Gaiman's magnum opus to the small screen, it's still an incredibly dense and intricate story to tell. Are you a book fan who wants a refresher, or to know what's going to be different about the show? Or are you just one of those people who loves the heck out of spoilers and wants to know what you're getting going in? Either way, allow us to bring you up to speed before the show premieres on April 30 with this handy primer.
What’s the book about?
After being released from prison to discover that his wife has died, Shadow Moon finds himself being courted for a job by a man named Mr. Wednesday. While traveling cross-country with this mysterious stranger, he discovers a world populated by ancient gods and other mythological beings that our immigrant ancestors believed in when they first came to America. Not only are the Old Gods fading from the collective consciousness, but they’re also being targeted by the personifications of America’s New Gods, who get their power from technology and mass media. Wednesday wants to rally the Old Gods for a battle, and needs Shadow’s help to convince them to fight.
But what’s it really about?
Early on in the book, Shadow asks Mr. Wednesday if he’s American. “Nobody’s American,” he responds. “Not originally.” Those four words represent the central thesis of the book: that in a nation made up of different immigrant experiences (including even Native Americans, whose ancestors traveled across the Bering Strait during the Ice Age), there is no quintessential way of being. Makes sense, considering that Gaiman himself is an immigrant and wrote the book entirely based on places he’d been while on a lengthy road trip.
Of course, a story about legendary religious figures is also ostensibly going to be about belief and sacrifice, both of which the deities of American Gods need to survive. And it’s also about the staying power of mythology and legends, and how they are warped and shaped over time by the people who learn them and pass them along.
Shadow Moon. Our hero, whom we meet at the end of a three-year prison term. He’s a big, quiet dude who’s a lot smarter than he looks, but who lives a little aimlessly. Played by The 100’s Ricky Whittle.
Laura Moon. Shadow’s wife, who dies in a car crash just before he’s released from prison. Despite being dead, she features prominently in the series. Played by Emily Browning of Suckerpunch.
Mr. Wednesday. A rumpled-suited con man with one glass eye, who enlists Shadow as his bodyguard while he travels around the country rallying the Old Gods to wage war. He is the manifestation of Odin from Norse mythology. Played by Ian McShane, because of course he is.
Mad Sweeney. A six-foot tall leprechaun. In the book, his accent is American because he’s “been over here too long." In the show, however, he’s got the Irish brogue you’d expect a leprechaun to have. Played by Pablo Schreiber.
Czernobog and the Zoryas. These gods come from ancient Slavic mythology and live in Chicago. Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman), Utrennyaya, and Polunochnaya are sisters of varying ages who represent different stars in the sky. They live with Czernobog (Peter Stormare), who’s known as the Black God.
Mr. Nancy. The West African trickster god Anansi, who also manifests as a spider. His human form is played by Orlando Jones from Sleepy Hollow. He’s also a main character in Gaiman’s spin-off story, Anansi Boys, which is currently still in development for a miniseries over at the BBC.
Mr. Jacquel and Ibis. Two Egyptian Gods of the Dead who work as funeral directors in Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro), Illinois. Jacquel (Chris Obi) is the god Anubis, who can also manifest as a dog; Ibis (Demore Barnes) is Thoth, a nebbish scholar.
Easter. In the book, Easter is described as a warm, plump woman living in San Francisco; unlike the other Gods, she’s doing pretty okay for herself, even though everybody mistakes her spring harvest festival for a Christian holiday. She’s being played by the bright ball of sunshine that is Kristin Chenoweth.
Low Key Lyesmith. Shadow’s prison inmate. I’m gonna let you guess who he also is based on his name. Played by Jonathan Tucker, a.k.a. Boon from Justified.
Bilquis. The Queen of Sheba, who was once thought to be half-demon. In the book she’s a sex worker on the streets in Los Angeles; the television show has updated her current living situation a little bit. She’s played by Yetide Badaki, who also voiced Ebele Yetide in the most recent Call Of Duty game.
Technical Boy. He’s basically the internet in human form. In the books, he’s a depicted as a stereotypically fat hacker kid, but the show has designed him to look a little bit more like Max Headroom’s shitty younger brother. He’s played by British newcomer Bruce Langley.
Media. A bright woman whom Shadow thinks looks like a newscaster. He first meets her manifesting as different characters on television, including Lucy Ricardo and the cast of Cheers. She’s being played by Gillian Anderson, so let’s hope in addition to Cheers references we maybe get an X-Files one someday?
Mr. World. He seems like one of the lackeys of the New Gods at first, but by the end of the book it’s clear that there’s something else going on with him. Which makes sense, because you don’t cast Crispin Glover in a role unless it’s gonna get real juicy.
What Will the Series Change from the Book?
The first season of American Gods will only last eight episodes, and showrunner Bryan Fuller said he intends for the series to go for about three to four years. This means that we probably won’t get very far into what happens in the book just yet, although don’t worry — some fan-favorite scenes and characters have been shifted around so that the narrative sets them up a little earlier. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that the show will probably end sometime before Shadow moves to Lakeside, Minnesota, and save his time there for next year.
As you might imagine, race will also play a prominent factor in the series. Even though Shadow is not white, he is depicted as ambiguous enough that no one knows what to make of him (Gaiman once said that he always thought Dwayne Johnson would have been a perfect Shadow 10 years ago, to give you a sense of who he was picturing). Based on the first four episodes that Starz sent out to press, it seems that they’ve chosen to identify him definitively as black, which ultimately might play more powerfully given the current political climate. Whittle also plays Shadow as a more incredulous, talkative character than he is in the books, which makes sense. After all, most of what we know of his thought process is via third person narration, which just doesn’t work as well on television as it does in a novel.
Expect the female characters in American Gods to get a little more love and attention, too — much in the same way that Bryan Fuller expanded and added female roles to Hannibal, he’s also expanding many of the roles that women filled in American Gods. Bilquis, Laura, and her friend Audrey Barton will all be prominently featured more than they are within the original text. Otherwise, Fuller said at SXSW this year, it would be “a bit of a sausage party.”
Oh, and there'll also be a character you won't recognize at all: Vulcan, whom Neil Gaiman created just for the television series after coming across a statue of the Roman god in an Alabama steel town. He's played by Psych actor Corbin Bernsen. Since he's the god of weaponry and the forge, you can imagine he's doing very well for himself in America.
Speaking of which, Jesus will also play a minor role in the series, despite not really appearing in the book beyond an appendix in the 10th anniversary edition where Shadow meets him while holding vigil. He'll be played by Jeremy Davis, and according to Entertainment Weekly he'll factor into the origin story for Kristin Chenoweth's Easter.
What Are Fans Most Excited to See?
In addition to following Shadow’s journey across the country, American Gods is also full of rich, dense prose that describes how the Old Gods and the displaced people who once believed in them came to America. Some of these passages — the chapter about a djinn working as a taxi driver in Manhattan, or the one where Bilquis takes a lover, for example — are recreated with lavish devotion to the source material (and if you know the scenes I’m talking about, let me tell ya: Starz does not have the same problem with male nudity that HBO does in Game of Thrones).
In fact, while there are some details changed here and there, you’re sure to recognize a lot of dialogue (particularly spoken by Mr. Wednesday, whose lines are often ripped straight from the text) and even some song cues if you’ve reread the book recently. You know the part early on where somebody puts The Dixie Cups' recording of “Iko Iko” on the jukebox at Jack’s Crocodile Bar? That definitely happens. So does the part where Media talks to Shadow on the TV in the middle of an I Love Lucy episode (and yes, she makes the same, uh, “offer” that she does in the book). And the part where Shadow helps Mr. Wednesday to rob a bank by dreaming of snow. Also, did I mention the Bilquis scene? Because dear god, the Bilquis scene. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that it’s exactly what you’re picturing and it’s perfect in every way.
Which brings me to the biggest moment in the book that fans will want to see: the meeting at the House On The Rock, a massive roadside attraction in Wisconsin that also happens to be built on sacred ground (as it’s explained in the books, most tourist traps in America are holy, because “people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent”). It’s there that Wednesday first brings together as many of the Old Gods as he can to make his pitch, and where they first reveal their true nature to Shadow. Bryan Fuller has described what it was like to go out there in interviews, although that was long before the series started filming or before it was even cast. Still, I can think of no better moment to serve as the climax for the first season, can you?
Overall, I think fans of the series are most excited to see how Bryan Fuller, a showrunner best known for his surreal and visually stunning work on Hannibal, will approach the magic realism that defines American Gods. Above all else, the book is a dreamlike character study about what makes America the vast, contradictory collection of symbols that it is. If anybody can make that come to life, it’s the guy who made us all fall in love with a literal man-eater.
Book fans, do you have a favorite scene or character you’re dying to see in the Starz series? Let’s talk out all our favorite parts of the source material in the comments below.
Featured image: Starz
Images: William Morrow, Starz
Why American Gods book fans will love the show