'American Gods' Wasn't as Deep of a Book as You Remember

But in order to work, Bryan Fuller’s Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s flawed 2001 novel will have to be.
April 27, 2017, 4:31pm

"This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is ... No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or looks for the soul of Mozambique. They know what they are."

This remark is made by Mr. Wednesday, a.k.a. the Norse god Odin, early on in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a novel about the evolution of faith in America. Wednesday and protagonist Shadow Moon are driving through the snow on the way to the House on the Rock, a kitschy Wisconsin roadside attraction, where they'll convene a meeting with a group of the "Old Gods," the mythical deities brought to the US by immigrants over the centuries. Their existence, Wednesday will argue, is in jeopardy thanks to the fading of the old rituals and religions that sustained their predecessors—as well as the rise of the "new gods," which include supposedly recent ideas like technology and media and big government. His goal is to rally the ancient ones for a final battle for the hearts and minds of America.

Odin's observation about America's perpetual identity crisis is one of many chin-stroking proclamations that no doubt propelled Gaiman's book to fame when it was published in June of 2001. George W. Bush had just been elected, and a few months later, planes hijacked by terrorists would crash into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, prompting one of the biggest existential moments the country had ever experienced. The American public thirsted for pop culture that would help them make sense of this new post-9/11 framework, to ground them and their ideals, and American Gods was in the right place at the right time to fulfill that role.

Sixteen years later, we once again find ourselves in the throes of extraordinary national anxiety and another dose of American Gods is on the horizon—this time, in the form of a Starz series adaptation helmed by writer-producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (with co-writing and EP credits for Gaiman). Many, if not most, Americans reeled in the wake of last November's election results, having written off a Trump presidency as merely a dark impossibility, and that feeling has only deepened in the intervening months, as his destructive cabinet and regressive policies have started taking shape. American ideals have never seemed so flimsy, and pop culture has already begun happily obliging our deep-seated need for artistic guidance. When American Gods premieres on Sunday, it'll be in an ideal position to hit that sweet spot the way its original iteration did—to provide meaningful commentary about America's collective soul, its obsessions, flaws and, hopefully, its survival.

To do so, however, Gaiman's story will require some serious updates, all the way down to its ideological roots. The supposedly profound truths of its original text would fall a bit flat in this era, however beloved it has become. By now, it's easily recognized that most of the book's few women characters—such as Shadow's zombified wife Laura, and the "old god" Bilquis (a.k.a. the Queen of Sheba), the "new god" Media—are deeply sexualized (or better yet, sexualized and dead), existing only as as value adds for male characters and never speaking to one another. The voices who get to make profound observations about America are almost exclusively male; with few exceptions (the queer college student Sam Black Crow, who, as the narrator feels compelled to explain, is "faintly mannish" but still "attractive"), women must die horrifically to make any statement worth reflecting upon.

The book also took a dim view of modern humanity. Gaiman, who is British, portrays the old-world gods as towering yet ultimately tragic heroes, dying out because their believers—from whom they've demanded sacrifices and superstitious rituals for centuries—no longer remember or care about them. Even at their most vengeful worst, characters like the Slavic Czernobog, Mr. Nancy (the Ghanaian trickster Anansi), and undertakers Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel (Egyptian gods Thoth and Anubis) are complicated yet sympathetic characters whose behavior makes sense even if it's not always decent. Meanwhile, "new gods" like Media and the faceless men in black are frivolous and inexplicably hostile bullies, implying that America has given its soul away to meaningless entities like popular entertainment and the stock market.

A particularly flat conceit is the most iconic "new god," the irritatingly adolescent Technical Boy. With his power derived from our obsession with computers and the Internet (a relatively new obsession when American Gods was first published), his entire existence seems to ignore the fact that technology—which, in reality, is defined simply as "tools invented to improve a way of doing something"—is as old as civilization itself. If you consider the existence of ships, weapons, and writing implements, technology is the only reason many of the so-called "old gods" existed at all. While there's certainly plenty to condemn about the toxicity of modern American culture—über-capitalism, prison- and military-industrial complexes, uniquely poisonous strains of racism and misogyny— American Gods, though quippy and clever on a line-by-line basis, is a novel mostly guided by an old-man-yells-at-cloud philosophy that doubts modern America cares about anything of value. To put it succinctly: for humankind, the good stuff is all behind us.

Bruce Langley as Technical Boy

Several of these issues have already undergone promising onscreen transformations, thanks no doubt to Fuller, whose work on projects like the luxuriously grotesque Hannibal proved that he can imbue stale material with new, deeper meaning. Interviews and early reports have hinted that Bilquis, played by Yetide Badaki, grows beyond her cruelly two-dimensional appearance in the book and is now billed in nearly every episode—as are several of the other minor female characters, including Media (Gillian Anderson) and Slavic evening goddess Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman).

While early signs point to Technical Boy remaining as caricaturesque as ever, with smartphones and social media bolstering the book's technophobia (according to Gaiman, our gadgets are ruining us and couldn't possibly be bringing us closer to each other, or giving access to information that can make us wiser and more decent), that caricature may be able to indict something more insidious. Instead of the fat, pimply, basement-dwelling loser portrayed in the book, Technical Boy is now a slick, spoiled Silicon Valley one-percenter brat with the personality of a Nazi Twitter troll (not to mention the effectiveness—his henchmen become literal lynch-mobsters in the premiere, legitimizing online harassment as having real-world consequences).

And the indictment of the small-town ignorance contained within Lakeside—the mysteriously perfect midwestern hamlet where Shadow lies low for several months, accidentally discovering its dark secret in the process—will hopefully take on new meaning in a country whose so-called "white working class" voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, despite his ties to Wall Street and vows to abolish federal programs that benefit them. Maybe the best case scenario is that American Gods, as a television series, will understand America a little better than its source material, offering nuance and useful truth. Because if it can't find a lick of redemption or depth in us, what can it really do for us in times like this?

Follow Devon Maloney on Twitter.