Trending now: screen adaptations of popular speculative fiction novels. It started with HBO’s Game of Thrones, continued with SyFy’s The Expanse and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It will continue to continue with the upcoming film adaptation of The Dark Tower.
Notice a glaring omission from that list? Me too. I haven’t mentioned Starz’s adaptation of the greatest novel in the English language, American Gods.
Okay, that might be an overstatement. But American Gods really is my favorite book, and as such, I was really excited about the series.
When adaptations are based on popular properties, expectations certainly run high. One thing I’ve noticed: In book to screen adaptations, people use one particular piece of criticism over and over: “It wasn’t like the book.”
I’ve always found that fascinating. The clear implication is that adaptations are best when they’re identical to the book—or pretty darn close. Just ask Harry Potter fans.
However, I’d like to offer a friendly counterpoint to the “it’s not like the book” argument. Sometimes, adaptations are best when they aren’t like the book.
Let’s start with Starz’s American Gods. This series has numerous obvious differences between it and its source material. But I think these differences make the show able to stand on its own.
For one, I love how the show expands upon side characters from the novel. Salim, for example, is a young Muslim man who appears in just one scene of the novel and has no influence on the main plot. In the show, however, he becomes a main character who drives the story forward (literally). Or Mad Sweeney, the gruff leprechaun who appears in just a hand full of scenes in the book. The series Sweeney becomes a main character and one of my absolute favorites. Or Laura Moon, resurrected corpse and former wife of Shadow, the story’s main character. The show devotes an entire episode to her backstory, showing how she and Shadow met. The series Laura has depth that even Laura from the novel did not have.
When I watch a series, I want a new experience. I would’ve been bored if everything played out exactly how it did in the book. I want to see characters I recognize, but I want to see them expanded upon. I want to see a story I recognize, only with different twists. After all, I’m watching American Gods the show, not reading American Gods the novel. If I wanted the same experience as the book, I’d just read the book!
On the other hand, adaptations must tread carefully when deviating from their source material. While the series version of American Gods alters and expands upon some events from the book, they all feel true to Neil Gaiman’s story—due in no small part to his involvement with the series. The challenge for the adapter is to produce a product that feels new while retaining the tastiest ingredients of the original.
When I watch a screen adaptation, I’m looking for a new experience. In that regard, American Gods has been a huge success. The series builds upon the foundation of the novel without simply reproducing the original. It isn’t like the book. And that’s a good thing.