Adapting Neil Gaiman’s cultish, wondrous, sprawling and completely bonkers novel “American Gods” to the screen was always going to be a tall order. The only possible way to give it a chance would be to make a cultish, wondrous, sprawling and completely bonkers piece of television as well – which is very much the direction in which Brian Fuller and Michael Green’s adaptation seems to be heading. The first two episodes showed us an ancient Ethiopian goddess using Tinder to seduce men and swallow them with her vagina, as well as a chain-smoking Russian devil with a bleeding sledgehammer, a buffalo with flaming eyes and Gillian Anderson as a winking goddess of the mass media. Next week’s show has an eastern European grandmother being spirited into the afterlife by a servant of the Egyptian god Anubis, and a sizzlingly erotic gay sex scene between an Omani salesman and a genie who drives a New York cab. What the hell is going on in “American Gods”? With scenes like this, perhaps it hardly matters.
Even so, it may matter a little. There’s great technique on display here – the fabulous tricks of cinematography and special effects, the wild character work, the scenery-chewing by Ian McShane – but this is a series that takes its time with storytelling to a near-unprecedented degree. Viewers who come at it cold, or even those like me who haven’t seen their copy of the novel for a house-move or two, may wear a slightly hunted expression as episode three unveils new character after new character and the plot moves forward in a fog of cryptic mutters and significant looks.
A few things are sort-of-clear so far. The old gods worshipped by America’s immigrants are still around, working con tricks and odd jobs and dreaming of the glorious past when people worshipped them. Meanwhile, the gods of technology, media and conspiracy rule a modern psychosphere of idle thumbs and idle minds. Ian McShane’s character Mr Wednesday – actually the Norse Woden/Odin, although the series has yet to make this formally known – has a plan to take back control, and he wants an ex-con called Shadow (Ricky Whittle, once of the British teen soap “Hollyoaks”) to help. This, it seems, involves driving very slowly through middle America, stopping off at a succession of motels and backwoods shacks so that Whittle can have visions, the directors can drop in flashbacks and flash-forwards, and everyone can wonder what on earth or in heaven is going on.
Fans of Gaiman’s book will be used to all this, and it’s hard not to admire the fearlessness with which Fuller and Green have kept to the novel’s madcap plotting and magpie interests. Written at the end of the last century, while the author was on a pre-millennium road trip of his own, “American Gods” reads at times like a sort of overflow valve for all the research Gaiman did on his long-running fantasy comic “The Sandman” between 1989 and 1996. It groans with folklore – there are segments on Viking war gods, African spider-men, Germanic kobolds, Slavic witches, Indian goddesses and Johnny Appleseed – but it’s also a kind of fantasy compendium of modern folk belief, written by a Brit travelling through America with a notebook and his eyes on stalks. If the rambling picaresque never seems to know when to stop – and the first series of “American Gods”, we’re told, will only cover a third of the book’s territory – that’s because, as the character Shadow remarks at one point, “In America everything goes on forever.”
Oddly, perhaps, I watched “American Gods” thinking less about the recent crop of TV series drawn from hard-to-film novels and comics – the Western guignol of “Preacher”, the existential comedy of “Dirk Gently”, the Christian dystopia of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, to say nothing of “Game of Thrones” – and more about a recent movie: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”, the first attempt anyone has made to film a Thomas Pynchon novel and probably the last as well. “Inherent Vice” is a fabulous adaptation of its source material not because it cleaves to the events of the book (it does, in fact, but the book is such a confoundingly circular story of false starts and anti-plots that it makes little difference) but because Anderson was clearly doing his best to convey the woozy, underslept, overstoned, sometimes visionary feeling that one gets from actually reading a Pynchon book. It’s usual for adaptations to transpose or transplant a story, but rather fewer concentrate so dedicatedly on capturing a mood.
And mood is something that the ravishing, exasperating, mysterious, baggy and weird “American Gods” seems to understand perfectly. If the network Starz continues to commission it – and a second series is already on order – I can see this becoming just as much of a cult success in its medium as Gaiman’s novel was in its own. That, though, will depend on persuading an audience to settle into its strange, shaggy-doggish rhythm for the long haul. I hope it does. Apart from anything else, the more unfilmable books make it to TV, the closer we are to some brave soul taking a crack at Pynchon again.
American Gods available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes on Mondays