The All-Father uses emoji. “This is the first time I’m saying this in an interview,” American Gods co-showrunner Michael Green divulges when talking with The A.V. Club last week. “Ian McShane: He makes fun of Instagram, Twitter. ‘Oh, that social thing I leave that to you’—he will text with emojis and GIFs. It means we’re in a world where we all have a much more complicated relationship with technology.”
That’s surprising news from an actor who joked with The A.V. Club about turning his back on modern technology, and even more notable considering the character he plays in Green’s series represents the world before gadgets and smiley-face icons. American Gods casts McShane as Mr. Wednesday, a.k.a. All-Father, a.k.a. the Norse deity Odin. He’s the leader of a group of old gods now moored in the U.S. and prepping for war against the new ones, whose ranks include physical manifestations of present-day obsessions like, yes, technology. The old gods are representative of the legends people brought with them when they came to America; the new ones are what we’ve become consumed by. When the novel by Neil Gaiman came out in 2001, emoji weren’t part of the cultural dialogue. Now the already acclaimed adaptation is set to debut in a much different landscape, one in which an eggplant can be used to convey something dirty and stories about immigration are inherently political. But when or how it was going to be adapted wasn’t always a given.
American Gods isn’t an easily contained or explained narrative. It’s a sprawling, complicated epic that centers on Shadow (Ricky Whittle), who, just out of prison, is hired (or, perhaps more accurately, is coerced) into working for Wednesday after discovering that Shadow’s wife, Laura (Emily Browning), has died in a car crash while having an affair with his best friend, Robbie (Dane Cook). Along the way the new gods like Media (Gillian Anderson) try to woo Shadow to join their side or threaten him. And all the while Gaiman weaves historical tales of how these deities wound up in the country. Remove the fantasy elements, and the show’s about how this nation was built on the many faiths of countless people who traveled from far away to get here.
For Gaiman, the process of getting American Gods to the screen wasn’t a particularly lengthy one. (The author reserves that designation for the constantly in-flux movie based on his comic The Sandman.) Throughout the years, he fielded offers from filmmakers intrigued by the text but baffled by how to translate it. “I write a book, it’s obviously unfilmable,” he says. “I do not worry about the fact that it’s unfilmable. Because I’m writing an unfilmable book, I have a great time with that. So people phone me up and say, ‘Hello, I am a famous director that you have heard of. I just read your book. I think it would make an amazing movie, but how would you make this into a movie?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ I say, ‘Honestly, I think at the point where you make it a 120-page script, you’ve thrown away anything that makes it interesting,’ and so nothing ever happened.”
In 2011, however, he joined forces with Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, to develop an American Gods series for HBO. News that the project was underway broke just before HBO launched a different fantasy property: Game Of Thrones. “By the time we’d handed our script in, our nice, smart exec had gone, and the people remaining were going, ‘We don’t really know what it is, and we don’t really understand it, and we don’t like it that much,’” Gaiman said. “So we did two drafts and a polish, and they gave us the rights back.” The author explains he was “relieved” when HBO got out of the picture, which ultimately led him to Starz and Bryan Fuller, the creator of visually marvelous worlds ranging from the whimsical (Pushing Daisies) to the nightmarish (Hannibal). What sold Gaiman on Fuller was not that he had a vision for tackling the challenging material immediately in mind, but that he loved the book. Fuller remembers Gaiman coming to visit him in Toronto; when he was asked if he wanted to do it, he said yes—with Michael Green, creator of the biblical-themed and short-lived NBC series Kings, which starred McShane. These days, Green is racking up blockbuster credits like the acclaimed Wolverine movie Logan, the Blade Runner sequel, and the new Murder On The Orient Express.
The producers and cast acknowledge that they did not have any easy task ahead of them. Actor Pablo Schreiber—who plays the tall, nasty leprechaun Mad Sweeney—says he was initially perplexed by how it was all going to come together. “I was just blown away by the world,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘What is this magical piece of writing?’ And so crazy, like how is this a TV show? How does it work? Then, after getting the job, I went back and read the book, and it started to make a little more sense, although I still couldn’t really imagine how it was going to be a TV show.”
Even before he took on the part of old god Mr. Nancy, Gaiman’s version of the folkloric arachnid Anansi, Orlando Jones had affection for what Gaiman had put on the page. “The core principle obviously is you can manifest your thoughts into realities if you believe,” he says. “An interesting and powerful concept but a difficult visual to realize.”
Green and Fuller came to the concept as fans, but that doesn’t mean they were 100 percent faithful. “We wanted to recreate our experience, and by definition that’s going to be our experience as a reader, which is going to be different from yours or anyone else’s,” Green said. “But we could also reassess our own experience reading it. Especially in those first three episodes where we were adapting parts of the book that are very great, tight story and offer a very strong point of view. We also knew we wanted to sow the seeds for the later orchard of other points of view and other tonal diversions.”
Whittle didn’t finish reading American Gods until filming for season one was complete, because Green and Fuller stopped him, eager to create a unique version of Shadow. “They straight-up said, ‘Stop reading the book because it’s affecting your performance, and that’s not the character we want for TV,’” he says. “You don’t want a man who thinks every week. Shadow was very blasé and quiet in the book, and that’s just not going to work for the adaption. We needed him to kind of fight, and more friction with Mr. Wednesday.”
But perhaps the most notable change to the story involves fleshing out Laura’s backstory and her own plot. (Per Schreiber, Laura and Mad Sweeney eventually get their own road trip. It was pitched to him as: “Bonnie And Clyde with a zombie and leprechaun.”) The fourth hour establishes her complicated persona, and Fuller considers it “perfect hybridization” of his and Green’s styles. For Green, it’s indicative of how their ideas can mesh seamlessly with the source material. “It’s fan fiction that works its way into the new author’s preferred text,” he says.
Indeed, to Gaiman the series is a collaborative effort between himself and the pair, who will call and email him with questions. He points out details from the original that he knows will be important to the sequel that he’s writing, and puts his foot down when he believes they have misconstrued a character’s intentions. (However, he found his biggest demand—that the diversity of the characters and the cast be kept intact—was a non-issue for both the showrunners and Starz.)
And the show may yet have some impact on what Gaiman produces in the future. “Were I ever to write Wednesday again, he would probably sound a lot more in my head like Ian McShane, because listening to Ian deliver those lines is like, ‘Oh, that is the best they could ever be delivered,’” he says. But will he share McShane’s penchant for emoji?