As a child, I was unfathomably addicted to stories by Jules Verne, the early 19th century science fiction writer whose vision was unparalleled relative to the time period he lived in. In a time when mankind was still experimenting with rudimentary versions of the automobile by attaching heavy combustion engines to horse carriages, Verne's works like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea talked about submarines that could travel hundreds of miles in a matter of hours.
He not only talked about the undersea adventures that his characters would endure, but gave a fairly accurate account of how the submarine was functional. You'd think that Verne had to have traveled quite a bit to have formed such a clarity of imagination, but Verne had never really gone anywhere too far away from France, where he had lived most of his life.
Why are we talking about Verne here? Well, Verne is considered to be one of the first proponents of the Surrealist movement that would later be improved upon and immortalized by the likes of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Even as a child, when my imagination was being shaped by the illustrations I had seen in the abridged versions of Jules Verne's books, I could feel how dream-like some of the accounts were. I would lay staring up at the ceiling trying to fill in the gaps in my imagination, which I was sure were not confined to the black and white illustrations in my book. This is what Surrealism is all about. Without even getting into the etymology of the word, I find it somewhat interesting that it contains some sense of the word "real," grounding it to everyday reality, but also builds upon it to project images that had no founding in such realism.
This is exactly why, in my humble opinion, graphic novels make for a challenging adaptation to a visual medium. The fluid transitions in novellas, with their outrageous story-scapes, can be the worst nightmare for filmmakers. While reading a graphic scene you are fairly certain that the exposition will come on its own; it will not be brought to you in the same way as watching the same scene on a screen. The challenge here it to create that delicate balance between unnecessary exposition and fluidity. This balance is so delicate that even filmmakers who have made successful graphic novel adaptations in the past still find it challenging as an art form.
Case in point: Zack Snyder. Snyder's film The Watchmen achieved much critical acclaim and is one of the finest superhero vigilante films that have ever been made. It was great not just because of the story and the characters, but in its fluid storytelling, which kept the graphic novel essence intact.
Snyder tried to replicate a similar narrative in his 2016 film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but failed to stitch together a fluid screenplay. The big-screen adaptation of the classic manga/anime Ghost in the Shell underwent a similar fate when it couldn't live up to the rich art that Masamune Shirow had achieved in his manga and Mamoru Oshii in his anime film.
American Gods teeters along the edge of Surrealism, mythology and fantasy. Adapted from the Hugo and Nebula award winning novel by the same name, Neil Gaiman's 2001 classic establishes a world where Gods exist as feudal overlords who fight over the faith of mortals by trying to persuade them to believe in what they have to offer and become their follower. Basically, the more followers a God has, the more powerful he/she becomes. Although the term "followers" here means people of faith, but you can very well apply it to modern-day social media followers.
What makes the premise even more interesting is the inter-dimensional tussle between the old gods and the new. Since the story is based in today's digital world, there are gods who have evolved to reign supreme through our devices. The objective of these new gods is to throw out the old ones who have now become obsolete. Who, after all, gave blood sacrifices to satiate their gods these days?
In the backdrop of this chaotic premise, the story revolves around an ex-con, Shadow Moon, who is recruited against his wishes by a mysterious gentleman, Mr. Wednesday, as his bodyguard. Shadow Moon, who is still coping with the death of his wife, is baffled by the people Mr. Wednesday meets and the world he inhabits. Shadow Moon is also secretly approached by some of the new gods as a tactic to bring him into their fold. Although Moon firmly rejects those proposals, he can't help but be intrigued by this sudden interest that these strange "people" were showing in him. The dynamics between the more powerful older gods and Shadow Moon is a treat to watch.
This adaptation by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green brings almost a perverse personality as we see the god characters indecently chasing after people showing them a glimpse of their deepest, darkest desires. Contrary to how we treat supernatural beings as pure and righteous, the American Gods are a reflection of the very society we live in: They are corrupt, immoral, selfish and visceral. Fuller and Green understood that this essence would need to be created in the eyes of an audience but at the same time, a sense of dystopian mystery would also need to seep into the mood.
American Gods not only understands this necessity, but runs with it. While going through the pilot, you get sucked into this unleavened fugue of shock and wonder. Each character exposition is infused with macro-shots and iconography that embeds itself deep into your brain conditioning, a shift that happens every time you see that character on screen. Surrealism almost always uses contrasting color tones to bring out the literary contrast between the clashing ideas of reality and hallucination. The narrative is interspersed with dream-like sequences that revel in Surrealism in all its glory.
Starz’s 'American Gods' erupts onscreen in gushes of blood and sex and storms that crack the sky wide open. It spans centuries, with the camera panning across deserts and rooftops, gaudy casino floors and sprawling constellations. Its characters — deities or otherwise — wink and beguile, snark and swallow people whole.
With the introduction to every new god that Mr. Wednesday meets, you dive into a mesmerizing new legend of that god and the gory history that went with it. Shadow Moon mirrors our own perspective as the audience as he copes with new rules, new possibilities, and new cults that he didn't even know existed. Every god has his/her own signature ambience that comes with them — Death has a timeless quality to his screen-scope, with rambling hills and a scale placed in the very middle where he places a feather on one side. For the other side, he reaches in and pulls out the heart of the judged, to be placed against the feather. Although this is an allegory to the saying that "A sinner's heart is always heavy with guilt," the literal interpretation throws you off-guard.
Similarly, the goddess Media manifests herself only through various media (as her name suggests), such as TV screens, phones, etc. In one moment, she is a black-and-white program starring Marilyn Monroe, and in another moment she is dressed like David Bowie in a modern, yet gaudy setting.
Even before you are influenced by the narrative, you are drawn in by the sublime opening sequence and its haunting soundtrack, which inadvertently creates an atmosphere of chaos through a giant totem that shows a hierarchy of the various gods that inhabit the universe. Interestingly, there is a Ganesha iconography that is teased during the sequence that might possibly indicate the Hindu god into the storyline among the myriad of American, Greek, Islamic and Slavic gods.
Created by Elastic, “the opening for the series pairs Old and New God relics in a totem of gigantic proportions," bizarrely and yet hypnotically combining modern technology with ancient iconography. It’s a stunning intro for sure and it heralds a mind-bending story to come.
American Gods is without a doubt the most visually stunning and rich, storytelling experience I have ever been through. With some of the most bewildering atmosphere out there and equally definitive character writing, this adaptation would be my bet as one of the few shows that will go down as classics for viewers and film students alike. Although the show is all about powerful deities, the message is more to do with Atheism than anything else.
Shadow Moon, who is struggling to believe the world around him, represents an atheist among the religious society that we live in, where being a believer is no more a choice but a chore that needs to be done, whether you like it or not. The message that is also subliminally projected is how nonsensical the gods are, with their widely varying rules and objectives that have absolutely nothing to do with morality. I have to admit, I was reminded of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion a few times. Well, let's not open that Pandora's box, shall we ?
You can catch the show on Amazon Prime Video with new episodes every Monday.
What are your thoughts on the first season of American Gods?