Book and TV Review – American Gods

983100After suffering through the stultifying Starz adaptation of American Gods, I felt the need to reread Neil Gaiman’s novel–a reminder of why this book is such a glorious, sprawling, and meaningful mess. With the comparison between the book and the TV adaptation fresh in my mind, I noticed three primary failures of the series.

First, the pacing was horrendous. The material covered in the series was around the first 130 pages of the 500+ page book. Not only was new material invented (an episode of Mad Sweeney and Laura together, that actually was one of the better parts of the series), but scenes were painfully stretched to their extreme limit as the filmmakers tried to milk every visual nuance from matches being lit and checkers being moved.

Second, the dialog and phrasing that makes Gaiman’s writing so rewarding was dropped from the show or clumsily reworded as painful narration. A lot of the fun of the book is the repartee between Shadow and Mr. Wednesday; very little of that exists in the show.

And perhaps most importantly, the series lost the sense of irreverant humor of the book–instead of the mix between tall tale and long-running con game of the novel, we got a massively overinflated dose of “this is important filmmaking, not some story you can enjoy!” An example of this is the checkers game between Shadow and Czernobog, which is a fast-paced affair in the book, with Shadow’s redemptive victory in the second game immediately followed by a humorous suggestion for best two out of three. In the show, every portentous play is shown in high-saturation and slow-mo detail. The story of American Gods is undeniably, intentionally weird. The novel celebrates that weirdness while the show bogs down in it.

Ultimately, readers are continually rewarded with Gaiman’s wit, storytelling ability, and talent for phrasing. We know, even when we can’t make heads or tails of the story itself, that Gaiman will bring it home with panache and impact. The Starz series does not inspire anywhere near that confidence; clumsy scene after clumsy scene shows that the filmmakers understand visual imagery better than stories. In this battle between the old god of the book and the new god of networks seeking the next Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, there’s no question who wins.

— My original review of the book–
5 stars.  Vast, sprawling, rambling, yet still engrossing and extremely readable. One thing that I really appreciate about Neil Gaiman is that, even with his heavy use of allegory, he trusts his audience to let them draw their own conclusions. This lack of heavy-handed messaging allows his books to have different meanings to different readers. “American Gods” is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of book; I thoroughly enjoyed the snappy prose, kitschy road trip plot, examination of mythology as storytelling, and fast-paced yet insightful look at the American character.

Book Review – Norse Mythology

308096894 stars.  Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the epic pantheon of Odin, Thor, and Loki.  I came to this book with a casual familiarity with Nordic myth and left with a sense of its richness, grandeur, wit, and stoicism.  Gaiman gives a very straightforward storytelling in modern language.  I suspect these stories would work very well if read aloud; the prose seems geared towards being related by a storyteller.

I particularly like the characteristic of Norse mythology that its gods are not archetypes; like humans, they are contradictions of traits and neither wholly good nor wholly bad.  Odin is brave and knowledgeable, yet conniving and selfish.  Thor is strong, yet ultimately a little simple.  And then there’s Loki, the consummate troublemaker who acts out of a sense of mischief rather than evil and winds up being both the cause of and solution to many of life’s problems.

Norse Mythology covers the gamut from creation to destruction, covering topics from the epic end-of-the-world battle of Ragnarok to the quest to borrow a three mile deep cauldron for brewing beer.  These stories are gleefully puerile on occasion, such as Loki tying his privates to a goat to elicit laughs or Odin farting out the mead that causes bad poetry.  Gaiman’s straight telling of these parts adds to the hilarity.

The strength and weakness of this volume is the same: Gaiman is very true to the surviving source material, which both makes this book valuable as a literary reference to the pantheon and restrains his creativity.  I expected it to be a little more, well, Gaiman!  Had he turned his inventiveness loose, I think I would have felt more resonance with the characters and stories than I did.

It’s testament to Gaiman’s talents that I feel that Norse Mythology is merely entertaining, educational, and enjoyable instead of mind-blowingly awesome.  (Fortunately, American Gods is out there for a taste of what the author can do with the Nordic pantheon!)