Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods' Comes To TV In the new Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman's beloved fantasy novel, gods from all over the world are drawn to America when their worshippers arrive here — whether as immigrants, explorers, or slaves.
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In 'American Gods,' Even Deities Have The Immigrant Experience

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In 'American Gods,' Even Deities Have The Immigrant Experience

In 'American Gods,' Even Deities Have The Immigrant Experience

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The book "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman was written in 2001. And it is many things. It's a road novel. It's a collection of mythologies. It's a story about immigration. And now it's a TV show. It premiered last night on the cable network Starz. "American Gods" follows an ex-convict named Shadow Moon. He's newly released from prison when he meets a mysterious man who offers him a job as a bodyguard and a chauffeur.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN GODS")

IAN MCSHANE: (As Mr. Wednesday) I just happen to be in a hiring position, and I could be Mr. Wednesday with a shake of the hand.

MCEVERS: As NPR's Mallory Yu reports, the story has new relevance in 2017.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Much of Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" takes place on the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN GODS")

RICKY WHITTLE: (As Shadow Moon) Where's my car?

MCSHANE: (As Mr. Wednesday) Oh, I dumped it. You're going to be driving Betty (ph) here from now on.

NEIL GAIMAN: It's a glorious American tradition if you take some people, you put them on the road, you see what happens to them and you find out who they meet on the way.

YU: Gaiman says the people that Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday meet are far from ordinary. They're gods from different mythologies around the world living as humans all over the United States. And they were brought here when their believers came to this country as explorers, slaves, immigrants. There's Anansi, the African trickster spirit; Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the dead; and Bilquis, also known as the Queen of Sheba.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN GODS")

YETIDE BADAKI: (As Bilquis) Worship me. Pray to me like I'm your god, your goddess.

YU: Gaiman was inspired to write the book when he moved to the United States in 1992.

GAIMAN: I wrote what is I think an immigrant novel about immigration. It's about the fact that this is a huge and wonderful country that is filled with people who came here from somewhere else. But that, when I wrote it, seemed probably the least contentious thing that I could possibly put in a novel.

YU: Now, Gaiman says, he's shocked to find that the topic is considered controversial.

GAIMAN: There is a madness that is in the world right now. And if "American Gods" is a political show, it has become a political show only because the world has changed.

YU: Showrunners Michael Green and Bryan Fuller say they didn't set out to make a political show either, though it does touch on topics like religion and police brutality. Bryan Fuller.

BRYAN FULLER: It wasn't so much a political agenda as much as it was telling an American experience story.

YU: Like in a historical flashback to a slave ship on the Atlantic, where the god Anansi tells his believers what awaits them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN GODS")

ORLANDO JONES: (As Anansi) You arrive in America, land of opportunity, milk and honey, and guess what? You all get to be slaves, split up, sold off and worked to death. A hundred years after you get free you still get [expletive] out of jobs and shot at by police. You see what I'm saying?

YU: These real issues are wrapped in a fantasy that pits Old World gods against new ones of technology and media. And that's where Gaiman says the show has an advantage over the book.

GAIMAN: The show gets to do what I would have done if I had had unlimited pages. There were places I couldn't do, stories I couldn't tell because I didn't have an infinite amount of space.

YU: So far, the hardest part for the showrunners has been representing these different cultures and myths in a fantasy setting without turning them into caricatures. Showrunner Bryan Fuller says much of that was in the casting.

FULLER: It was a foregone conclusion that we were going to cast authentically to the characters and their respective cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

YU: Both showrunners admit this was a learning process. But Michael Green says they did a lot of research.

MICHAEL GREEN: That isn't that hard. You just have to take an interest in it. These characters are laid out by history, by culture.

FULLER: We were just coloring within the lines as they were prescribed to us.

YU: And as longtime fans of the book, Fuller says...

FULLER: Really our vision was to give the audience the images that we conjured when we were reading it.

YU: Images like a goddess having sex with a man and devouring him through her vagina, improbable bank heists, fantastical fight scenes and old gods struggling to find their place in a country that's become indifferent, even hostile to them, just like the believers who brought them here in the first place. Mallory Yu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHACKS SONG, "ORCHIDS")

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