When adapting Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel American Gods for television, co-creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green carefully and painstakingly recreated Gaiman's vision onscreen to give viewers the same experience they felt when reading the book. However, they did make a few changes to the story of Shadow's (Ricky Whittle) cross-country journey, most obviously regarding the arcs of the too few women who appear along the way; and the show and its story are inherently stronger for it.
Told from Shadow's point of view as he accompanies the mysterious Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) on his mission to gather old gods in preparation for battle against the new, the novel is, by nature, weighted toward a male perspective and offers a limited worldview. But the limitations of the page aren't necessarily limitations on screen, and so Fuller and Green had the freedom to diverge from Shadow's story and expand several of the novel's female roles and storylines in meaningful, memorable ways.
To some the decision to do so is fairly straightforward: It's 2017 and women make up more than half of the population of the United States. Naturally we expect women to have significant roles regardless of subject matter. But it isn't as if the same facts weren't true about women in 2001, when the novel was published. Equal representation was, and remains an issue across TV and film — but there's more to it than that.
Looking deeper into the lack of female energy in American Gods it becomes clear that to limit the narrative to Shadow and Wednesday's arc simply because that's what is on the page would be to ignore the issues present in society that are depicted in Gaiman's source material, wherein women regularly take a backseat, are treated as little more than sexual objects, and just aren't respected by their peers.
It's true that is often the point Gaiman means to make. The story highlights the gender issues present in America and around the world today, where women are still treated as lesser — or beings of lesser power — than their male counterparts, where women are still expected to act a certain way in order to be deemed worthy, where women are still often subjected to unwanted objectification. It's true that some of the novel's female characters fight against the problematic feminine stereotypes in society, but it's also true that for some people it also serves to merely reinforce them. By expanding the roles of these characters in the move to the screen, we're able to more clearly see who these powerful, clever women are as human beings.
The character to benefit most from this freedom is Shadow's recently deceased-but-currently-undead wife Laura Moon, played by Emily Browning. Laura largely disappears from the novel when she's not with Shadow — again a symptom of the novel's narrative perspective — but the character is central to the overall plot, even if she does not appear that way at first. By opening up Laura's story and uncovering what drives her, the series adds depth to a character frequently vilified for her actions, which include engaging in an affair with Shadow's friend Robbie (Dane Cook) while Shadow is in prison for attempted robbery.
What we know of Laura early on is only how Shadow perceives her, and once her betrayal is revealed, every interaction they have and every memory he has of her can't help but be colored by this knowledge. But not everything is so black and white — not in real life but especially not in American Gods — and in the season's fourth episode, airing Sunday and titled "Git Gone," the series finally does right by the character as viewers are treated to a revealing hour told entirely from Laura's point of view.
Superficially the episode, which was written by Fuller and Green, serves to fill in the blanks created by the novel, like how Laura and Shadow meet or the unbalanced relationship that follows. These are all necessary building blocks that give a story a solid foundation upon which to build, but also offers insight into how this young woman thinks and feels — if she feels anything at all. It's an obvious improvement over the novel, which was less concerned about how Laura might be interpreted. Here, she's given a voice.
The expanded role also proves to be an excellent showcase for Browning, who, as Fuller pointed out when TVGuide.com spoke to him ahead of the premiere last month, makes Laura sympathetic.
"What we love about Emily's performance is that she has access to all of those harder qualities of Laura, yet somehow we are with her on that journey and empathizing with her experience," Fuller says. "In the book Laura was the cheating wife, and for Michael and I — and Neil too — when we started digging into the television story, it was very important for us that we understand why she had an affair, that we don't villainize her for what she did but seek to understand her choices and present them as evenly as possible so they can come up with their own impressions. But our impression was really about not judging her and about allowing her to be who she is as a woman and watching her go."
As the story digs into the quiet moments no one else sees in order to expose Laura at her most vulnerable, the path that ultimately leads her to adultery is illuminated. And although Laura would be the first to tell you that she does not care what others think or even care to be understood, this dive into the character's psyche is imperative for viewers to see her for more than what she appears to be on the surface: the cheating wife who died with another man's dick in her mouth. These changes to the narrative don't erase what she has done but instead allow Laura to become a fully realized human being like her male counterparts.
Laura isn't the only character vastly improved by the jump to TV. Her former best friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin), a barely-there character who offers little on the page except to serve as the delivery service for the knowledge of Laura's infidelity, ultimately ends up stealing every scene she's in.
A major reason for that is Gilpin's excellent performance. She goes all in each time, whether it's in her depiction of a woman whacked out of her mind at her cheating husband's funeral or someone terrified to find an undead woman in her living room first thing in the morning. But while Gilpin deserves credit for embodying this formerly lifeless character and bringing her to life so distinctly, without the changes to the character on the page, she wouldn't even have the chance to shine.
In the Starz adaptation, Audrey becomes not just a realized character, a woman with real thoughts and emotions and reasons for doing what she does, but she is also a much-needed dose of levity in the brewing storm. And although she doesn't return in the first season following her show-stopping appearance in "Git Gone," there's still hope for her to return: the producers are just as in love with her as America is about to be.
In addition to Audrey, the character of Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is also given more screen time than fans might expect. Although she, like Audrey, doesn't have a large role to play within the overall narrative of the novel, the character is known to fans of the book for one single scene, and it comes very early on. In it, Bilquis, who has become a prostitute in order to receive the worship she needs to retain her power — a profession that carries any number of negative social connotations with it — has sex with and then devours a man with her vagina. It's a shocking and explicit moment in the novel, and as Green notes, "No one forgets [that scene] when they read it or see it."
Her scenes and her nudity aren't necessarily meant to be seen as erotic, at least not in the way most female nudity is used on television these days. In a world where women are constantly sexualized and treated as objects to be used for male pleasure, Bilquis' story finally puts a woman in a position of sexual power. It's beautiful and effective. It's not a detour into sex and nudity for sex and nudity's sake, it actually adds to the plot and is entwined with the series' larger themes. And it contrasts sharply — and purposefully — with Wednesday's previous treatment of women in order to drive home the point that women are equal to or even more powerful than their male counterparts. It also highlights that women should not be underestimated because of how they look or speak.
The character appears in one other — and again memorable — scene in the novel, and the depth revealed within it shows there is more to her story than witnessed within the book's pages. Green and Fuller happen to agree. "We wanted to know what happened to her the next day," Green says of the decision to dig deeper into the life and history of the character. "There's an arc to be told there when you have an actor like [Badaki] playing it, who brings so much depth to it. We wanted to get to know her better."
To that extent, the faint outlines of these complex women are definitely visible in Gaiman's words. But there's never an opportunity for them to be fully colored in, as the story seeks to comment on societal issues while bending to Shadow's narrative. In expanding the roles of the novel's female characters, the Starz adaptation is a little bit more balanced and less of what Fuller previously described as a "sausage party."
Of course, saying this, it's also worth noting that the majority of American Gods' creative team are men. Although there are women credited as executive producers and co-producers, nearly every episode of the series is written by Fuller and Green, including Sunday's amazing hour "Git Gone." It's unfortunate that there aren't more women on staff to help support the series' overall push to a greater gender balance than the narrative on the page; but the very fact the show has pushed its female characters to the front in this fashion is a clear step in the right direction.
Because when women are still fighting in 2017 to be seen and heard and treated as equals — in politics, in every day life, in front of and behind the camera — these changes matter. There's more work to be done in America; but when it comes to the world of American Gods, that balance is already there.
American Gods airs Sundays at 9/8c on Starz.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, a parent company of Showtime.)