'American Gods' Long Journey From Bestseller to Highly Anticipated Starz Series

Phillip Martinez

Book adaptations are a tricky thing. And adapting Neil Gaiman’s American Gods involves more tricks than Loki knows what to do with. It’s been more than 15 years since Gaiman’s novel about a recently released African-American convict who gets dropped in the middle of a war between gods debuted. On Sunday, the television series finally comes to Starz.

If the premise seems strange to you then you’re not alone. The journey from bestseller bookshelf to one of the most anticipated premieres on cable television wasn’t easy. Ultimately, it became a case of like-minded individuals seeing the potential of Gaiman’s tale. Not everyone saw that potential; however, those who have read the novel, including American Gods executive producers Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, knew it was possible.

“When [ American Gods ] first came out, gosh television couldn’t possibly or would’ve done it,” Green told Newsweek at an American Gods press junket. “So the only thought I had was that maybe this could be a mini-series one day because the idea of a serialized cable network that is willing to dive into this headfirst just wasn’t there.”

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“A movie didn’t make sense,” Fuller said.

“But of course movies didn’t know that yet and the poor screenwriters spent at least a decade trying to crack it,” Green continued. “And Neil [Gaiman] has stories of people coming to him and impressing him with their beautiful offices and saying ‘we want to film your book, do you know how?’ and he would say ‘no, I didn’t write for that. It doesn’t fit into that square peg.’ We’re just lucky that the time has occurred.”

American Gods

Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane in "American Gods." Starz

Fuller and Green know TV. Fuller has a number of producer credits under his belt including work on Heroes and Pushing Daisies. Green has had a hand in Everwood, Sex and the City, among other series. They know a thing or two about getting a television series made but getting American Gods adapted had a lot more to do with shifting ideals than the subject matter.

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In 2011, Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions was set to adapt American Gods at HBO with Gaiman on-board to write the pilot, but a change in leadership at the cable network derailed the momentum.

“It’s kind of become this story of ‘it’s been in development for a long time,’ it really wasn’t,” Gaiman told us. “What happened was in 2011 we pitched it to HBO. There was an exec who was really smart, really nice, got it, loved it, bought it. By the time we handed in the first draft of the script she was no longer there.”

From that moment it became a case of the new execs at HBO just not “getting it.” Several drafts and layers of polish later, the new regime simply couldn’t grasp the concept of American Gods or see the potential it had on the small screen. Eventually everyone gave up, giving the rights to the adaptation back to Gaiman. “The moment it came back, it came back with an enormous amount of relief,” Gaiman said. “We were glad that they were being shot as this weird and confusing thing. We were glad that it wasn’t going to be in a home that didn’t understand it.”

Three years later, Gaiman found new partners in FremantleMedia and met with Fuller in April 2014 to discuss American Gods. After plans for the series fell through with HBO, Gaiman was relieved to meet with someone who understood the subject matter.

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“Bryan actually said something that was very encouraging, he said ‘I don’t know how you do it but I love it, it’s one of my favorite books I bought it when it came out,’” Fuller said.  “I was reading it as purely for entertainment and it occurred to [Green and I] when we were reading it separately that this is going to be a fantastic adaptation once they figure out how to do it.”

Unbeknownst to Fuller and Green they would eventually be the ones to figure it out when Starz picked up the rights in 2015. The duo began writing scripts and asked Gaiman to come to Toronto for the first days of shooting in April 2016. He was so excited that not even a cameo on The Big Bang Theory could stop this trip.

“By the 19th of April we started shooting and I remember it because I got a call from The Big Bang Theory like three weeks before and they said ‘we wrote this thing where you would play yourself can you be in LA on the 19th of April?’” Gaiman said. “There are a few things that I would say no to playing myself on The Big Bang Theory for, but I’m going to be in Toronto for the first day of shooting.”

American Gods premieres on Starz April 30 at 9 p.m.

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