‘American Gods’ Book Club: “The Bone Orchard” Sets The Wild, Weird Tone For The Show

Each week, Uproxx will be hosting the American Gods Book Club. This is a safe space where readers of Neil Gaiman’s massive novel can come to dissect the changes to the series and debate what will happen next, all without fear they’ll accidentally spoil something for non-readers.

The fact that American Gods on Starz exists is a miracle. When fans pray to the adaptation gods, this series is what they hope to get. But until Bryan Fuller signed on to make Neil Gaiman’s opaque, weird, and entirely unadaptable novel into a show, no one would have thought a live-action American Gods possible.

Gaiman’s novel defies description. It is over 200,000 words long. The preferred author’s text released for the ten-year-anniversary added another 12,000. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a man who loses his wife and gains access to a secret world and a tale of the old gods warring against the modern ones. It’s also a love story to road trips, Americana, and weird half-remembered traditions. It’s a biting commentary on the march of technological progress, a comedic satire, and a heart-wrenching dirge about the people and things we lose to time.

Yet somehow the show American Gods captures Gaiman’s story. It does it by not compromising how delightfully weird the world inhabited by Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday is. Having read the book, I have no way of judging if the show will land with those unfamiliar with the source material, but for anyone who’s been waiting to see their favorite gods in action, Fuller and his team hit the cow squarely in the skull.

Of course, adaptations can rarely lift straight from the source material without making changes. In the following weeks, I’ll be doing a variation on my (now mostly defunct due to the show outpacing the books) Game of Thrones Book Club where I compare the changes made in the name of storytelling and why the creators may have chosen to tweak certain scenes, characters, or plots.

Spoilers for American Gods ahead. Obviously.

#1: The Vikings discover America

In the book: A hundred years before Leif Erikson discovers America, an intrepid band of Vikings land in the New World. With no apparent human life around, the men set up an encampment for the long winter. The plan is to return for their women and other settlers in the spring. Then one day, a Native American appears. The Vikings bring him inside, get him drunk and then hang him from a tree as a sacrifice to their gods. Weeks later, in retaliation, the rest of the tribe descends on the little settlement and kills all the Vikings.

On the show: A hundred years before Leif Erikson discovers America, an intrepid band of Vikings land in the New World. They are immediately feathered with arrows from an unseen foe. Instead of creating a settlement, the men are concerned with leaving as quickly as possible. The scene paints Odin as a god prone only to listening to prayers that are accompanied by blood is spilled in his name. A far more brutal kind of offering is required by Bryan Fuller’s version of the Norse god, but considering the battles to come, the visuals of Vikings sacrificing themselves without hesitation feeds into our first impression of Mr. Wednesday.

#2: The Introduction of Mr. Wednesday

In the book: Mr. Wednesday is already seated on the plane when Shadow arrives. A side note. The novel version of Shadow has an entirely different — yet equally annoying — airport experience as he is told to go from one end of the airport to the other and back again before finally catching his plane at the last minute.

On the show: Instead of using the gas station trickery from the novel, the show streamlines Mr. Wednesday’s use of charisma into his opening scene. A bumbling, confused old man, Wednesday takes advantage of assumptions about his age to manipulate the same airport agent who refused Shadow a seat into giving Mr. Wednesday a first-class ticket. Changing this scene not only gives audiences an earlier look at the Machiavellian god, but is one of the many micro-aggressions Fuller uses in American Gods to show the difference in how white men and black men are treated by society.

#3: Bilquis’s profession

In the book: She’s a hooker.

On the show: Bilquis is a god using online dating to lure people to death by Snu-Snu. It is the second moment in the premiere showing how the old gods are more than capable of using the new gods to further their own survival. Technical Boy might own the internet, but Wednesday and Bilquis use Technical Boy for their own gains. A statement that can’t be said in reverse. As another aside, I am in awe that Starz allowed American Gods to lean in on Bilquis’ scene. That is exactly what happens to the man in the novel and before watching the premiere, I’d have never bet the series could leave a woman literally eating a man alive with her vagina intact for general audiences.

#4: Laura’s funeral and aftermath

In the book: Shadow arrives at Laura’s funeral, is promptly told by Audrey how his wife really died before Audrey literally spits in Laura’s dead face, and Shadow is blamed for Laura’s death by her bereaved mother. Shadow is more perplexed than angry at Laura’s infidelity, and Audrey somehow manages to come off as a shrew despite the fact both her husband and best friend betrayed her on a fundamental level.

On the show: Shadow arrives at Laura’s funeral and is promptly told by Audrey how Laura really died. Audrey is now a fully three-dimensional person who is experiencing a potent mix of emotions that would drive anyone to self-medicate. Shadow is now far more angry at Laura, the correct response. “Goddammit, Laura.” Ricky Whittle puts so much emotion into a single line of dialogue that is never in the novel. Audrey reappears and tries to get with Shadow but the two of them end up as friends. It’s a far more complex scene than the novel and adds depth to both Shadow’s relationship with his deceased wife and Audrey.

#5: Technical Boy in general

In the book: Technical Boy is a fat adolescent in a trench coat who uses old-fashioned chloroform to knock Shadow out. His threats are as empty as his stretch limo, and Shadow goes on his merry way to the Motel America without a scratch on him after a terse conversation.

On the show: Technical Boy is a little shit who vapes and wears too much hair pomade. He uses actual technology to abduct Shadow, and the new god feels menacing. His threats are far from empty. One of biggest changes here is how Shadow is treated by Technical Boy and his ‘children.’ Once discovering Shadow knows nothing of use, this harsher, more adult Technical Boy does not dismiss Wednesday’s minion. He instead tries to destroy him. Watching a black man being beaten and dragged to a lynching by faceless dudes in white outfits is a harrowing visual and one that feels extremely timely for how the internet and social media currently treats People of Color. Whereas fifteen years ago – when American Gods was published — there were fewer ways to mindlessly inflict hatred on strangers, that is no longer the case. Today faceless goons of anonymity can pour poison in the ear of anyone they deem worth their time. As Shadow is drawn up by the noose, you can almost hear the children whispering “Kill urself, kek.”

Odds and Ends

– Having Shadow go to his old home with Laura to pack up their life added another gut punch to how entirely unfair it all is.
– Audrey is now a blonde instead of a redhead
– Laura’s corpse no longer visits Shadow at the Motel America
– Shadow doesn’t outright win the fight against Mad Sweeney
– The flaming bison in the Bone Orchard is just a bison and not a dude with a bison head