The Nice and Accurate Adaptation of Neil Gaiman
I finished Amazon Prime’s Good Omens about a week ago, and since then I’ve been mulling it over, replaying certain scenes in my head. I wasn’t going to write about the show; I wasn’t going to talk about it on the podcast; I wasn’t even going to mention to my cinephile friends that I’d watched it. But then, as I walked my dog round the block whilst once again chuckling at a remembered quirk of Crowley (David Tenant, “Fright Night (2011)”) or Aziraphale (Michael Sheen, “Apostle”), it struck me that if there were ever a person that should write about how they felt about this show, it should be me.
Neil Gaiman is an author who meets a great deal to me. If it weren’t for him, I can almost guarantee you would not be reading anything from me published on this site, for I would not have written it. Avoiding all the nastier bits, Gaiman is an author whose work helped me through a very difficult time in my life, and his work also opened doors to other authors who have since inspired me. Watching some of Gaiman’s interviews about writing inspired me to start taking my own craft seriously in the first place (I’ve written almost every day of the last five years and I have no intention of stopping). But what makes Gaiman so special to me is his ability to craft stories and worlds that leap from the page to pull the reader back into them.
Gaiman co-authored Good Omens with the great late Terry Pratchett, the genius behind the hilarious Discworld series. It was one of the first books Gaiman wrote (he authored a book about Duran Duran, and quite a few comics in the 80s, most notably Sandman, which, to this day remains one of the most acclaimed comic series of all time). I find Good Omens to be a hilarious book, filled with plenty of brilliant characters, memorable sequences and one-liners, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of Gaiman’s books overall. Honestly, it’s hard to pick a favorite of Gaiman’s work; I assume it would be much like choosing your favorite child, if all of your children were perfectly behaved angels. I’m just too close too so many of the characters and worlds he’s created. What I wouldn’t do to waltz the streets of London Below with Richard Mayhew, or visit Stormhold in Faerie with Tristan and Yvaine, or fight the other mother with Coraline, or trounce round the graveyard on the hill with Bod, go on an adventure with Shadow, or have dinner with the Hempstocks down at the end of the lane… There’s just too much I love in Gaiman’s world for me to call “Good Omens” my favorite of his works, but I certainly think it’s a wonderful novel, and, if I’m being honest, it’s probably the funniest.
“God does not play games with the universe.” “Where have you been?”
I guess I’m prefacing this article/review with my lengthy history with Gaiman to let you know that I am not coming to this show with a clean slate. I love his works unequivocally, and I also knew that, even if this show were an absolute abortion, I would see it through to the end. So, now we come to that question I’ve spent the last five hundred words driving at: What did I think of this show?
Honestly, it was alright.
I’ve come to realize that when you’re a cinephile you watch things for different reasons; sometimes you watch films for education, that is, to further your knowledge of a certain genre or filmmaker; and sometimes it’s just because you have a particular interest in what the film or show is about. For me this was an imperfect television show, but an almost perfect adaptation.
There were a few ways that I thought about breaking down this show. I thought about breaking down each episode like I did with HBO’s “Chernobyl” and then maybe contrasting the book to the show, but, I honestly I think Gaiman did a pretty good job adapting his own work, and truthfully, that’s why I enjoyed it as much as I did. So instead, I decided to talk about the show as a whole, what I liked, what I didn’t like, and why, if you’re a fan of Gaiman, this is a wonderful sign of great things to come.
The best part about this show is how accurate it is. I honestly think this is probably the closest we could’ve gotten to a scene-by-scene adaptation. This is, at times, to the show’s glory and also its detriment. Certain things in books just don’t translate well to screen, particularly the pacing of certain sequences. However, certain things translated wonderfully, particularly the characters, which are arguably the best part of this particular story.
“Crowley had always known that he would be around when the world ended, because he was immortal and wouldn’t have any alternative, but he hoped it was a long way off, because he rather liked people. It was major failing in a demon.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it essentially boils down to this: In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. He appointed to the Garden of Eden an Angel named Aziraphale and a Demon named Crawley (which he later changes to Crowley… like Aleister Crowley, the self described occultist and Satanist). While the angel and demon are on opposite sides of the cosmic game of chess being played, they are kindred spirits; they both tend to like Earth and people. During their time on Earth, the two occasionally run into one another and they form an odd sort of friendship. Then, when God decides to end the world, he puts things in motion; the devil sends Crowley the antichrist in a basket, and soon the antichrist baby is placed in the care of an American Ambassador (Nick Offerman, “Bad times at the El Royale”) and his wife, or at least, that’s what Crowley believes has happened. In reality, there’s a mix up with one of the satanic nuns who was supposed to switch out the baby, and she ends up misplacing the antichrist, unknown to all parties involved. Twelve years later, when the anrichrist is a young boy and the world is ripe for ruin, the apocalypse begins, and Crowley and Aziraphale decide that they like the world enough that they don’t want it to end. They decide to stop the apocalypse by killing the antichrist; the only issue is they can’t find him. Hilarity and destruction ensues.
There’s also a storyline about a Witchfinder General named Shadwell (Michael McKean, “This is Spinal Tap”), a ‘Witchfinder recruit’ named Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall, forthcoming “Mouse Guard”), and a witch’s descendant named Anathema Device (Adria Arjona, “Pacific Rim: Uprising”). If I’m being honest I probably won’t talk too much about their storylines; I feel as if those parts of the story worked better in the books, and they sort of slowed up the pacing in the show. The connections between characters were made far more apparent in the book, while here I felt as if their connection was more tenuous, so it was harder to care about what they were doing.
The reason I love this story so much is because it pokes fun at a story that I am incredibly familiar with, but it does it in a way that is loving and good natured. While most of this story revolves around biblical themes and ideas, none of the things Gaiman does in this story could be considered blasphemous. I know that neither Gaiman nor Pratchett are/were Christians, so that makes it even more impressive that this story can satirize something I truly believe in in a way that doesn’t feel offensive at all. I honestly think most Christians could get behind this show and really enjoy it because it actually gets a lot of Christian themes and ideas out there (albeit from a slightly secular, slightly stylized perspective).
“You’re Hell’s Angels, then? What chapter are you from?” “REVELATIONS. CHAPTER SIX.”
So, with that out of the way lets meet the players!
David Tennant was better than I ever could’ve imagined as Crowley; he’s devious, hilarious, and slithery; exactly the way I’d want my demon best friend. Likewise, Michael Sheen was absolutely delightful as Aziraphale. The two together shared a great chemistry that was unrivaled by anyone else on the show; I honestly don’t think it can be overstated how wonderful these two were in their respective roles. John Hamm (“Tag”) was also marvelous as the angel Gabriel. If anything, I think Sam Taylor Buck whom they got to play Adam the Antichrist, was probably the least interesting actor; he simply delivered his lines without a shred of emotion for most of the show. When you cast a child as the antichrist, I expect him to at least have a fraction of the presence of Damien (Harvey Stephens) in “The Omen”. I usually don’t cut into child actors so much, but as a great deal of the story hinges on him, I really felt as if they should’ve gotten someone with a bit more emotional range. The rest of the cast was fine, but not one among them gave a real standout performance.
“DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING,” said Death. “JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.”
I think this show is worth watching; I honestly do. But I say that with some reservations. I enjoyed my six hours in Neil’s world, and I’m sure almost anyone who has read the book would say the same. There are dozens of scenes that are done almost perfectly like how I pictured them- from the scenes where Aziraphale and Crowley get drunk in Aziraphale’s book shop to the kraken rising from the sea- and for me, that was enough.
It’s funny; much of this story revolves around the theme of finding middle ground, and in the end my feelings about this show are largely middling. To quote Good Omens yet again: “Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.”
This show has moments that are wonderful, and it also has some pretty dismal scenes. The Good Omens television show is not a reservoir of endless magic, as I believe Gaiman’s written works are, but nor is it a total bumble lacking any cinematic integrity. As a whole I’m sure most casual viewers will find it slightly forgettable, but personally I will remember it; more than likely I’ll even revisit it. This is a show that gives me hope to see more of Gaiman’s work on the screen the future; it’s a show that he himself had an enormous hand in and in the end, the fingerprints Gaiman left on every episode of this show is enough for me to enjoy it. I didn’t love this show as much as I’d hoped to, but it was better than it could’ve been, and for that, I am content.