American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale are different, but similar


Note: This article contains spoilers for the entire first season of American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the novels they are adapted from.

For two very different shows based on very different books, American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale came together in fascinating ways during the fourth week of May. Although the narrative, themes, and aesthetic are worlds apart, both delivered the same type of episode in the same week. After introducing us to their respective protagonists – Ricky Whittle’s Shadow and Elisabeth Moss’ Offred – in the early episodes, they changed the perspective of the other half of the protagonist, who was dead or assumed dead for the most part.

Now that both shows have completed their first season, it’s interesting to look back and see how they handled the issues of adapting a book into a TV show, and how they were able to expand the source material into bringing new points of view.

For example, by switching perspectives, both shows added another layer of understanding and provided perspective on the events unfolding before our eyes. Oddly enough, what the two series also had in common was that neither writer had made it into the books, at least not at this point in the story. For creators, this was partly born out of the need to extend the existing story on the page; but more importantly, the two episodes set the model for how television can build on short books.

American Gods, adapted from the eponymous book written by Neil Gaiman in 2001, is a Western fantasy mash-up that, at first glance, is about a brewing war between the old and new gods. At its core, it’s a tale about American identity and how the country developed as a land of immigrants. The central protagonist is an ex-con named Shadow, who loses his wife Laura in a car accident days before his release.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon in a pic from American Gods
Photo credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is much more straightforward and plausible, though it is a dystopian tale about a totalitarian Orthodox state that overthrew the US government and subdued women in the only purpose of bearing children. The book is told entirely from Offred’s point of view, with all other characters – her husband, daughter, mother, and best friend – appearing in her memories.

In terms of word count, American Gods and The Handmaid’s Tale are quite far apart. Taking into account the different editions published over the years, the first is between 180,000 and 228,000 words, while the second is almost half its length, between 96,000 and 101,000 words. The reason I called them “short books” is that television inherently requires longer books to maintain its format. The best example of this is HBO’s Game of Thrones, which burned five books with an average of 354,000 words in five seasons. (The show’s sixth season and upcoming seventh and eighth seasons are not based on published words.)

With a comparison like that, one would expect Gods and Handmaid’s to last less than a season, perhaps a miniseries if they were just interested in being a straight adaptation. But since the creators (and the network) wanted to not only update the book for the past time, but tell a longer and richer story overall, that meant they had to bring something new to the table, it wouldn’t feel like unnecessary padding in the process. In such a scenario, the obvious path – for American Gods and Handmaid’s – was to explore characters beyond the protagonist. Of course, it was poetic coincidence that the two shows, which began airing different weeks, aired an episode focusing on the protagonist’s partner – Laura, Shadow’s wife, and Luke, Offred’s husband. – the same week of May.

They also fleshed out the cast beyond that. American Gods gave considerable time to supporting characters such as Salim, Ibis, and Jacquel, with an entire episode for Mad Sweeney a week before the season finale. The Handmaid’s Tale, meanwhile, has expanded its focus considerably, with episodes centering on the lives of the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, Stoker Nick, and Offred’s fellow maids, Ofglen and Ofwarren.

The Handmaids Serena Joy The Handmaids Tale

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in an image from The Handmaid’s Tale
Photo credit: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Not all of these side excursions are envisioned by the showrunners – Bryan Fuller and Michael Green on Gods, and Bruce Miller on Handmaid’s – and their writing staff. For one thing, Gaiman’s novel is much broader (and longer) than Atwood’s work, although the focus on Mad Sweeney in the full episode was a creative decision made by the show. And because Atwood was so singular in its focus — the book is a memoir by Offred — The Handmaid’s Tale, the series has already provided more insight into her new world than readers gleaned from the book. It also helped that both shows kept the respective writers on board, whose approval and judgment can be vital to a meaningful show and to appease book lovers.

Of course, the results of these excursions vary. For Handmaid’s, the additions to the story and fleshing out the supporting cast allowed it to blossom into a stronger show overall. It also impacted how we see Offred’s relationship with the people of Gilead. While the book left the very nature of her pregnancy in the dark, the show is miles ahead of the game: Offred tells Nick that the baby is his on the show. And because we’re guaranteed season two, we’ll see how it goes, in light of his departure in the black van. It’s also why the show chose to steer away from Offred’s mother from season one – who was the focus of the book – as it offers a stronger parallel to her future motherhood.

With American Gods, some choices have seemed explicitly designed as world-building exercises, while others are meant to draw parallels. They didn’t all fare the same – the show’s commentary on gun violence and violence against immigrants fell flat, though the gay sex scene involving an Omani and a Jinn, and the Mad Sweeney’s past story fared much better – and one wonders how much contributed to making a better show, not just a good hour of TV. Some of this meandering comes from Gaiman’s writing style, but hopefully the events of the season finale – Easter taking away the gift of spring, which isn’t part of the book – will provide the impetus to align his stories into a more cohesive one. fashion.

This is what makes the future of these shows even more attractive. For Handmaid’s, it’s a much more pressing requirement, as the season finale has pretty much caught up with the final pages of Atwood’s book. There are still details here and there (Offred’s mother being one), but the plot itself will be completely fresh from season two. American Gods isn’t in the same position – Gaiman said in an interview last year that the show could potentially cover the Lakeside section of the novel in season two, with “a big pivotal moment” on Wednesday being the finale of the second or third season – but it also depends on how long Fuller and Green expect the show to run. What’s encouraging is that they’ve already shown a penchant for additions.

Nonetheless, no matter where the two shows go, they will offer very different ways to expand on the original work. But don’t bet on there being any similarities along the way, either.

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