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Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ couldn’t be made into a TV show until TV changed

A movie adaptation never made sense, but a TV version of Gaiman's “big, sprawling” book debuts on Starz April 30.

Starz / “American Gods”

When Neil Gaiman’s book “American Gods” debuted in 2001, the idea that it would one day be a TV show was fanciful: “As likely as projecting it onto the moon every night,” Gaiman said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka.

But now, after 16 years, Gaiman’s “big, sprawling” story — about the battles among the old and new gods of Americans, shaped by immigration, religion and the media — is going to be a serialized TV series, premiering April 30 on Starz. The CEO of Starz, Chris Albrecht, previously oversaw the rise of prestige TV as CEO of HBO, including “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “The Wire.”

Shows like those proved that TV didn’t have to be made for the biggest audience possible.

“When you make something like ‘American Gods,’ you go, ‘This is not going to be to everybody’s taste,’” Gaiman said. “But you’re also not going to make it more to anybody’s taste by making it less like the thing that it is. You just kind of have to lean into it.”

Later entries in the prestige TV genre, like Netflix’s “House of Cards” and Amazon’s “Transparent,” changed how people watch TV, making it normal to binge an entire show in one sitting. Gaiman noted that cheapskates who don’t yet have Starz could wait until the end of the eight-episode season, sign up for a free trial and binge away.

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Gaiman said he took several phone calls about a movie adaptation of “American Gods” shortly after the book came out — but the discussions never got very far.

“I’d get calls from famous directors, whom I’d actually heard of, who would say ‘I want to turn this into a movie,’ and I’d say ‘great,’” Gaiman recalled. “And they’d say ‘But I can’t figure out how you would do it because it’s too long and too sprawling and if you throw away the stuff that’s long and sprawling, it wouldn’t be “American Gods” anymore’ and I’d say ‘This is true’ and that would be the end of the conversation.”

As an executive producer on the Starz show, he has made a point of being creatively involved. Gaiman said he’d seen “too many friends hurt too many times” when they stayed on the sidelines of film or TV adaptations of their work.

“I’m very clear on what I do and what they do,” he said. “What I’m there for is to help. Every now and again — and I think there was one time with ‘American Gods’ where they sent me the script and I said, ‘You need to change that, you can’t do that’ and they were like ‘No no no.’”

“They said, ‘We want this to happen.’ [I said,] ‘If you do that, I will write a suicide note explaining that it was your fault and I will go and step in front of a bus.’ They’re like, ‘Are you that serious?’ ‘Kind of, I am.’ ‘Great.’ And they took it out, that scene is not in there.”

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