HBO Eyeing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; Will a Casting Race Fail Soon Follow?

by Latoya Peterson

American Gods Cover

My, my, my. HBO is going all in with their fantasy acquisitions these days. First Game of Thrones and now Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. According to Deadline Hollywood:

The project was brought to HBO by Playtone partners Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and it was brought to them by Robert Richardson. The plan is for Richardson and Gaiman to write the pilot together. [...]

American Gods, the 2002 book that won both the Stoker and Hugo Award among other prizes, lays out a battle between two sets of gods. One consists of the traditional gods and mythological creatures who got their power because people throughout history believed in them. They are losing steam as people’s beliefs wane and are in danger of being supplanted by a new set of gods who reflect America’s preoccupation with technological advancements and obsessions with media, celebrity, technology and drugs. The protagonist is an ex-con who becomes the traveling partner of a conman who turns out to be one of the older gods trying to recruit troops to battle the upstart deities.

The main character of American Gods is Shadow, a wandering ex-convict who finds himself in a battle of mythology – the older Gods of folklore, brought to America by waves of immigration and kept alive by their devotees are set to face off against the newer Gods like the internet and the media. But what is most compelling to me isn’t just the story line – it’s that once again, Gaiman has been explicit about which of his characters are nonwhite by design. Gaiman, writing on the WELL message boards, explains his thoughts around Shadow:

[I]n my head at least he’s one of those people whose race doesn’t read easily — in the celebrity world, Vin Deisel’s an example of the same kind of look. But it seemed appropriate in a book about America that the hero was of mixed race.

Gaiman is known for writing with racial politics in mind. Back when I read The Sandman series, I had assumed Dream and his cohort where generally intended to be white, though folks from other, browner mythologies would occasionally enter the world. After that, I read American Gods and Anansi Boys and was thrilled to realize there were characters of color all over the place. Anansi Boys took it to a new level, by specifically marking white characters as other. I also read Neverwhere, and coded the Marquis as white in my mind – so when I watched the BBC version, I was astounded to see there were *two* black characters cast in major roles. So, for that reason, I’ve always been a bit more fond of Neil Gaiman compared to other fantasy writers – even if every book isn’t inclusive, his worlds, overall, are far more inclusive than the average urban fantasy universe.

Now, this does not mean that Gaiman is immune from the occasional bout of race fail – Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature had a very public go-round with him last year, about how he conceptualized the United States. In her initial post, “What Neil Gaiman Said“, she explains:

In a 2008 interview about his The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman said

“The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings.”

Really, Mr. Gaiman? Is that what you think?

I’m guessing (or hoping, perhaps) that Mr. Gaiman knows better, and might want to recall those words. Maybe he did recall those words, somewhere… Has anyone got info on that?

Neil Gaiman comes to her comment section, and they engage in a bit of a back and forth, prompting Reese to write a few more responses, including a timeline of how the conversation progressed on Twitter.

A while later, Gaiman responds on his blog with an apology, saying:

Over at http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-neil-gaiman-said.html Debbie Reese correctly called me out earlier this year on something particularly stupid and offensive I said last year when I was asked at ABA about why I hadn’t set The Graveyard Book in the US. I think I mostly was trying to answer with my Author Head rather than my Being Interviewed Head — trying to describe how I perceived my potential cast of characters in a European Style graveyard in a small US city (like the UK one in The Graveyard Book). I remember thinking at the time that it was a remarkably stupid thing to have said, but stupid things come out of your mouth when you’re being interviewed, and you press on.

I was put out of sorts by Deb’s initial post (mostly because I was reading it going “but that OBVIOUSLY wasn’t what I meant”), and was idiotically grumpy on Twitter, but when I was called on it (by Pam Noles), and finally looked at the actual words recorded, I realised that people were perfectly sensibly taking what I said to indicate that I thought that a) the US was pretty much unpopulated before the arrival of the white colonists in the 17th century, and/or that b) I was being dismissive of the slaughter of Native Americans, or simply that c) Native Americans were somehow inconsequential in the history of the Americas. (None of which was my intention. But intentions only take you so far.) And you don’t use a phrase like “dead Indians” without summoning, wittingly or unwittingly, the shadow of the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.

People have asked how I would have felt about the phrase “a few dead Jews” in the same place in the interview, which made me feel additionally guilty, as one of the things I missed about The Graveyard Book was that I didn’t actually put any Jews in my graveyard. I wanted to, but couldn’t make the history and the burial customs work.

Probably I should write a Graveyard Book story with some secretly buried Jews in it, and some dead Native Americans a very long way from home.

Anyway, apologies to all concerned, particularly to Debbie Reese.

Reese accepted the apology, but in a later post pointed out why she still had a problem with the conversation and reaction from both Gaiman and his fans:

As I wrote my post yesterday (Neil Gaiman on “a few dead Indians”), I went back and forth with myself as I thought about what Gaiman said. He offered an apology. A Miss-Manners-type-person would say I should accept his apology.

But, I didn’t want an apology. [...]

His reaction aside, he gave his readers three options as to how his remark might be read. Continuing with what I excerpted above, he wrote:

    … that I thought that a) the US was pretty much unpopulated before the arrival of the white colonists in the 17th century, and/or that b) I was being dismissive of the slaughter of Native Americans, or simply that c) Native Americans were somehow inconsequential in the history of the Americas. (None of which was my intention. But intentions only take you so far.)

As I said when I first wrote about his remark, I was pretty sure he knew better, and I think what he said above is evidence of that. He’s told us what he thinks and he acknowledges that intent matters little.

I would have liked him to go further than he did. I would have liked him to say “I should have corrected myself right away. I should have said something when the interview was published. But, I didn’t.” He tells us that he knew it was a stupid thing to say, but that he just moved on. His decision to just move on is important for him and all of us to consider. WHY did he just move on? Did he think nobody would notice? Well, he was right, wasn’t he? Nobody noticed for over a year! How many times was that interview read? How many people read it and didn’t notice that he said “a few dead Indians”?!

That is the problem. Hundreds (thousands? millions?) of times, those words were read, and nobody pointed them out. What I wanted from Neil Gaiman was for him to say this:

PEOPLE OF THE WORLD WHO READ THAT INTERVIEW AND MY WORDS!!!

WE ALL SCREWED UP!

WHY DIDN’T WE SAY SOMETHING?

DON’T WE CARE?

ARE WE TOO BUSY TO TAKE A MOMENT TO SAY SOMETHING?

IF WE ARE TOO BUSY, DOESN’T THAT MEAN THAT WE’VE CHOSEN NOT TO INTERRUPT A CYCLE OF UNINTENDED WORD-VIOLENCE ON A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO MANY OF US SAY WE RESPECT, LOVE, ADMIRE AND HONOR?

A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHOSE CHILDREN DON’T SUCCEED IN SCHOOL?

A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHOSE CHILDREN COMMIT SUICIDE WAY TOO OFTEN?

See what I wanted from Neil Gaiman? Due to his status, he is a person of influence. I wanted him to use that influence and that incident in a much larger way than he did. If he did, his words would be a powerful force that would work towards a decrease in the messed-up ways that American Indians and Indigenous peoples are portrayed in children’s and young adult books, and in society (like the Hilfiger ad), too.

How much influence does Gaiman ultimately have?

Quite a bit, actually. Another reason Neil earned my adoration was his conversation about why the book Anansi Boys wasn’t ultimately made into a film, though the screenplay was finished and the rights were optioned:

Gaiman had offers to make a film out of his 2005 best seller Anansi Boys, about the sons of an African god discovering their magical background while living in the corrupt modern world, but moviemakers wanted to change the lead black characters to white or drop the magical elements altogether.

“I don’t need the money,” Gaiman says. “Not needing the money puts me in a magical place because I can say no. I like the idea of having good movies made or having no movies made.”

So theoretically, he could flex his authority with HBO and Pantone to ensure that American Gods doesn’t become yet another white washed adaptation.

The Gods referenced run the gamut – Loki, Odin, Anansi, Kali, Bast, Anubis, and Ganesha all have roles. So, theoretically, this should be a windfall for actors of color who want to get into fantasy worlds. In addition, with the main character being mixed race with an indigenous woman as a love interest, all the producers would have to do is go by the descriptions in the book to have a racially balanced adaptation. And Gaiman, while not immune from all the issues that inform the worlds fantasy writers create, has shown a willingness to discuss and engage with critique in a way that other authors do not.

I’m going to be cautiously optimistic – but let’s all keep an eye out for casting notices.

(Note: For the purposes of this conversation, let’s leave his spouse – Amanda Palmer – out of this. She has her own set of race fail and ability fail, but it would be impossible to state as outsiders where her views and Gaiman’s views intersect or diverge.)

  • Fenrisdelapena

    …other fantasy writers? Oh, dude.

    Ursula K. LeGuin
    Nnedi Okarafor
    Ekaterina Sedia

    Just off the top of my head, AND I read more sci-fi than fantasy anyway.

  • Fenrisdelapena

    …other fantasy writers? Oh, dude.

    Ursula K. LeGuin
    Nnedi Okarafor
    Ekaterina Sedia

    Just off the top of my head, AND I read more sci-fi than fantasy anyway.

  • Gillian

    This isn’t really a comment about the possible whitewashing of a film version of American Gods. I’ve read one Gaiman book (Neverwhere) and LOVED it. So, I have been curious about both Anansi Boys and American Gods. Should someone like me – who is more a casual fan of fantasy – dig those 2 books?

    Also – and I guess this does address the content in the post – I, too, assumed the Marquis was white when I read Neverwhere. Would be interesting to see the BBC adaptation.

  • Anonymous

    There is a contest to win a speaking role in the new American Gods audio book. Last time I looked at the entries they were skewing very white. It would be great to get more POC folks entering since, as mentioned, the cast of the book is multiracial.

    http://neilgaiman.bookperk.com/engine/Registration.aspx?contestid=29933&FromMode=SUBMISSION

  • Anonymous

    I always imagined Jesse Williams as Shadow.

  • http://www.redisforpassion-red.blogspot.com Red

    I always pictured Christian Kane (Angel, Leverage) as Shadow. Kane is part Native American and played a mixed Native/White character on Into the West.

  • Digital Coyote

    I like American Gods and Anansi Boys because they were mostly about people of color. We’re usually left out and forget about actually being important to the story; being connected to any sort of meaningful supernatural being (i.e. being a god vs. being a god’s lackey) is usually not an option. Gaiman’s been full of more than a little fail lately, but I do appreciate him trying to keep his stories about PoC just that–about PoC–when people want to translate them in to a different medium. HBO did Spawn justice, so I have hope for this.

    re: Dream and co.

    I think, because of what they represent, they aren’t just “white” in the sense that they’re “European.” I think it’s more like they’re “white” in that “blank piece of paper” way because they are endless and universal in function. As Mian_Toris said, they appear to those they interact with in the context of their culture. It’d be really weird if an Andrew Eldritch look-a-like showed up to talk to dreaming animals.

  • Anonymous

    I read this book in high school and loved it. I know I missed some of the more underlying themes because of my maturity level at the time but I still thought it was good entertainment.

    Even at that age I do remember being struck by the diversity of the gods covered. I might give AG a re-read and hopefully HBO does this book some justice.

    Sidenote: Gaiman also had a book about a door that led to some kind of underground/alternate world or something and I remember one of the main female characters being described as a POC, a black woman I believe. Fun stuff, I think it was called Neverworld (?).

    • Lyonside

      Aiych: Neverwhere is the book, and an awesome read about London Above (the normal world) and London Below (literally Underground, and also a place for misfits and loners who are also out of Time – all sorts of pieces of London’s history and mythology coexist.) Once you are part of London Below, you are mostly invisible to anyone in London Above. The main storyline has a milquetoast normal guy stumbling on a recently orphaned and on the run denizen of London Below, and going on a misguided mission to save her and save London Below, with a requisite posse of companions. One of the main characters is a black woman, but she is a bit of a noble warrior stereotype and a traitor to boot. So YMMV.

  • ecosconnie

    OK, so your Chromatic Shortlist for The Crow was great, buuuuuuuuuuuut…

    I have always, always, ALWAYS pictured Shadow as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Too perfect a fit–a huge, huge man, with a brilliant smile when he has it (as described in flashback scenes with Laura), someone easily capable of looking intimidating but most of the time doesn’t really want to, someone who could be seen as of indeterminate race, someone who can let absolutely loose in the tied-to-tree scene. I have actually had visions of sending Johnson a copy of American Gods in the mail saying GO FOR THIS.

    So, yeah. Just a though.

    • Lonespark

      That is a brilliant idea. It’s like when someone mentioned actually casting Dante Basco as Zuko, and now the idea won’t leave my head and reality can pretty much never measure up.

    • Lonespark

      That is a brilliant idea. It’s like when someone mentioned actually casting Dante Basco as Zuko, and now the idea won’t leave my head and reality can pretty much never measure up.

  • Withercanada

    There’s already been issue with him trying to adapt The Chinese legend of Monkey:
    http://mercredigirl.dreamwidth.org/48656.html

  • Anonymous

    I am very optimistic. He seems to be very involved in the casting, and I doubt that he would let them to whitewash the cast.

    Re: The Endless being white. Dream appears black when he is with one of his lovers, an African mortal. He appears as a cat when he is talking to cats.

    • Sierra

      Yep. He appears in a way appropriate to the cultural and biological standards of whoever is perceiving him, as he is created as a byproduct of ALL sentient minds EVERYWHERE. That said, when appearing to a multiracial modern society, one would think his appearance would be a bit more malleable.