May 31, 2019
I love Neil Gaiman’s books. Obviously. I talk about them all the time. I write religiously about the American Gods TV series. One of the first Gaiman novels I ever read was his collaboration with Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame), Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. It was one of those books that felt akin to Douglas Adams’ novels and it was a book that I really loved. Naturally, I’d heard rumors of it being turned into a film for years, though nothing ever seemed to come of it until Amazon Prime and BBC announced they were co-producing a six-episode adaptation, written and executive produced by Gaiman, himself. I’m a big fan of authors getting to adapt their own stories for various mediums – though, often, many authors don’t do such a great job with those adaptations as they don’t understand the constraints of whichever medium the story is being adapted for. Gaiman, however, has plenty of experience writing for film, TV, comics, and prose, so if any author could successfully translate their novel into a visual medium, it would be Neil Gaiman. Thankfully, that’s exactly what he did with this adaptation, too. These six episodes of Good Omens are so delightfully accurate to the novel, so immensely entertaining, and so well put together that it is just so joyous to watch. This is one of those shows that I might revisit yearly just for the hell of it.
We always want book-to-screen adaptations to be as faithful to their source material as possible – because, frequently, they aren’t – but there is such a thing as being too faithful to the source material. Good Omens is both of those things. It is frequently exactly as faithful to the novel as you want it to be but occasionally ends up being a bit too slavishly faithful. Mostly, it’s a perfectly faithful adaptation. Very little that was in the novel isn’t in this TV adaptation; if you remember reading it in the novel, it’s probably in the TV show in one way or another. Things have, obviously, been tweaked and updated somewhat, due to the fact that the novel was written in (and set) in the very late 1980s/early 1990s and the show was made in 2018. But, mainly, it’s exactly the same story as it is in the novel, for better or worse. The novel was known for its whimsical, absurdist prose and a lot of that prose has found its way into the show – mainly through the usage of God (Frances McDormand) as a narrator for the story. And this is where the adaptation starts to feel a bit slavishly faithful. These narrations don’t always work as well as Gaiman and the rest of the creative team probably hoped they would – there are several occasions where it really feels like the narration isn’t at all needed and is just an indulgent excuse to maintain as much of Pratchett and Gaiman’s original text as humanly possible – but it’s still pretty fun. The narration does help immediately set the tone of the show in the same way the prose helped immediately set the tone of the novel. It’s a smart way to maintain many fan-favorite lines in the show, even if it doesn’t always work. If there’s one story I’m okay with having a lot of self-indulgent things, it’s this one. More than just the prose is maintained, though. The plot is carried over beat-for-beat and so many of the best gags from the novel are present in the TV series, though sometimes in slightly more subtle ways. (Pay attention to how they pull off the Queen-gag – and also revel in the sheer number of Queen songs used throughout this series. In one of the episodes, no less than six separate Queen songs are used.) Those slight moments of too-faithful aside, it’s a lot of fun seeing how faithful this adaptation is.
Like the novel, the show mainly succeeds due to the chemistry between Aziraphale and Crowley. Pratchett and Gaiman’s writing of them in the book painted this beautiful picture of these two friends who loved each other deeply – even though they were technically mortal enemies. The book nailed this portrayal and it was always gonna be hard work for any actors to nail this chemistry on screen. Luckily, Michael Sheen and David Tennant were well up to the task. Both actors are perfectly cast in their respective roles; Sheen plays Aziraphale as this anxious angel who desperately wants to do good but constantly has to compromise his morals to appropriately respond to the situation at hand while Tennant plays Crowley as this confident-yet-insecure demon who really doesn’t think he’s the bad guy of the story and hates that he loves someone as “good” as Aziraphale. The dynamic between these two actors is every bit as interesting as the fantastical plot surrounding them. Sheen and Tennant play off of each other so brilliantly that you immediately buy the fact that these two characters have been best friends for nearly 6,000 years. Their friendship, just like the novel, is the centerpiece of this series and the emotional core of everything that is happening. So, it’s a damn good thing that their relationship works as well as it does.
The rest of the cast is equally great, too. The extended run time of this series vs the fairly manageable page count of the novel allows Gaiman the chance to expand on a lot of the events that happened in the original novel. In the novel, we never got to visit Heaven or Hell; in the series, we do. This brings along a whole cast of new characters, such as Gabriel (hilariously played by Jon Hamm), and allows characters who were briefly in the novel, like Hastur (Ned Dennehy) and Ligur (Ariyon Bakare), the chance to shine a bit brighter than they did in the novel. The extended runtime gives all of the supporting characters a chance to shine – letting the audience really enjoy all of these wonderful actors giving wonderful performances. The entire cast all give great performances – especially the child actors playing Adam (Sam Taylor Buck) and the rest of the Them, Pepper (Amma Ris), Brian (Ilan Galkoff), and Wensleydale (Alfie Taylor). Child actors are always a roll of the dice, but all four of these kids are great; Sam Taylor Buck is perfect as Adam, going from this sweet, innocent kid into a more monstrous one as the apocalypse begins to happen. Good Omens managed to assemble such a great cast of actors – including Nick Offerman (as a hilarious US Ambassador), Miranda Richardson (killing it as Madame Tracy), Jack Whitehall (doing a great job as Newton Pulsifer), Michael McKean (gutwrenchingly funny as Sergeant Shadwell), and plenty of others – and it’s such a joy to see all of these actors on screen.
At first, the idea of turning Good Omens into a six-hour miniseries seemed excessive to me. The novel, while full of great moments, features a plot that could fairly easily be distilled into a two-hour movie or a three-hour miniseries. But, much as it gave Gaiman the chance to expand on some of the side characters, it also gives Gaiman the chance to expand upon the plotlines and backstories of a number of characters. Gaiman apparently took plot elements from an unfinished sequel to Good Omens featuring Gabriel and the other angels and spliced it into the plot of this adaptation and I’m really glad he did so as Jon Hamm proves to be just as much of a standout performance as Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Expanding the plotline let us see more of Heaven and Hell, showing us just how similar yet different these two places were – furthering the theme of Crowley and Aziraphale being more similar than they are different. And speaking of those two, this extended runtime also gave Gaiman the opportunity to expand on the backstory of Crowley and Aziraphale more than he and Pratchett were able to do in the original novel – the first 25 minutes of episode three are literally a collection of flashbacks to earlier adventures featuring the pair. All of this extra material helped stretch the story into a six-hour runtime that actually felt warranted. Like the novel, the plot of this series does take about half of the total runtime to really get moving, but those first three hours feature a whole lot of fun stuff and I’m ultimately glad the series was given this room to breathe. Good Omens isn’t really an epic war story, but more of a buddy comedy about an angel and a demon trying to stop the apocalypse. Don’t enter this series expecting some big climactic battle; that’s not the point. The point of this show is the journey all of these characters take – and the show displays that journey beautifully.
All in all, Good Omens is probably as perfect an adaptation of a novel as one could find. It’s extremely faithful to the source material while still expanding it in new directions and changing things to best help the story fit the new medium it’s being told in. While it’s not perfect, featuring a lot of narration that doesn’t always work and a plot that takes several hours to really get moving, it’s a show that’s such a delight to watch that you don’t really care about these small problems. Gaiman wrote a script that was so delightfully quirky and well-written, the cast all deliver superb performances, and Douglas Mackinnon directs the whole thing with such a flair that all of these elements really come together to form something special. His work, combined with the work of the various other design-based departments – particularly the costume and set departments – really shine. These costumes are beautiful and these sets are stunning. You don’t see this kind of show every day and you probably won’t see it again. It’s not perfect, but it’s so damn enjoyable that its imperfections become part of the charm – much the same as the book’s imperfections became part of its charm. This series is a whole lot of fun. It can easily be binged or it can easily be watched a bit slower and savored. It’s the kind of series that will reward repeat viewers and treats the audiences with a lot of respect. It’s one of those shows that I could easily see myself revisiting over and over again as it just brings me so much joy to watch it. I can’t recommend this show enough – if you liked the book, you’ll love it; if you like Gaiman or Pratchett, you’ll love it; if you like weird, fantastical comedies, you’ll love it; if you’re just looking for a good time, you’ll love it. It’s such a fun series and I hope it does as well as it deserves to.