This week, a bit of an experiment. Some time back, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2019 Amazon adaptation of the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel, Good Omens. It’s a book I’ve enjoyed and have read many times. Given that, I decided to try something new and read along wit the 2014 BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of the novel.
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch was first published in 1990 and was a comedy about Revelations and Armageddon. The cast includes angels, demons, the Antichrist, humans, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though the focus is on several groups. The first group is the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, both of whom have been on Earth since its creation on October 21st, 4004BC. The next key group are the descendants of Agnes Nutter, the latest being Anathema Device. The third group is the Them, one of Tadfield’s two pre-teen gangs, consisting of Adam, the Antichrist, and his friends, Pepper, Brian, and Wensleydale. Then there’s the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit, Witchfinder Private Newt Pulsifer, with Madame Tracy, Shadwell’s neighbour. Finally, there’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death, War, Famine, and Pollution, with the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse, Big Ted, Greaser, Pigbog, and Scuzz. On the sidelines, a host of angels and demons who wait for the Final Battle.
The story covers the final days of the Earth as the forces of Heaven and Hell amass and Aziraphale and Crowley try to find the Antichrist, who they lost. The core idea is, what if the Antichrist was raised to be human incarnate? What if the Antichrist grew up without divine or infernal influence? The novel also takes a humourous look at serious topics, like the environment, nuclear power, the nature of power, and raising children. The means of highlighting these issues is to parody several sources, including The Exorcist, New Age beliefs, the Books of Genesis and Revelations, beliefs of the Seventeenth Century, among others.
In 2014, with the popularity of the novel and the authors, BBC Radio 4 produced the radio dramatisation of Good Omens. It aired from December 22-27, six episodes total, featuring a full cast. The series starred Mark Heap as Aziraphale, Peter Serafinowicz as Crowley, Jim Norton as Death, Adam Thomas Wright as Adam, Josie Lawrence as Agnes Nutter, Charlotte Richie as Anathema Device, Colin Morgan as Newton PulsiferClive Russell as Sgt. Shadwell, and Julia Deakin as Madame Tracy.
The experiment with the dramatisation was to try to follow along with the novel. The idea was to see what was dropped, what was re-written for the new medium, and what was changed. What wasn’t expected was the changing of when scenes occurred in the narrative. What works in text doesn’t always work in radio. Case in point, the use of footnotes, extensively used in Good Omens, giving extra details about a situation. It’s easy enough to add a footnote at the bottom of a page. For radio or television, the information needs to come out in a different way, such as dialogue.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation uses most of the novel. Unlike the Amazon mini-series, the dramatisation gets into what the Apocalyptic Horsepersons were doing before being summoned. War is a war correspondent known for being at the spark of a new conflict. Famine runs a chain of fast food restaurants with no nutritional value, which isn’t unusual, and is launching a new food substitute called FOOD™ that has zero calories. Pollution spends his time at formerly pristine nature sites. Death has never left, and appears at a diner playing a trivia game until he gets stumped on when Elvis Presley died. “I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.”
The Four Bikers of the Apocalypse remain in the dramatisation. Cut from the Amazon series due to time limits and cast size, the Four who aren’t in Revelations do show up, as adding extra voices and then killing them off in a rain of fish on the the M25 Sound effects on radio are less expensive than full visual special effects on screen. Likewise, Elvis is in the dramatisation, working as a short order cook, thus why Death couldn’t answer when he died. Gone are anything that is purely visual; while anything that can be done using dialogue or sound effects could be kept. That means the trees in Brazil undergoing a rapid growth and Hastur devouring an outbound telemarketing centre were dropped.
The dramatisation did start jumping around in the book in episodes three and four. It doesn’t hurt the story, though. The scenes aren’t critical; changing the order they appear doesn’t affect the overall plot. Moving the introduction of the Apocalyptic Horsepersons to just before they ride together means they’re fresh in audience’s minds. Other scenes are more informational, providing details without advancing the plot. Once everything is set in motion, the scenes follow what is written in the book, though some scenes are in parallel with others. The dramatisation then returns to the order in the novel for the climax as all the different groups come together in the US Air Force base outside Tadfield.
The experiment didn’t play out as expected, but a dramatisation isn’t an audio book. A repeat of the experiment will have to be tried with a proper audio book to see if one can work to prepare for a review. Radio dramas have their own requirements that may not map ideally to an audio book, but they both depend on the audio component.
As an adaptation, the dramatisation works. Some scenes are lost, but more of the novel is kept in the radio drama than in the Amazon series. Both do manage to capture the core of Good Omens, balancing the nature of the end of the world with the right amount of humour. It’s not an audio book, but the BBC Radio 4 dramatisation is worth a listen.
Lost in Translation has pointed out that television is the better medium for adapting longer form stories, such as novels. Of late, movies are better with mind blowing, budget breaking action scenes, but are limited when allowing a story to develop. Television doesn’t have the budget, but a good accountant can find ways to spread the costs over the run of a season. The catch with TV, though, is ratings. A series that can’t find an audience fast enough is often cancelled. The days where series like M*A*S*H and Cheers would be allowed time to grow an audience. Today’s television is not only competing among the networks and cable stations but also streaming services.
The key to adapting a novel is knowing just how much time can be filled. The Expanse took seventeen episodes to adapt the first book of the series, Levianthan Wakes, all of season one and the first seven episodes of season two. If the series wasn’t picked up after the first season, The Expanse would have ended at a natural break point, leaving the main plot still unfinished but giving the characters an end of sorts for their arcs.
Season lengths tend to be set for American network productions; thirteen or twenty-two episodes, giving allowing for reruns and holiday breaks. British television, though, is not beholden to the format. Seasons run as long as needed, no more, no less. This gives a bit more freedom when it comes to adaptations. There’s no need for filler episodes as seen in long running anime or even original TV series on American television. Being able to set the length of a series adapting a novel means the showrunner can figure out what can be kept and what can be dropped without losing the core of the original work.
The 2019 adaptation of Good Omens is perhaps the best use of a limited series to adapt a novel. Based on the novel Good Omens: A Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the series co-produced by the BBC and by Amazon took on the task of adapting the book nicely. The main catch to the novel was the narrative. The narrator provided a lot of extra information and footnotes that would be difficult to replicate. Tone is also crucial; the original novel is a comedy about the End of the World.
Published in 1990, the novel takes the idea of the Antichrist as seen in such movies as The Omen and asks the key question, “What if the Antichrist didn’t have angelic or demonic influences?” The novel also looks at the question of nature versus nurture, ineffability, and the nature of humanity. All while an angel and a demon rebel against their own sides to save the world.
How does the Antichrist get misplaced, though? One would expect that the angelic hosts and demonic hordes would keep a close eye on the bringer of Armageddon. However, while God does not play dice with the universe, God is also not beyond a little Three-Card Monte, by adding a third baby to the mix. Not only is the wife of the American ambassador giving birth at St. Beryl’s Order of Chattering Nuns, but Mrs. Young is as well. The demon Crowley passes the Antichrist off to one of the Satanic nuns who gets confused on who is the American ambassador and switches out the wrong baby. While Heaven, represented by the Principality Aziraphale, and Hell, with Crowley coming in, try to influence young Warlock, the Antichrist, named Adam, is growing up in Tadfield, England.
Add into the confusion Anathema Device, a professional descendant of Agnes Nutter, and the owner of the only copy ever published of Agnes’ book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch; the Witchfinder Army, consisting of Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell and new recruit Newt Pulsifer, descendant of the man who burned Agnes at the stake; the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse with new recruit Pollution replacing the retired Pestilence; Adam’s gang, Them, with Pepper, Wensleydale, and Brian; and a Bentley where every cassette morphs into The Best of Queen over a fortnight. Gaiman and Pratchett keep the story moving along and a good pace as Adam starts realizing that he is more than what he appears as his eleventh birthday approaches. Ultimately, Adam shows that he is neither good nor evil, just human.
Being adapted can be seen as winning the lottery by some writers. It takes writers with experience and pull to be able to control how their stories are adapted. Neil Gaiman is one such author, with experience working in television and enough best sellers to make studios notice. Gaiman became the showrunner for the 2019 adaptation of Good Omens. His familiarity with the story and his respect for his co-writer Pratchett comes through with the results. Gaiman also wrote the script and, working with the BBC and with Amazon’s streaming service, was able to get the novel out without being rushed, without losing key ideas, and without having to cut corners.
The series starred Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley, with Adria Arjona as Anathema, Jack Whitehall as Newt, Miranda Richardson as Madame Tracey, Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, Sam Taylor Buck as Adam, and Ollie as the cutest Hellhound ever, Dog. The six episodes follow the events in the novel closely, losing only a few bits and characters due to limitations. To new viewers, though, these losses don’t leave a visible hole, so the second set of Four Bikers of the Apocalypse aren’t muddling the flow of the plot onscreen. Likewise, the reason Queen is used as the soundtrack is never explained, but it’s a soundtrack featuring Queen. The fate of the third baby isn’t revealed, leaving the question dangling of what just happened after the swapping at St. Beryl’s. At the same time, the series expands on how the Arrangement between Aziraphale and Crowley came about, where they cover for each other when one gets stuck elsewhere.
The narrator is handled by having Frances McDormand be the voice of God, narrating as needed, giving the extra explanations the narrative in the original novel does. The Metatron, the Voice of God, though, is played by Derek Jacobi. By having God narrate, the little asides that come up in the book can carry over to the series, giving the audience the information needed to understand where the story is going and why.
Casting was critical. The chemistry between Aziraphale and Crowley had to work. Fortunately, Sheen and Tennant were more than capable in recreating the forbidden camaraderie of two people who have known each other over 6000 years. Sam Taylor Buck plays Adam as a normal kid who isn’t all that normal, one who just wants to enjoy his time at home, neither good nor evil. The cast, in short, was perfect, even with the minor characters like Jon Hamm’s Gabriel, portrayed as an out of touch middle manager who doesn’t have to deal with the front line.
Having Gaiman as showrunner ensured that the adaptation stayed true. The parts and characters that were removed weren’t needed in the overall plot and would have taken up time needed elsewhere. Good Omens remained faithful to the original novel, keeping the tone and the themes that helped make the story popular.