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.