Gaiman and Adaptations and More, Oh My~!

A.K.A., Neil Gaiman and his (Extensive) Love Affair with Intertextuality

“Great writers recognize good stories when they hear them, often mining raw material from them for their own creations”

– D.L. Ashliman

Neil Gaiman is a man who probably does not need an introduction, but on the off chance that someone stumbles across this blog and doesn’t know who he is, know that he is a prolific writer of numerous genres. He started out as a journalist and went on to write everything from screenplays (the 2007 version of Beowulf, BBC’s Neverwhere, three different episodes for Doctor Who, and more), to comics (The Sandman, Black Orchid, Marvel 1602, etc.), children’s books (The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Cinnamon, and so on), short stories (Trigger Warning, Smoke & Mirrors, and Fragile Things are all collections of his various short stories), and novels (Good Omens—co-written with Terry Pratchett—Neverwhere, and Stardust are a few of them). He does not adhere strictly to one particular genre or medium over another, though he is definitely fond of magical realism, which is why his name is at least familiar sounding in most circles.

(Seriously though, has no one told him the saying goes “Jack of all trades, Master of none”? If so, I don’t think he quite got the concept.)

All of that being said, there is one thing that is common amongst many of his works: his love of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. The two texts I look at in this post incorporate and adapt these loves of his–some more obvious and connected than others–and each one does it in its own way, utilizing the chosen mediums’ conventions to further aid in the storytelling that takes place.

American Gods

 

“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered.”
– Neil Gaiman

To attempt to explain and analyze all the ways American Gods (both the novel and the new TV show) is an adaptation would require far more time and space than a single post, quite honestly, and while I do plan on eventually doing a far more detailed exploration of both sources in the future, for the sake of this being a beginning project I’m going to limit the focus on one particular element of adaptation studies here–the adaptation of characters.

Now, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with either the novel or the Starz show, the premise of the story is asking a simple question. What happens to the gods who find themselves in a new land, a new world, when their followers abandon them? Gaiman explains that this story is, at its core, a story about America and about immigrants. Immigrants, in this case, cover a wide range of people from gods, to the aos sí, to djinn, to the actual humans who immigrated to America, and so on. As such, it’s easy for some of the connections between the folkloric and mythological characters and their immigrant selves to be missed, especially if one’s not as well versed in the various mythos that Gaiman is drawing from and adapting.  (At least, they’re easy to miss until they practically shout at Shadow about who they really are…and even then Shadow’s bound to doubt them.)

That being said, I’m about to jump into analyzing three characters in particular–one major character, one supporting character, and one minor character–that’re adapted from their particular mythos, so if you’ve not read the book or seen the show–SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

𝕄𝕣. 𝕎𝕖𝕕𝕟𝕖𝕤𝕕𝕒𝕪

“Well, seeing that today certainly is my day–why don’t you call me Wednesday? Mister Wednesday.”

For anyone who’s familiar with Norse mythology or, at the very least, where the names of our days come from, that particular line would be a dead give away as to who Mr. Wednesday is. He is the All-Father, the king of Asgard, Borr’s son, and every other title and epithet that belongs to Odin.

In Gaiman’s version, Mr. Wednesday (who really should be kept as a separate person than Odin) is an openly admitted hustler who takes part in orchestrating a two-man con in order to create a war between the Old Gods and the New Gods, all for the sake of restoring this version of himself to his full glory–something that he’s not experienced in centuries since the Vikings left him on the shores of America. As with any adaptation, there is a lot of transposition going on. In the case of Mr. Wednesday, perhaps the biggest aspect of his adapted self that forces people to stop and see both him and Odin in a different manner is the fact that he’s embraced the hustler persona of an American conman and that he isn’t above manipulating and using anyone and everyone in order to attain more power, including using and practically killing his own son. These changes that Gaiman made to his character are by no means an accident, and they are utilized in such a way that they not only give an answer to the question that drives most of the plot, but also forces readers to think of their own history and their own relationships with their past. One of the great things that adaptations and adaptation studies can do is force the readers or consumers to stop and think and understand something–either something about themselves, something they thought they knew but now aren’t so sure, or something about why someone might make the changes and alterations that they do with these resources–that simply engaging with the original source material wouldn’t be able to provide, and that’s exactly what all of these characters do but most obviously what Mr. Wednesday manages to provide. He’s so vastly different from his original source(s) portrayal(s) that it’s disarming, and yet he’s not so utterly different that the connections between the two can’t be made.

𝑀𝓇. 𝒩𝒶𝓃𝒸𝓎

“It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.”

Mr. Nancy, when readers are first introduced to him, are met with sad sort of figure–a man on his own in an empty cafeteria–and yet, there is an undeniable connection between this man, this Mr. Nancy, and his folkloric counterpart, Anansi. As Ellie mentioned, he’s a trickster, and that is certainly a key element to his portrayal in American Gods (and later on in Anansi Boys). He takes pleasure in wreaking havoc on the various characters he encounters, and while it may not be his having someone sow the seeds to their own destruction, it is certainly in line with his folklore counterpart.

One fascinating thing that Gaiman incorporates into his portrayal of Mr. Nancy, though, is that notion of being a storyteller. In Ashanti folklore, where Anansi comes from, the oral tradition is strong and Anansi himself is tied into that tradition because he’s often portrayed as being a particularly skilled wordsmith, spinning webs of truth and fiction in such a way that people tend to fall victim to whatever it is he’s scheming at the time. So Gaiman is not only adapting this mythic figure in such a way that he works in the story that he’s telling, he’s also tying the traditions of the folklore that Mr. Nancy hails from into his character to not only create this new-yet-old character but to also pay respect to said traditions and beliefs of Ashanti folklore, making him a uniquely fascinating character to look at.

Mᴀᴅ Sᴡᴇᴇɴᴇʏ

“I told you. I’m a leprechaun. We don’t come from fucken Moscow.”

Aside from his admitting to being a leprechaun, Mad Sweeney is probably one of the most obscure characters that Gaiman adapted. Of course, knowing that he’s a leprechaun, it’s easy to realize that he’s been adapted from Irish mythology, but the exact myth or legend is hard to trace, which makes knowing who he’s meant to be rather difficult, even if Shadow–and the readers–are told that Mad Sweeney was once Buile Suibhne when he was in Ireland.

(It certainly doesn’t help that most of Irish lore  was lost or altered greatly when the Christian church came to Ireland, and while I do know the lore that he’s based off of, I’ll save that in-depth exploration for a later date.)

So what does all of this mean in terms of Gaiman and adaptations? Well, quite a bit. See, even though Mad Sweeney only appears in two chapters, readers get enough details about him to be able to recognize some of the moves that Gaiman is making, which can then lead to analyzing and thinking about what they know really about Irish lore.

The first thing that readers see–besides from his obviously punk inspired wardrobe–is his taste in drinks: “Southern Comfort and Coke, straight up” (34). When Mad Sweeney first tells Shadow who–or, rather, what–he is, Shadow even comments on his drink, making a crack at his supposing to drink Guinness, something that Mad Sweeney promptly calls him on and states is a stereotype. Readers also learn that he’s tall–taller than Shadow who is over 6 feet tall himself. So in some ways, Gaiman’s deliberate choices in how he’s adapting and portraying Mad Sweeney is subverting the Irish stereotypes and forcing readers to take a step back and evaluate what they know and what they think of this proud people and their rich culture. And yet, in many other ways, Gaiman’s adaptation is perpetuating these stereotypes by making him a ginger and an alcoholic who eventually ends up inadvertently killing himself due to his alcohol abuse. Yet regardless of this, each facet of his character–from the physical to the psychological–aids in exactly what it is that adaptations accomplish: forcing readers to see and understand a source in a new way.

Again, all of this is barely even making a dent into all the ways that Gaiman’s work is an adaptation. It’s barely even scratching the surface of character analyses and what it is they’re unique adaptations are doing, but since this is meant more as an introductory exploration of the field and because there are other texts I’d like to get to, I’m going to cut it short.

 

“𝓓𝓲𝓪𝓶𝓸𝓷𝓭𝓼 𝓪𝓷𝓭 𝓟𝒆𝓪𝓻𝓵𝓼”

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“A final sapphire clicked across the wooden floor of Amanda’s closet room.
The silence was absolute.”

Despite it only being four pages long, “Diamonds and Pearls” is a wonderfully rich text to explore in terms of being an adaptation. Based off of a combination of Perrault’s “The Fairies” and the Grimm Brothers’ “The Three Little Men in the Woods” as well as the photograph right above this, Gaiman creates a modern day version of two sisters’ very different outcomes after dealing with three individuals on the street.

In the story, Amanda, the “good” daughter is given twenty dollars and sent to get some drugs for her step-mother with strict instructions not to stop (206). Along the way she meets a dog that’s chained up outside who’s extremely thirsty, a drug dealer living in a filthy apartment, and a hooker who’s starving. Despite being told not to stop, she can’t help but help each one of them out, much like the good daughter does in both Perrault’s and the Grimm Brothers’ versions. Though none of them openly bless her–though an argument can definitely be made about it being the dog’s doing–when she returns to her step-mother empty handed and tries to explain her situation, diamonds started to fall from her mouth. The step-mother obviously demands answers from her, but Amanda refuses to answer her, so the step-mother naturally assumes that something happened when she sent Amanda out and thus decides to send her daughter out, hoping for the same results. Unsurprising to anyone familiar with the fairy tale genre or these stories in general, things don’t go the same way for the other sister, and she’s instead cursed for her ugliness and cruelty to the same three individuals that Amanda showed kindness to. Ultimately, due to her step-mother’s hatred towards her and her refusal to give into her demands of speaking, Amanda gets locked into a tiny room where she’s eventually stuck in until her death.

(Spoiler: the step-mother and step-sister die from the poisonous creatures that fall from the step-sister’s mouth, hence Amanda eventually dying, too, since she’s locked inside a room with no food or water.)

What’s utterly unique about this adaptation is that the inspiration behind it comes from two different places: fairy tales and a photo of Gaiman’s now-wife, Amanda Palmer, that’s collected in her CD & book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer. Without knowing the fact that Gaiman wrote this specifically for Amanda’s book and specifically tailored to this picture, one can easily analyze the story as a modernized, dark and twisted version of the fairy tales it’s based off of, and they can debate such things as whether or not Amanda was an active agent in her fate or a passive one (or, as a colleague of mine and I argued, a reactive agent) as well as whether or not she is really dead by the end of it since it is ambiguous enough for that wiggle room, which can all lead to questioning why Gaiman wrote it that way and what it is he’s trying to say.

But with that added information, things become a little different. That ending no longer seems ambiguous at all but rather a certainty of her death. The shock of her being so young (only eighteen) then becomes much more realistic. All of these other questions start coming up, like why did he choose to make it so modern, and why did he decide to have Amanda go on the bad side of town to buy these drugs–certainly something I don’t think most would even consider when creating an adaptation–and so on. There are multiple levels of adaptation at play here, which allows for so many avenues and questions to be explored.

These are only two of his many texts that deal with the idea of adaptations, and they’re only two ways to go about looking at the texts and engaging with them. I’m hoping that, combined with the rest of the project, they’re enough to help build a clearer picture of what can be accomplished with adaptations and adaptation studies.

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