Lessons in Adaptation

Lessons in Adaptation: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

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See? I told you I would do more on some of those recommendations.

To be completely honest, though, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to recommend either version of Good Omens. I like them both. I liked their better aspects quite a lot, actually. About a quarter of the way into the book, I was willing to wholeheartedly praise it, not only over the show, but just in general. And then the book took a steep dive into another story entirely, with slower pacing, fewer jokes, a bushel of extraneous characters, and more than a few mean-spirited jibes that conflicted tonally with the impetus of the story. Which was annoying, because it made the more enjoyable parts of the story weaker by association. I don’t attribute this to either of the authors involved in the work, as after that first quarter, the story never quite recovers. It’s still amusing in quite a few parts, but it’s marred by a lack of focus, seriousness, and a useless Sad Boy (TM).

So which one do you choose? Read the book, because it was the original, or watch the show, because it smoothed some of the edges? There is no correct answer. I opted to do both, watching the show and then reading the book, as I quickly found hearing the simpler version of a joke and then the longer version made for a more enjoyable experience. But the show makes plenty of its own questionable decisions, and isn’t fundamentally very different from the book. In fact, it’s about as close as any adaptation of this series will likely ever get. There’s not

I don’t know what I can honestly suggest other people do, but for me, the joy in this series comes down to viewing the show as an adaptation. It has a curious history, and it strives to keep unusually close to the source material, feeling at times like an almost direct replica of major portions of the book right down to its dialogue and narration. So that it manages to still come across as a different beast than the book is curious, and, I think worth exploring.

Not every lesson has to be favorably demonstrated by a narrative work. Some lessons are learned through counterexamples. The recent miniseries adaptation of Good Omens is somewhere between the two extremes, appropriately, at times showing off its adaptational merits and elsewhere fumbling. It’s nothing if not consistent in these respective areas, which makes it a useful piece to talk about.

So —

 

Lesson #2: Play to Your Strengths

 

Limbo

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A bit of background (I know, new grounds everywhere, huh?): back in the 1980s, British fantasy author Neil Gaiman called up his fellow British fantasy author friend Terry Prachett for advice on a short story he was working on, and they quickly decided to co-write it into a novel. This became Good Omens, a story about an angel and a demon who become friends and try to avert the apocalypse so they can hang out on earth longer. The book follows several characters and occasionally dips into different styles, most notably in parts where the humor dies down for the sake of drama and paragraphs grow longer or footnotes become infrequent.

My understanding going into this book was that a lot of readers found it easy to tell the parts written by different authors apart. From what they have each claimed in interviews, this is a fallacy. Certain characters or sequences in the earlier drafts tended to be adopted by the writers separately, and Prachett ended up being sort of the lead on the project in terms of physical word count and fitting the whole thing together, but the ideas were brainstormed through extensive discussion and subsequent passes involved the two going over each other’s words to the point where they each had a hand throughout the thing.

All that said, you can still definitely see both authors’ influence throughout the novel.

My familiarity with Prachett is limited, but his comedic style is highly recognizable, being of the sort of absurd British wit found in Douglas Adams’ work, only not quite as tangential and frequently made to fit within the machinations of his worlds. I’ve read more books by Neil Gaiman, and for all of my misgivings in my Sandman reviews, I do actually think he’s a talented writer. His style tends to be more descriptive, focusing on vignettes that show glimpses of his world and establish a moody atmosphere. While both authors have their own unique styles, they also have overlapping range; Prachett knows how to handle serious thematic subject matter, and Gaiman can be surprisingly funny when he wants.

The consequence is that the book is a blend of silly humor, wit, compassion, and worldbuilding. These elements all have a tendency to compete with one another, but when the book manages to hold them all together, it shines. It does that through many sections, most notably the first and last hundred pages or so. It’s the middle bit that has a tendency to fall apart, and I might ascribe this to the weaker parts of both authors’ writing skills. There’s a nearly hundred-page section that’s exclusively about characters that matter very little to the plot not actually contributing to it in the moment. It doesn’t help that this and similar portions of the narrative are often the least funny and most sexist parts of the book.

Speaking of which… Hhng. Okay, so I don’t want to cast aspersions on the authors because I frankly do not know enough about them as human beings to determine the intent behind certain choices made in this book, but, I mean, they are the ones who wrote it, and I can’t ignore that. The fact of the matter is that the book was written by two straight white cis British men, and however well-traveled or experienced they were at the time, their perspective was always going to be limited. I don’t think that’s an excuse for throwing around the word “f*****” to make mean-spirited jabs at gay people, nor defining their female characters predominantly through their sexiness and how much they talk, nor writing the few explicitly non-white characters that crop up as cartoonish caricatures. Even in 1990, that wasn’t okay, and it’s disheartening because it severely dates the book despite only being a few decades old, and it keeps me from honestly recommending it. The book’s high points are effervescent, but its low points are a bit like an unintentional shart.

Three decades after its release, along comes the show. Two things are important to know about this. First, this is not Gaiman’s first rodeo. Both his and Prachett’s works have been adapted into films in the past, and Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods was made into a television series by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green in 2017. The show is still going, but after the first season, the showrunners left and there was some shuffling around that is continuing into the show’s third season. Gaiman has been with the show since its start, but by necessity took on part of the showrunner role when Fuller and Green left. The second season is widely considered the weaker of the two, and behind-the-scenes difficulties are often suspected to be to blame.

The second thing to know is that Terry Prachett died in 2015. He and Gaiman had talked for years after the success of Good Omens about making a sequel, which was eventually taken apart and used in their other works, and a film. Despite talks with multiple production companies and directors, the film never got off the ground and was still in a sort of limbo when Prachett died. However, Gaiman decided to continue with the project with Prachett’s posthumous blessing, which is how we ended up with a six-episode miniseries.

And yes, I did say miniseries. All of the big streaming services have had miniseries expand into multiple seasons beyond their source material, but despite the success of Good Omens, I don’t think it will be getting a second season anytime soon. It’s possible, but the whole thing feels a bit too emotionally delicate for the time being. The series is a very close adaptation to the book, and I don’t doubt that a large part of that is because of Prachett’s death. From what I understand, this series is something of a send-off to him by one of his close friends.

The background of this series is fascinating, to be sure, but it also makes it a little difficult for me to talk about as it is so closely tied to these two writers and their relationship with one another. So, going forward, I would like to talk about this series mainly as it pertains to source material, with little commentary on the outside influences at play. The decisions made for this series are not isolated, of course, and may have ended up in the final version for reasons completely unrelated to the efficacy of adaptation. However, I am not privy to the personal details of how Gaiman chose to approach this series, so I’m less inclined to speculate about the intent than point out what, from an uninformed viewer’s perspective, does and doesn’t work. That’s how I watched the show, more or less, and that’s who series are made for, even if it’s not why they’re made.

All that settled, let’s dive in for real.

 

The Bad

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Some things just work better on paper. Literally, in this case.

So, uh, those visuals. They’re not great. They’re pretty atrocious, actually.

Let me clarify — I don’t think the special effects artists were slacking or inept, and when I say “atrocious,” it’s more of a comment on how the effects are incorporated into the final product from a viewer’s perspective. CGI gets a lot of flack these days because it’s in everything, and television series are starting to use it the same way films did in the early 2000s. Some shows look like Game of Thrones, others look like The Good Place. A lot influences how CGI looks, including the realism of the effect, stylism, interaction with the filmed material, whether it draws attention in a shot, what’s being portrayed, and how the effect is used in the story — not the mention all of the finicky details about color, lighting, design, synchronicity, etc.

Often CGI is called out as being bad when it fails on one or more of these levels — for instance, the tonal mismatch between the hyperrealistic environments of The Good Dinosaur and the cartoonish characters. The recent Lion King remake has highly detailed CGI, but is nonetheless criticized for its effects because they lack expression and don’t map well to the emotive voices. On the flip side, the mix of practical and computer effects in films like The Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park, and Inception make these films look more cohesive than any of the recent superhero or fantasy fodder, despite their technical limitations. All of these could arguably be made more detailed and impressive today, but because of the difficulty in making these films, more care was devoted to the effects, and the story was built around them rather than established independently. Dated CGI can be distracting, but if it’s incorporated into the rest of the story, the audience will eventually stop noticing. This is why shows like Pushing Daisies and The Good Place can get away with effects that are not even remotely realistic, where older blockbusters from the 90s and early 2000s now show their flaws much more readily. This trend is even more prominent in video games, with those favoring stylism and overall unity of design holding up much better visually than anything striving for (at the time) high-fidelity graphics.

So what of Good Omens?

With CGI more widespread and cheaper than ever, and shows creeping in on the territory traditional held by film, more television series have started incorporating mid-range effects. Good Omens has a solid excuse for it, being full of angels and demons and hellhounds and Eldritch horrors and the like, so it’s not at all surprising it opts for literal portrayals of all of these. However, it’s rather obvious that the show was given the option of using as much CGI as it wanted, and portraying whatever it wanted with it, and as a result, many of the effects feel like an afterthought. I have to ask the question, if the effects weren’t so readily available, would the show have fought as hard to do these scenes the way it does?

Because while some of them are misguided attempts to re-create intentionally vague or indescribable creatures from the books, just as many are indulgent excuses to dick around with special effects. It’s not that all of the effects fail — many of them are stylized and fit fine with the whimsical nature of the story. It’s just when elaborate monsters appear without precedent, diverting resources from more crucial parts of the story like characterization, that the effects become excessive. And unfortunately they do that a lot over the six episodes.

The camerawork doesn’t help.

While the framing and blocking holds up fine and most of the shots are mercifully colorful and well-lit,  the camera has a tendency to bob and swing in nauseating curves around characters. During intense scenes, the camera will zoom in on the figure of focus, then the next shot does the same with another, and so on until the camera returns to the original speaker — zooming in the whole while. It’s like one of those endless screensavers from the 90s. The end result is that the camera is constantly in motion, diverting attention from the scene in question, and 70% of all of the shots seem to be close-ups of characters’s faces.

The editing, while far from inept, furthers the trend of perpetual motion. Shots cut and repeat motions, leaving the previous ones curiously incomplete, and even grand establishing shots are occasionally severed before they can fully breathe.

The film techniques all have an unfortunate habit of mangling each other in unexpected, if also unsurprising, ways. For instance, Bland shots between two characters in which only one is visible at a time call to attention misplaced edits, unnecessary long takes make the otherwise beautiful costumes look all the less plausible, and close-ups of faces cutting between a real and a CGI character force the effects to work harder than they’re capable of. Combine all this with smaller issues like middling child acting and dialogue trying to force as many references to its source material as possible, and the end result is a bit of a mess.

I mean, it’s a fun mess, but it’s not something I could recommend any random person watch.

 

Purgatory

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Seeing as I’m already well over three thousand words into this thing by now, I ought to take a moment to discuss the plot of the book. The premise is solid, allowing for creative characters, humor, and flexibility in its direction, but as a stand-alone novel, especially one with so many characters, the plot struggles to hold everything together. This, I would argue, is a flaw with the source material on its own, but it also creates a dilemma for anyone trying to adapt the work as written.

The story can be summarized as an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, discover that the end of the world is imminent and run around trying to stop it. Crowley is given the newborn Antichrist and is supposed to pass it along to a specific family so it can be raised to bring about the end of the world. He’s not too fond of the idea that the world is going to end in a few years, as he’s gotten used to acting like a human and never really liked the good/evil binary anyway. He goes to his friend Aziraphale, who shares his feelings and likewise wants the earth to stay habitable. Together, they decide they’ll avert the apocalypse by raising the Antichrist themselves and ensuring it gets equal good and bad influences, thereby becoming useless when its time comes. They seem to be doing a solid job (or at least the book claims they are — as far as I’m concerned, the kid’s an asshole), when the kid’s eleventh birthday rolls around and Hell releases a hellhound for him as a birthday present. When the dog doesn’t show up for the kid they’ve been helping to raise for the past eleven years, Crowley and Aziraphale realize they have the wrong child.

From this point, the plot diverges into four main subplots: Aziraphale and Crowley’s friendship and quest to retrieve the Antichrist, Adam (the eleven-year-old Antichrist) and his friends’ adventures, Anathema (witch) and Newt (witch hunter) coming together to interpret the former’s many-something great-grandmother’s highly specific prophecy book, and the actual apocalypse itself. Although the Aziraphale-Crowley subplot is the most complex of the group, as these are the most fleshed-out characters and ostensibly the protagonists, this subplot also appears infrequently relative to its importance in the story. In fact, after the first quarter or so, the apocalypse subplot and the tension feeding it all but consume the book.

And that’s a problem, because the apocalypse subplot is not overly interesting. It mainly involves Adam getting hooked on New Age magazines full of conspiracy theories (and also whales being hunted and rainforests being cut down, which I understand would be in New Age magazines, but also feel weird to put next to, for instance, Atlantis and Aliens), which he then turns true (or more true, I suppose, in the case of the whales?) because of his Antichrist powers. As the world starts experiencing odd phenomena that the denizens of Hell and Heaven know signal the end times, the book’s iterations of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse head to the location where everything is supposed going to go down. Adam starts to turn evil because of some evil force inside of him, but when he realizes he’s hurting his friends, he overcomes it and decides to stop the Apocalypse himself, which he also suddenly realizes is happening. The Horsemen fiddle with some nuclear codes, but when Adam shows up, they just sort of melt into their weaponry with not a hint of stakes. Newt, despite being utterly useless elsewhere, stops the missile computer by accidentally shutting it down. Then the Devil shows up, but Adam wishes him away. Also, Aziraphale and Crowley are there, chillin’ and looking fancy I guess.

The plot is a bit all over the place. While many of the characters are well-defined and amusing, several of them are really only there to set up jokes. Anathema has perhaps the best backstory of the bunch, being a professional descendant of a witch from three hundred years ago who made highly specific prophecies about the twentieth century despite not knowing, for instance, what computers were. Hearing the old-timey prophecy, “Do nott buy Beta Macks” from someone discussing the book sold me on it in an instant. But delightful as the Agnes Nutter’s prophecy jokes are, the prophecy book itself really doesn’t factor into the story much at all, and Anathema’s main role in the story is to just sit there and wait for Sad Sue Newt to come and give her his virginity.

That’s something that doesn’t change in the show, unfortunately, though the visual format blissfully omits the multiple instances of women in the book being described by their boobs. Yes, mm, good show. Thank you for that.

However, by keeping close to the books, the show also ensures that useless characters remain useless, and characters unrelated to the Armageddon subplot still don’t feel any more necessary by the end. The most structurally important subplot is still the show’s weakest, and the strongest subplot remains poorly connected to it.

But you know what? It has a solution, at least to the latter. By far and away the largest change in adaptation was the choice to expand on Crowley and Aziraphale’s scenes, not necessarily connecting them more firmly to the apocalypse, but visibly favoring them over the rest of the story. As it should.

 

The Good

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I find a lot of people prefer faithful adaptations of the source material to those that take a more creative turn, which is understandable as a solid, if familiar, foundation is far more reliable for a story than a hard right turn into the unknown. I know quite a few people who just like to see books played out visually on a screen, with maybe a few tweaks here and there to parts of the book everyone agrees were missteps. For books I really love, I tend to be on the same page, at least hoping the adaptation covers the best parts of the thing I live. However, having seen several looser adaptations in recent years, I have a bit of a bias toward them. Part of this is because I prefer new content to repetition of old, and part of it is that I rarely find source material to be flawless. Adaptation is an opportunity to improve on the original; the question then becomes, how, and by how much?

Good Omens is in a unique position in that one of its original authors is still alive and working on the project, while the other is not. This, along with planning for an eventual adaptation while Prachett was still alive, is likely a large part of why the show opted to stick with a direct adaptation. Nonetheless, certain jokes still had to be cut or altered for practical reasons. I don’t know if it was always in the works to expand upon the role of Aziraphale and Crowley, but regardless, it’s a solid decision that keeps to the spirit of the book while also expanding on the material that exists.

Generally, the show’s approach to adaptation is to structure each of the six episodes so that they roughly form acts. The first episode is Act One, in which the premise is established and the main characters — Crowley, Aziraphale, and the Them — are introduced. This one follows the first fifty or so pages almost word-for-word. The second and third episodes flesh out Act Two, fueling the main conflict and introducing the remaining characters — Anathema, Newt, and the Horsemen, with side characters Shadwell and Madame Tracy still in the story, but no longer point-of-view characters. Episode Four is the turning point where Adam discovers his powers, Episode Five builds to the culmination and sees all of the characters uniting, and then the last episode combines the climax with a long denouement.

Peppered throughout are scenes of Aziraphale and Crowley, some taken from the plot of the book as the two of them independently try to find Adam, and some invented for the show to expand upon the thematic relationship of the two. Technically, neither of them does anything particularly important to either initiate or avert the Apocalypse, aside from Crowley’s initial fuck-up in swapping the wrong baby, and, arguably, recruiting Newt to help them. They spend the first four acts of the story scouring the countryside, eventually running into Anathema and accidentally taking her book, allowing Aziraphale, being an avid book collector, to become engrossed with it. In the book (that book being Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, not to be confused with the in-universe prophecy book, The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the scene where Aziraphale reads the prophecy book is spread out over about a hundred pages, with only brief asides to check in on his gradually cooling cocoa. The show references the cocoa gimmick, but thankfully keeps the segment more or less intact.

The show’s habit of ensuring that no matter what the other characters are doing, Aziraphale and Crowley’s scenes are still present aids the flow of the story considerably. This is because their scenes in the book are frequently the most packed with jokes, and those jokes are often delivered through quick snippets of description. For instance, the two of them have an agreement that they’ll do the other’s job every now and then if they happen to be in the area, the idea being that for them, doing good and evil is just a nine-to-five that neither of them particularly cares about. The origin of this agreement comes about in a long sequence invented for the show in which the two of them keep running into each other over the centuries and become good friends. It’s delightful.

They do have something of an arc, though its completion in the original is up for debate. Essentially, although they both have depths, they’re unwilling to admit it, least of all to each other. They’re somewhat set in their ways, Crowley embodying the sort of impish demon that delights in causing minor miseries to large numbers of people, but not so much gruesome torture, and Aziraphale being a foppish, self-righteous angel who would really prefer people not buy the books from his book shop. Over the course of the book, they employ similar morally ambiguous means to solve their problems, culminating in a short line near the end of the book where they unfurl their wings and reveal, as the book has repeatedly suggested, that they’re basically the same sort of being.

The show dispenses with the wing visuals (though the only reason as far as I can gather is because of those damn effects, which it uses to show off at in the opening scene), but it builds upon this subplot. Over the course of the show, the two of them more explicitly use each other’s techniques to get what they want, with Crowley condescending to do nice things like ensuring people shooting at each other with live ammunition miss, and Aziraphale going to the dark side by, for instance, possessing people. The show adds a new sequence at the end with each of them being punished by their respective offices for interfering with the apocalypse, only for their punishments (being burned in hellfire for Aziraphale and dunked in holy water for Crowley) to fail, much to the horror of the denizens of Heaven and Hell.

This is a cute little sequence, and I’m split about the very ending of the story, which reveals that they just took on the appearance of the other so they could survive their respective punishments. On the one hand, that’s probably a bit more plausible than the characters having changed so much that the literal power of friendship turns them into one another. On the other hand, I don’t think it needs to be plausible, and also I want the literal power of friendship to turn them into one another. It fits better with the theming, anyway. What sort of a moral is, “People are more complex than they appear on the surface, but if they try to embody that in any meaningful way, it’s not enough, and they should actually just find a doppelganger already is the way they aspire to be, then swap places with them if they need to do anything important that someone like them normally wouldn’t”?

Anyway, the Aziraphale and Crowley bits are pretty much custom-made for Tumblr, so that’s why you’re seeing it everywhere even though there’s not really anything explicitly gay about the show or the books. But it’s also genuinely heartfelt and, if nothing else, keeps the disparate pieces of the plot from floating away. I would recommend, if you’re interested in Good Omens and for some reason have gotten this far without reading or seeing it, watch the show first, and if you want a more in-depth look at the jokes or minor characters, the book’s worth a try. The show, messy as it is, is mercifully short and easier to consume, with the subplots spread out as they are. It’s all good, in the end.

 

 

*The reason the images look odd on this one is that Amazon refuses to let its users take screenshots of their shows. Joke’s on them, I guess, because I have a camera, the Fair Use Exception, a vector manipulation program, and a thick head. They won’t look as good as the originals, but whose fault is that, Amazon?

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