Good Omens: The Story of a Perfect Adaptation

In the ephemeral world of pop culture we live in, it’s been ages since Good Omens was released on Amazon Prime and you’ve probably binged it, read or reread the novel, clicked every article that mentioned it, and have already moved on to the next phenomenon. Why do you even need to read one more thing about the show and why the hell did it take so long for me to write this one? To the first I say, I’ve yet to see anything substantial written about the show by someone who knows the book as well as I do. This isn’t a brag—it’s just a fact. I’ve been telling people to read Good Omens for literally 25 years. Leading up to the release date I thought about doing a reread, but I really didn’t need to. As faulty as my brain has become with age, this story is woven into the folds of my brain tissue. As for why I waited until now, that’s how long it took me to digest how truly amazing a feat of adaptation this undertaking is. It is a story spanning heaven, hell, the entire earth, and all of time since the world began, and yet it can be brilliantly summed up in 90 seconds of animation in the opening credits of the show—and that’s just the beginning of why Good Omens is the gold standard of a book-to-TV adaptation.

Good Omens isn’t an exceptionally long book, but there are a lot of words in it, if you take my meaning. Fans of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett will be familiar with the long-winded style of both authors, who take roundabout routes to get to their points with many entertaining tangents along the way. So much of the humor in the book is comprised in the narration and footnotes that aren’t always essential to the plot, but integral to the story as a whole. Often, the authors describe situations so convoluted, they require a high word count for readers to wrap their brains around (the baby swapping sequence in episode one comes to mind). Other times, their imagery is described succinctly, such as the description of Adam’s aura, but require some thought for the author to comprehend.

The show uses a couple of tools to its advantage to adapt the story for a TV viewer accustomed to a more relaxed pace of story consumption than reading can sometimes require. The first is Frances McDormand’s narration. In the hundreds of times I’ve read the book, it never occurred to me that the story might be narrated by God, though it makes perfect sense, as it’s a story of heaven, hell, and all of creation told by an omniscient narrator, so who better than God? Her wry wit and authoritative delivery make her the ideal choice to get all those little jokes in that would otherwise be lost in translation. The second tool the show uses are the visuals, which can quickly convey ideas without getting bogged down in deliciously dense prose. Quick cuts of Lisa the Telemarketer’s calls interspersed with screenshots from her interoffice chat and the maggots exploding out of her headset and we get the story of Hastur’s escape from Crowley’s answering machine far quicker than we would have by reading that scene in the book.

Another key to the adaptation’s success is it having been made with love by those involved. We hear this so often in the countless reboots and retellings in modern pop culture, that creators choose to remake something they have always loved and the success of the project is dependent on the reverence for the source material. In this case, it is not only the writer and showrunner (also the co-author of the novel) who treated the project like their own child, but several of the cast members, including Jon Hamm, Michael Sheen, and Nina Sosanya, came on board the show (at least in part) because of their fandom of the book. Surely actors are always trying to give their best performance, but it can only be that much more special when they’re trying to make the characters sound exactly as they were written, just as they’d heard them in their heads for years (which I know they succeeded at, because they sounded exactly like I’d heard them in my head). They were specific down to exactly which words were slurred, and in the scene where Aziraphale and Crowley get drunk together, down to the sound Adam made when he is forced to choose between his destiny and his friends. And don’t even get me started on how much coaching Michael McKean must’ve taken to absolutely nail Shadwell’s unique accent.

Of course, no adaptation is going to be exactly the same in a new medium as it was in the old. It can’t be. Some elements of the story need to be rearranged to fit how the new medium is consumed. The strongest example of this is the half-hour long cold open of episode three, detailing the history of Crowley and Aziraphale’s relationship. That stuff is sprinkled throughout the book and it works well that way on the page. But a viewer needs all that foundation condensed in one place for them to understand the impact of that relationship in the story the way it’s told on screen. Not only were all those pieces artfully arranged in one big chunk, the show chose the ideal place in the story to insert that chunk, giving the viewer all the information they needed, when they needed it, without interrupting the flow of the story very much.

In addition to rearranging, other changes were needed. You’d lose a lot of audience if you made the show as long as it would need to be to include every single scene, however tangentially connected to the plot. The omissions of the four bikers of the apocalypse, the rain of fish, the rainforest growing in London, Aziraphale’s extended search for an earthly host, and so many other things were disheartening, but understandable. We’ve only got six hours of screen time and as delightful as those moments were in the book, we got the point without them. It’s the difference between filling a balloon with water and filling a cup. In addition, the book was written more than 30 years ago and there are just some things we don’t say anymore. In 2019, Madame Tracey would not have chosen a caricature of a Native American as her spirit guide; the 9-year-old Colleen O’Leary was a far more appropriate choice. The 2019 Pepper would never let War’s everyday sexism pass without comment as she does in the book. These changes to accommodate the passage of time only improved the story.

As many things were left out or changed, there were so many Easter eggs left in for book readers! Ask a book fan why Crowley only listens to Queen, who the hat and scarf in Aziraphale’s bookshop belong to, or why the fry cook in that one scene looks and sounds just like Elvis. These treats are sprinkled throughout the series, paying service to longtime fans of the novel. They were not intrusive or confusing to those who only watch the show. They were there solely for us to point at and go, “Oh my god look, I know what that is, hee!” But the show’s creators didn’t stop there. Viewers of the show uninitiated to the book might be surprised to learn, as my husband was, that the ending gambit involving Crowley and Aziraphale escaping punishment for their actions is not in the book at all. It was an entirely new chapter added in the making of the show to keep book fans on their toes and allow them to experience a few surprises along with the rest of the audience. It was not necessarily missing from the book, but it fit the story perfectly without feeling tacked on and gave book snobs something new to be surprised and delighted by.

Fans will likely be well-acquainted with the story of how this show came to be. Essentially, shortly before Terry’s unexpected passing, Neil promised him that he would make Good Omens into a show that Terry would enjoy. Though it came from a tragic place, the show became a joyful delight in an effort to fulfill that promise and an ideal adaptation, satisfying to so many longtime fans whose love for the story gave it the popularity to make the adaptation a success.

There is so much danger associated with adapting a cult favorite to a new medium. Anyone undertaking such an endeavor in the future now has this as a gold standard to live up to, and hopefully can take lessons from it on how to retain the spirit and keep the fandom happy, while creating something wholly other and yet somehow entirely the same.

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