The American Gods television adaptation has cast Jeremy Davis (Lost, Hannibal) as Jesus. If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s book, you might be confused. Gaiman invents his own gods like Technology Boy and Media; dabbles in Eastern folklore like Jinns or esoteric myths like kobolds, but he largely avoids the major staples of mainstream Western pantheons. After all, the novel centers around forgotten gods that have fallen by the wayside as believers give up — and that can hardly be said about Jesus. He only gets a brief mention and a post-script appearance in the “author’s preferred text” version of the novel.
But for any Gaiman fans anxious that the show is missing the point of the book – – by casting a religious figure who is very much mainstream – don’t worry. The fact that a character who plays such a minor role has been cast indicates that the show has a keen understanding of the material. It is willing to plumb the story’s every corner and expand beyond it. We’ve already seen this with its update on Mad Sweeney (played by Pablo Schreiber) who has been given a hipster-trash aesthetic as opposed to his early 2000s, trucker-trash look in the book.
The story is about the odd and ever-changing identity of America, about the fluidity of the nature of belief. In order to capture the novel’s essence, then, the show must be willing to be malleable. Not only because that’s a major theme of the book, but also because that’s what shows based on one single book must do in order to succeed. The Leftovers had one of the best seasons in all of television once it expanded beyond the book.
In the post-script of the author’s preferred text (p. 526) Gaiman writes,
I’ve been looking forward to writing the meeting of Shadow and Jesus for most of the book: I couldn’t write about America without mentioning Jesus, after all. He’s part of the warp and the weft of the country. And then I wrote their first scene together…. and it didn’t work for me; I felt like I was alluding to something that I couldn’t simply mention in passing and move on from. I’m not sure it’s necessarily part of American Gods. Consider it an apocryphal scene, perhaps.
American Gods is therefore crafting its own expanded universe right at the start, which is fascinating. Usually that only happens years after a story has been told.
In this extra scene, Jesus says to Shadow,
Have you thought about what it means to be a god? It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity anymore. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.
By adding him in, then, American Gods is not only ensuring its place as the next fantasy juggernaut to carry the torch from Game of Thrones, but it also might just become the most philosophical narrative on television.
So bring on Jesus. Because of showrunner Bryan Fuller’s recent comments on the high number of digital erections that will be appearing in the series, we can only assume we might see a lot more of him than we saw in the book.
American Gods will air on an as-yet unannounced date in 2017 on Starz.