Let’s face it, there aren’t very many movies about gods. Sure every now and then something like Clash of the Titans comes along and throws the classic Greek gods of Olympus on the screen but films like that are few and far between. Gods have great potential on the big screen, they have powers and presence far beyond that of any mere mortal character and could truly bring something special to a story. To be honest though material like that is hard to handle. That’s when it’s a good idea to turn to the world of literature, because gods might not pop up in films often but they’re all over the place in books. So here’s a look at several novels that deal with godly characters, though sadly aren’t in development as films.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Several of Neil Gaiman’s works have already found their way onto the screen (Stardust and Coraline,) but those were more family friendly fair. It’s time for some of the gifted fantasy author’s darker works to be brought to life on the big screen. American Gods is the story of Shadow, an ex-convict who is released from prison only to find out that his wife has died in a car crash while in the middle of an act of cheating with his best friend. Without a wife and without prospects Shadow takes up the offer to work as a body god for an older confidence man called Mr. Wednesday. However this tricky con man is not all that he seems and is soon revealed to be an incarnation of the Norse god Odin. Soon Shadow finds himself embroiled in a war between the modern “gods” of television, media and modern transportation and the ancient gods of legend such as Odin and the spider god Anansi (who goes by the name Mr. Nancy in the “real world.”)
The trickiest thing in terms of bringing this novel to the screen visually would be the frequent jumps between the real world and “behind the curtain” which is in a way a shadow of the real world which the gods can traverse freely. It’s a notion not altogether dissimilar to how director Peter Jackson portrayed the effects of wearing the One Ring in his Lord of the Rings films. Jackson would probably be a very good fit overall to direct this film if it ever went before camera. His potent sense of forward momentum and adept skill at handling outlandish visual and story elements would help make the fairly unorthodox tale more palpable to mainstream audiences.
Casting for Shadow could literally go almost anyway. He is described as large and muscular but Gaiman never gives specifics of race so that frees up the casting enormously. With a little bulking up character actor Chiwetel Ejiofor(American Gangster and Children of Men) could fit the role very well. Ejiofor could bring the necessary sympathy to the character of Shadow while still maintaining his sense of ambiguity. Casting the various gods would be a bit of a trick, ideally they would be played by actors with gravitas. For example British actor Brian Cox would be well suited for Mr. Wednesday, gruff yet ingratiating. Ossie Davis would have been perfect as Mr. Nancy but since his passing an actor like Danny Glover could fit the part well (no Morgan Freeman, the character is a bit too whimsical.)
Interestingly while many of Gaiman’s creations are in some degree of development as movies (including script work being done on this novel’s semi-sequel Anansi Boys) there’s been no evident movement towards bringing this one to life as a film. The inherent bizarreness of the premise is probably something that would frighten most studios, especially when so much of what’s going is not black and white, good guys versus bad guys. Even though Shadow himself is the main character the audience is never really privy to his thoughts or motivations which makes him a bit of an enigma at times, something that can be very difficult to make work on film. It would not be an easy film to adapt but the epic scale and inventive take on legends and modern items of worship could make for a truly inspired movie.
The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams is best remembered for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series but he also had a few novels set on Earth that had nothing to do with aliens, although this one did have a few Norse gods thrown into it. This was the second novel to deal with Dirk Gently, a self proclaimed “holistic detective” who’s finally managed to nab what looks to be a paying client. It seems like an easy paycheck as the client wants protection from a huge green monster with a scythe. Despite believing in the interconnectedness of all things Dirk draws the line at big green monsters, but that doesn’t stop him taking the job. However he’s forced to take things much more seriously when his client turns up decapitated. It isn’t long before Dirk is embroiled in an otherworldly series of events that involve everything from obstinate thunder gods to exploding airport check in desks, wild real estate schemes and a poor American named Kate living in London who just wants to get a pizza delivered.
While Adams’ Hitchhiker series had a delightful wandering way of telling the story the Dirk Gently novels are more straight forward, though that actually can make them tricky to follow. Adams cut down heavily on exposition so readers who aren’t paying serious attention can miss some of the reason for what’s going on, as much of it is left between the lines. This would require a very deft directing had, somebody who could juggle the various outlandish elements and have them flow in a way that felt natural. David Yates (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) would be a solid choice, having the shown that he has the skills to juggle large and complex stories without losing sight of the characters that are at the center of them. Also with this being one of Adams darker works the visual sensibility that Yates has brought to the latter Harry Potter films would serve it very well.
Casting a part like Dirk would be somewhat akin to casting Sherlock Holmes. That is not to say that Dirk is anywhere near the caliber of detective that Holmes is, but rather he’s the hero of the story yet his personality can be inherently off-putting. Without the right lead in the part the audience simply wouldn’t accept him as the hero. And actor such as John Simm (star of the original British version of the TV series Life on Mars) could bring the intelligence and just that touch of whimsy necessary to make the character work. An actress like Anne Hathaway could bring the likability and sense of normalcy to the role of Kate that helps stabilize the story somewhat. As for Thor, Vladimir Kulich (The 13th Warrior) with his massive build and impressive screen presence would be a total lock for the part. There’s also an elderly Odin living in a nursing home, happy to just have clean linen and it’s a small part that could be made wonderful by a classic actor such as Peter O’Toole.
This would be a bit of a hard sell to get made as a film for a number of reasons. First there’s the strangeness of the plot, the fact that it’s not the most beloved work of it’s author (though that’s all relative,) and the fact that the film version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy didn’t really take off. However with the right talent attached none of that should really matter. Wonderfully funny on an intellectual level this book could make a highly enjoyable, if slightly mind-mending, film.
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore has had several of his novels optioned as movies but thus far none have ever gotten past the script stage. This satirical look at the life of Jesus Christ hasn’t been optioned as yet, which is a shame because it has great potential. The entire story is told from the perspective of Biff, who befriended Jesus (called Joshua in the novel) at a young age and stuck with him all through their lives. Biff is not a shining beacon of light like his friend, in fact he’s a gambling, whore mongering, sneaky cheat of a man. However his loyalty to Joshua is unwavering, even if his morals aren’t nearly as solid. The bulk of the novel deals with the “missing years” of Joshua’s life, the 18 years between the ages of 12 and 30 which are not chronicled in the Bible. During those years Biff travels with Joshua as he goes on a search for each of the three wise men who were present for his birth. With the use of what he learns from each of the three wise men Joshua returns to Nazareth with Biff in tow and begins to fulfill his destiny.
For this to ever have any chance of working it would need the guiding hand of a director who can add humor through characters while treating the subject matter seriously. Edgar Wright, the co-writer and director of Shaun of the Dead would be a fantastic fit to the material. For those who never saw Shaun of the Dead it was essentially a romantic comedy set in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Most comedy horror films tend to get very jokey with the gore and supposedly horrific aspects, but Wright did something different. The zombies are treated as seriously as possible, they are deadly and when they get hold of a victim the gore is drastic. The comedy (and there’s plenty of it) all comes from the characters that are trying to survive, so the people are funny though the situation is not. It’s this kind of approach that would be essential for making this story work as a film.
Casting a movie like this would frankly be a bit of a nightmare for several reasons. The first is that casting characters such as Jesus/Joshua and Mary Magdalene are always going to be inherently loaded affairs. Beyond that whoever is cast needs to be able to believably portray the characters from their late teens through early thirties. Obviously make-up (and beards) can help with visual part which means it would probably be easiest to cast on the younger end of the spectrum. An actor like Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) has the talent and skill to pull off a role like Joshua, he’s very adept at portraying thoughtfulness and kindness which would be key. For Biff an actor such as Jonah Hill (Funny People) would be a great fit. While he’s closer to 30 he still has a very youthful appearance and could remain lovable through all of the amoral things that Biff has does. As for Mary Magdalene, aka Maggie, Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) has a natural beauty and gentleness to her yet she can still portray strength. This would actually be familiar ground for her as she’d already played the Virgin Mary in 2006’s Nativity Story.
Honestly this is a case where the reason for not making this into a film is very clear: backlash. While they often tend to just let books slide by there are many religious groups that love to get up in arms over movies they feel attack their faith. The picket lines would form on the premise of this story alone, and it wouldn’t matter how delicately the actual film handled it’s characters. Anybody who’s read the book could tell you that the character of Joshua is actually portrayed very respectfully, even though pretty much nothing else is sacred. While everything is told from the perspective of a morally questionable (at best) character the message and teachings are actually very true to the core values of Christianity. If uppity church groups could wrap their heads around the idea that a movie about Jesus can be funny yet still respectful they might even enjoy it. However as protests to films such as Dogma and Monty Python’s Life of Brian have shown over the years: the people who feel they should be offended won’t actually watch the film to find out if their anger is justified or not. If a movie studio ever got the nerve to back this project it could truly be something amazing and even uplifting.