Talking with Neil Gaiman about “Good Omens”

Adrian Liang on June 03, 2019
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Friday, May 31, witnessed the highly anticipated launch of Good Omens on Amazon Prime Video. Based on the novel written 30 years ago by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the 6-episode show follows the unlikely alliance between demon Crowley (played with swagger by David Tennant) and angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen, being adorable and steadfast at once).

The birth of the Antichrist will set Armageddon in motion, and the war between heaven and hell will decide the fate of the world. But after 6,000 years on earth, Crowley and Aziraphale pretty much like it the way it is. When Crowley is unexpectedly handed the infant Antichrist to place among the humans and start the doomsday clock a-ticking, Crowley and Aziraphale decide to thwart Armageddon as best they can.

While beloved by readers for 30 years, Good Omens forged a path from page to screen that was “very, very long and strewn with rocks and thistles and land mines,” according to showrunner and screenwriter Neil Gaiman. Terry Gilliam got a copy of the novel early on and tried to acquire the rights to it, but the rights went to someone else. Gilliam eventually managed to get the rights, and, says Gaiman, “wrote a fantastic script, got Johnny Depp as Crowley and Robin Williams as Aziraphale, and went to Hollywood to get the last few million that he needed to send it out.” But it was just after 9/11, and “nobody was interested in an end-of-the-world comedy.”

After Gilliam himself suggested that Pratchett and Gaiman turn the novel into a television series, Pratchett tapped Gaiman on the shoulder to do it. Recalls Gaiman, “Terry Pratchett wound up writing me a letter and saying, ‘You have to do this. You have the same love for and passion for and understanding of the old girl that I do. So you have to make this so I can see it. And I’ll help in any way I can, but I want to see this.’ And then he died very shortly after, much to our astonishment. I thought we had him for years…. I wrote the scripts, and then decided that the only way that the thing I’d written was actually going to get made was if I was showrunner. So I show-ran it.”

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Being Good Omens’ showrunner changed Gaiman’s perspective on adaptations. “It made me determined to play slightly less well with others…. All of the things I love about Good Omens and made sure I put in were the things that other people would have taken out.” This has affected how he now responds to requests to adapt his works. “I’m now much more like, ‘Yes, you can adapt this, but you have to stick to the thing that I wrote a lot closer. You know, you can’t just go off and make up your own story.’”

While the show is faithful to the novel, with some dialogue straight from the original, there are changes as well. Gaiman and Pratchett had talked about writing sequels to the book, and some of those elements made it into the television show. “The angels really aren’t in the book, but they play a huge part in the TV show, and I borrowed our angels from unwritten sequels.”

When asked what effect 30 years of readers' feedback had on the television adaptation, Gaiman replied, “Knowing that it was a beloved book was probably the most important thing.” He cited BBC’s survey of the best-loved novels in Britain, and Good Omens was number 68 on the list. “Knowing that and carrying that as a responsibility not to betray that love was important.”

With Good Omens now launched into the television realm, Gaiman can turn his gaze back to writing. “I have a novel that I stopped writing during chapter 4 two years ago when Good Omens took over my life and we moved into high-speed pre-production…. I’m planning on opening the little canvas shopping bag that that notebook is wrapped in and taking it out very reverently, opening it up, and hoping that the story is still there for me.”


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