Adapting any book for film or television automatically requires simplification. Themes are altered, characters reduced, emphasis shifted towards those things that visual representation does better. Sometimes, though, a television series offers the opportunity to expand. Sometimes it demands it, requiring transitional scenes that can be sped through on the page. What Neil Gaiman has done, on many occasions, is to concretize parts of the book that existed merely as comic asides: footnotes a la Pratchett.
There’s a perfect example in the open to episode 4, as Gaiman and Amazon go to a lot of time and trouble and expense, not to mention the CGI, to animate the near throwaway paragraph where Atlantis rises from the ocean depths. It’s a direct transition from the previous episode. which ended with Adam Young – the Antichrist, you may recall – under the influence of Anathema Device’s New Age concerns, dreaming away an entire Nuclear Power Plant, and this is his raising Atlantis.
It’s fun, and very well-made, but I think he and Pratchett got it right first time, since the joke works well as a quick, clipped, absurdist sting, setting up and smacking you with its punchline and clearing out of the way for the next gag. Here, it’s spectacular, but inevitably slow. The camera has to linger to make it worthwhile.
There are other examples that are more important in that they directly impinge on the story: the UFO landing and the message of Cosmic Peace delivered to Newton Pulsifer that blows it thanks to some very poor acting by the Alien Leader, and the Tibetan pair digging a secret tunnel and causing Pulsifer’s Reliant Robin to crash outside Anathema’s cottage. They have to be done but in each case, the concretization doesn’t completely work because the book version is more compact and the series has to convert things into real-time, not reading-time.
On the other hand, since time is now at a bit of a premium, our Delivery Driver has to summon the two remaining Horsemen, Pollution and Death. And you can guess just how he has to attract the latter’s intention. So before this happens, Gaiman throws in a scene early on Saturday morning, in his bedroom. The Driver’s wife, Maud, an ordinary middle-aged woman in a garish orange nightie, doesn’t want him to go. She’d rather he came back to bed, It’s nothing sexy. It’s just an understated scene demonstarting the love and commitment between two people, who you wouldn’t look at twice in the streets, but who together make up a pair, committed to one another, for whom love-making is every bit as vital as it is for the handsome and the virile, yet is just one of many ways in which they share their lives together. And which is about to stop dead.
This concretization expands wonderfully on the implications in the book. Death describes the Driver’s demise as ‘leaving early to avoid the rush’, but it’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually at stake here, an understable and touching microcosm represzenting the macrocosm that is at the end of this story but which is simply too much to imagine or take seriously. This we can, and do, take seriously.
We’re now in the back half of the series and, more importantly, it’s Saturday, the day of Armageddon, so not much time left. Crowley and Aziraphale are still not working together, a combination of the Angel’s genuine concerns about the propriety of working with the Demon and the total contrast between their attitudes to where they are. Crowley has given up hope, it’s all useless, Armageddon is going to happen and nothing, least of all the pair of them, will stop it. Aziraphale, on the other hand, is still blessed with the belief that everything can be resolved without all this nasty destroy-the-Earth-and-everybody-upon-it business, if only everybody would just sit down and discuss it sensibly, over a nice cup of tea and some thinly-sliced sandwiches. Cut diagonally.
It’s just not going to hapen. Things are coming to a head. Wars have been stigmatised as merely the end product of economic competition, which is basically blinding yourself to the truth: that often they are just what happens when people reach the point of not being able to tolerate the sight of each other. All the Angels in Heaven and Devils in Hell, except one on each side, are set upon War. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we weren’t stuck in the bloody middle. And it’s going to be bloody alright.
Because the focus of it all is an 11 year old boy who happens to be the Son of the Devil, the Antichrist, etc. Adam Young, leader of the Them, a Just William mischief-maker for no better reason than that he’s 11, and his friends Pepper, Wensleydale and Brian are 11, and they live in an idyllic land that Adam has, subconsciously, made into the perfect children’s book playground, and he’s the World Champion at filling up the endless hours with the best games, to keep boredom at a distance.
And Adam Young has just stared at an image of the Devil in Anathema Device’s cottage. He may not have had the least instruction or inkling as to who he is and what he can do but he’s still the trigger for Armageddon and, matephorically he’s started ticking. Adam is taking control of the world, starting with the rest of the Them, and he’s terrifying them. With an 11 year old’s zeal he’s going to wipe the world clean and re-start it with all the games that an 11 year old mind can conceive, free from anything constraining him or them from doing whatever they want whenever they want it. Adam’s so lost in himself he can’t see that he’s doing the exact oposite to his friends, who are left with no option but to do whatever Adam wants whenever Adam wants it. When he removes their mouths so that they cannot even say they disagree it’s a moment of utter horror, all the more forceful for its relevance to a world in which one political party is doing everything it can to stifle even the most inefectual opposition to its actions.
It’s also a moment in which trust is irrevocably breached. This is a story, and things will change, but I for one could never again give the remotest amount of trust to a ‘friend’ who forced that on me.
So it’s begun. Not only are Crowley and Aziraphale out on their own, without support, but their respective sides have begun to suspect them of collaboration with the enemy. Which is, to be fair, true. Aziraphale finsally reaches as high as he’s going to get, the Matatron, the Word of God, Derek Jacobi’s floating and talking head. The rot goes all the way to the top. He’s going to have to ally himself with Crowley, because there is no-one else on his side. Which is when the misunderstanding Witchfinder-Sergeant Shadwell intervenes, performing an on-the-fly exorcism that results in Aizraphale stepping over a line he shouldn’t have, and discorporating. And his bookshop catching fire.
Things aren’t looking very hopeful, are they?