Neil Gaiman breaks down Good Omens and its long, strange trip to the screen
- TV Show
Neil Gaiman is back at the Chateau Marmont. It’s been almost 30 years since he and Terry Pratchett were first flown to Los Angeles and put up at the hotel to discuss a potential screenplay based on their then-new novel, Good Omens. The book, first published in 1990, is a sprawling end-of-the-world epic, following angels, demons, witches, witchfinders, children, dogs, and a preteen Antichrist, as an apocalyptic battle looms on the horizon. That early trip to Los Angeles was one of Gaiman and Pratchett’s first attempts to see the story brought to the screen — the first of many.
Now, three decades later, Gaiman is once again at the Chateau, this time alone but with Good Omens finally within reach. He’s here talking to journalists a few days before the show’s debut, having written all six episodes and served as showrunner. It was his idea to meet at the Chateau Marmont — although, he says with a laugh, when he and Pratchett were first here, the hotel “was not the fancy-schmancy Marmont of today. It was pretty grungy.” Being here now, with the show finally in the can, he’s not sure how to feel.
He finally settles on: “Weird. So weird.” He pauses. “So happy.”
With all six episodes of Good Omens now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, it marks the end of a years-long journey filled with false starts, shelved scripts, and one bittersweet last request. On one hand, the book seemed like an obvious choice for an adaptation: A book-loving angel named Aziraphale (played in the show by Michael Sheen) and a slippery demon named Crowley (David Tennant) form an unlikely alliance and team up to stop the biblical apocalypse. The pair have lived on Earth since the Garden of Eden, growing rather accustomed to their terrestrial lifestyles. Despite orders from their bosses above and below, they’d rather not see the world end in fire and flame.
The book became a cult hit, but despite Pratchett and Gaiman’s attempts, a Good Omens adaptation never got off the ground. That early attempt to pitch a screenplay was met with resistance. As Gaiman puts it: “[We were] trying to explain to the studio that actually it wasn’t a romance between Julia Roberts as Anathema — who they kept pronouncing Atha-neema — and Tom Cruise as a witchfinder, with a sort of 18-year-old Adam who’s, like, hot for the witch but respects the witchfinder.”
Terry Gilliam was later attached to direct a film version in 2002, with Robin Williams and Johnny Depp reportedly set to play Aziraphale and Crowley, but that fell apart. Almost a decade later, Gilliam’s Monty Python cohort Terry Jones signed on to turn Good Omens into a TV show, but that stalled too. Things dragged on for so long that Pratchett and Gaiman joked about whether a movie would ever happen, writing in a “frequently asked questions” section published at the back of the book: “Neil likes to think that one day maybe there will, and Terry is certain that it will never happen. In either case, neither of them will believe it until they’re actually eating popcorn at the premiere. And even then, probably not.”
“We’d approached some of the best writers in the business,” Gaiman says. “And they’d all said very, very politely and respectfully, ‘I don’t know how you would do this [to] make it as TV. It’s too weird, it’s too shapeless, I’m not really sure what the plot is.’ And one person, one eminent and award-winning writer had a go and had done an outline for us, and Terry and I read it and were both like, ‘No, that’s completely wrong. Everything about that is wrong.’”
Finally, in 2014, Pratchett wrote Gaiman a letter. He’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, and as his condition worsened, he asked his longtime friend and writing partner if he would make the show himself. He wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it, he told Gaiman, and he knew Gaiman would make a show he would actually want to watch. Gaiman agreed and set to work on a six-episode outline. He began writing the first script shortly after Pratchett died in 2015, with the goal of creating a show for one: “an audience of Terry.”
“I come home from the funeral and I start writing the first episode,” Gaiman explains. “So for me, it’s a sort of strange process of coming to terms with my friend’s death, being around him and channeling him and dealing with [that].”
Gaiman’s solo writing has been adapted for film and TV before, from Coraline and How to Talk to Girls at Parties to Stardust and American Gods. But although he’d largely taken a hands-off approach with those, he threw himself into Good Omens, hiring Doctor Who alum Douglas Mackinnon to direct and serving as showrunner himself. He also says he found himself being far more militant about changes to Good Omens, pushing back on suggestions of what to cut or rework. If Pratchett couldn’t be here to advocate for himself, he decided, he’d have to do the advocating on his behalf.
“There was a lot of, ‘No, we’re not cutting all the Agnes Nutter stuff because that was Terry’s scene, and he wrote that, and I wrote it to honor Terry, so f— off!’” Gaiman says with a laugh. “That kind of thing, which I would never do in reality. I’m sweet!”
“He was always very clear it was a very personal project,” Tennant adds. “He was doing it to honor Terry Pratchett’s dying wish. And this was not something that Neil Gaiman, best-selling novelist, needs to necessarily do with his time. He could’ve probably written four novels in the time he devoted to getting this on screen. So it was very special to have him there.”
Still, the nature of adaptation meant changing and adding things. When Gaiman first sat down with the book, he divided it into six parts, placing Post-It notes to mark a new episode every 60-ish pages. When the third section didn’t have any scenes with Crowley or Aziraphale, he wrote new ones, tracing the pair’s friendship from the Garden of Eden and Noah’s ark to the French Revolution and the London Blitz. Sometimes he incorporated ideas from an unwritten sequel he and Pratchett had kicked around, and he expanded some characters who were barely mentioned in the book (like the handsome and irritatingly righteous archangel Gabriel, played by Jon Hamm).
“It would’ve been quite a very different experience and quite a scary experience to try and adapt a book that is so loved and so perfectly realized without Neil at the heart of every choice,” Sheen says. “Every decision would’ve been very scary. Because inevitably things have to change, and the confidence and boldness that Neil did that with inspires everyone in it. You feel like, well, the person who’s in control of this ship knows what he’s doing [and] knows these seas very well.”
Now, almost 30 years after he and Pratchett wrote the book, Gaiman has steered that ship into harbor. And at the show’s U.K. premiere this week, he left a seat for Pratchett’s hat, scarf, and a bag of popcorn.
“This wasn’t done to fill six hours of television,” Gaiman says. “This was done because we wanted this thing to exist and it wouldn’t exist if we didn’t make it. So we made it. The last thing in Good Omens is one final black screen that says, ‘For Terry,’ and that’s who we made it for.”