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‘Good Omens’ the Series: Is it Better than the Book?

The logo of the "Good Omens" television series.
The logo of the "Good Omens" television series. By Courtesy of GFXChunkie / Wikimedia Commons
By Emma E. Chan, Crimson Staff Writer

“Good Omens” is a wonderfully witty, cleverly constructed, and beautifully tender show about an angel and a demon thwarting the end of the world. As a story about the ineffable workings of the world, the necessity of empathetic imagining, and the impossibility and tragedy of love, “Good Omens” stands on its own as a work of art with intense emotional and artistic appeal. Yet the central question of any adaptation looms above the series: Is it better than the book?

Of course, this question opens a chicken-and-egg discussion: The book, published in 1990, obviously became the source material for the subsequent TV series. Yet the question becomes troubled when considering the varied inspirations for “Good Omens.” The series is a matryoshka doll of adaptation and retelling: The book takes inspiration from parts of the Bible like the temptation of Eve in addition to drawing on the story of “The Omen,” a 1976 film about the Antichrist; the first season is an adaptation of the book; and the second season is a derivative, yet wholly original, conversation with — and continuation of — the original text. There is even a 2015 BBC Radio 4 Dramatization, including behind-the-scenes clips from authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

My purpose in this article, then, is not purely comparative. It would be especially unproductive, perhaps even disrespectful, to declare any one better than its counterparts. I hope to unpack the merits of each adaptation, particularly the book, Season 1, and the newly written Season 2, as a case study in the generative potential — and pitfalls — of the journey from page to screen.

Part of the genius of “Good Omens” on the page is its acerbic wit, wry commentary, and self-aware narration; the book’s intricate turns of phrase and dry humor are difficult to communicate through the screen. The book’s opening lines exemplify this tongue-in-cheek narration: “It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them, and rain hadn’t been invented yet,” the narrator describes, setting the scene of the temptation of Eve. Though the book also places diminishing emphasis on the narration as the plot progresses, the periodic intrusions from the narrator inject lighthearted wit into even the most somber situations, a quality that is sorely missed especially in the second season of “Good Omens.” Frances McDormand’s voice acting in the first season delivers a delightful dose of this narration, but the first season relies more heavily on its characters with each episode to avoid slowing pacing and dissipating narrative tension. This is the first transformation of television adaptation: consistency of narration and contextual description.

While syntax uniquely communicates pacing, tension, and tone, television has its own language and tools to manipulate pacing, including editing, dialogue, camera movement. Indeed, the act of translation between the visual and literary mediums requires us to spend time and care with the characters, gleaning information about the time they have spent together from their mannerisms and inside jokes. The book’s narration provides wonderfully intricate portraits of angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley's relationship over time. “In the background Crowley and Aziraphale met on the tops of buses, and in art galleries, and at concerts, compared notes, and smiled,” the novel reads, ellipsing time and space into a single, delightful sentence. On the other hand, the show allows us to watch this relationship unfold anecdotally, lending new meaning to the actors’ body language and microexpressions. Each medium offers a new way of understanding — and falling in love with — the characters. For example, caught in the crossfire of a workplace team building paintball fight, the fastidious Aziraphale’s coat is splattered with paint. While the book moves on quickly from this moment, the television series shows Crowley begrudgingly indulging Aziraphale’s pouting, miraculously removing the stain. The show’s visual language shines through in these moments, allowing Aziraphale and Crowley’s minute interactions to speak for themselves.

Rather than obliquely referencing the plot of the first season, the second season deftly picks up where the action left off — another major success of the show. Without spoiling the plot, the second season revisits a moment of tenderness from the first, retrospectively building continuity while simultaneously pushing the plot of the second season forward. While this constant oscillation between past and present can become slightly convoluted, the throwback also smooths the stylistic and narrative transition between the first and second seasons. The introduction of new characters, lack of metatextual narration, and derivative plotlines may make the second season jarringly distinctive, yet the retelling of — and expansion on — scenes from the first season neatly connects the two.

Furthermore, television — and acting in general — is an embodied art form, so casting becomes an act of interpretation itself. Indeed, one of the fandom’s central points of debate is the visualizations of the characters. Aziraphale is hardly described at all save for his “elegantly manicured hands,” while Crowley has “dark hair and good cheekbones” in the novel. The lanky, swaggering David Tenant and the prim and proper Michael Sheen are often praised for their depictions of the beloved characters; they’ve both received several award nominations for their respective portrayals, and have become fan favorites for their “chemistry.”

Still, viewers even took to social media to ask Neil Gaiman himself about discrepancies or discontinuities between the written and acted characters. Topics of discussion included why TV Crowley’s pupils don’t dilate, why TV Crowley’s hair is red instead of dark, and a slew of other questions that draw subtle distinctions between the book characters and their television counterparts. In my opinion, the most productive way of resolving these tensions is by thinking about the book and show as two parallel words: one embodied, one formed through the act of a reader’s imagination. As I’ve alluded to, the TV versions of the characters cannot ever embody every minute detail mentioned in the book, nor should they be expected to. Instead, the TV adaptation has different priorities than the accuracy of Crowley’s apartment decorations or the color of his hair — interestingly, his hair is an even more vibrant red in the second season, further distanced from the book.

Finally, a popular metric for the success of an adaptation is a more nebulous, slippery issue: whether it has captured or continued the spirit of the original. Though I have my own personal opinions on the matter — for one, the second season’s special effects lend the supernatural a sheen of artifice — I think that such an ill-defined concept is unproductive from a critical perspective. Nevertheless, the affordances of both television and literature have undoubtedly captured the hearts and minds of fans in every form.

—In "Sentence to Screen," Emma E. Chan '26 examines what is lost — or gained — in the process of translating a written work to TV or film. Drop her a line at emma.chan@thecrimson.com.

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