Sex and Maximalism: Why the Best Adaptations Are Like Fanfiction


Omid Abtahi as Salim and Mousa Kraish as the Jinn © 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC / © 2017 FremantleMedia North America.

In my last two years of college, I pulled all-nighters roughly two out of every three nights, partly because I was taking far too many classes, but mostly because I was a champion procrastinator. In order to keep myself awake and to find a way to avoid the work I was staying up to do, I spent a lot of time on Livejournal, in the labyrinths of the weird, early internet. Inevitably, a lot of these Livejournals tended to lead to fanfiction communities, and because I was so eager for something with which to procrastinate, I would click through to them even if I didn’t particularly care about their source material. I just wanted a world to escape into, and I didn’t much care which world it was.

But often these stories would turn out to be far more compelling than the original text had ever been for me. I’d find myself pulled into some grand narrative universe that, instead of focusing on one particular relationship or plotline, had decided to create its own narrative, larger and more intricate than the source material on which it was based. In online fanfiction, every single character was shipped with every single other character and there were love triangles for every possible combination of people. Characters who had spoken all of three words in the book were suddenly granted novella-length backstories and intricate loves and losses. A tormented love story between Hermione and Tonks, for instance, would derail for 20,000 words or so while we learn about a shopgirl in Hogsmeade who never spoke a word in the book and her struggles to cut ties with her abusive wizard-family. These sprawling narratives detailed every custom of their imaginary society, growing the world of the source material from its few contained stage sets to a fully embodied system with commerce and religion and cops and fucking.

Fucking was key, too: A great deal of fanfiction, in particular those serialized stories that gained a large following, was at least partially erotica, filled with explicitly pornographic extended sex scenes in a way that mainstream published material of course can’t be. Sex was the most obvious place where this work deviated from not just the source material but from the genre of mainstream published work entirely. In a “real” book, with considerations of audience and marketability, sex of course has to be edited down, tethered and neutered and made implicit. A frequently made and very accurate joke states that you can tell whether something is “serious literature” if all the sex in it is bad and boring. In fact, sex in Capital L-Literature is so commonly poorly written and such an active turn-off that an official award (The Bad Sex Award) was created to honor the worst sex scenes in literature. But in fanfiction, every plausibly implicit sexual impulse in the source material becomes screamingly explicit. It could be argued that you can judge the strength of a work’s online fanbase by how comprehensively the internet is able to tell you about how its characters fuck.

Sex was the avenue by which the text left its source, leapt free of the bounds, and entered a different world, one where maximalism trumped economy, and pure hedonism overruled narrative. Part of the traditional strategy of literature, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy writing, is to generate unfulfilled desire in a reader, to give them a glimpse into a larger world and drive them through the longing for more of this world to keep turning pages. Mainstream published SF/F runs on the fuel of this unfulfilled desire. But fanfiction was an infinite candy store. Whatever you had wanted to know or wished for more of in the original text was here, and you could have as much of it as you wanted. Fanfiction was pure desire, iterating into an endless hall of mirrors.

I’m not the first person to say that the tagline for Bryan Fuller’s American Gods adaptation could be “see a new penis in every episode!” Many other writers (and people on Twitter) have noted the proliferation of explicit sex in the episodes of the show’s first season. Perhaps more unusual even than the explicit nature of the sexual content is the fact that much of the sex is actually hot, rather than a tragic or disturbing device by which to justify later plot points. And the sexual content doesn’t begin and end with actual intercourse between characters: Fuller renders everything from skeletons to bullets to a map of America into a visual allegory for sex. American Gods is a deeply and profoundly horny TV show. And of course it is: it’s fanfiction.

Fuller’s adaptation of Gaiman’s novel isn’t a faithful one, and that’s where its genius lies. Instead, it’s the grand, operatic, incomplete, many-multi-part fanfiction you would find when you were up at 4am, wide-eyed and buzzing and sleepless. The show has the same sense of being plugged into a sweaty universe of equally wired, panting brains, fetid and shameful and all loving something desperately, all refusing to accept that the thing they love might be finite. Fuller pulls at every visible thread until the material itself collapses around him and then reshapes that material into something more like a hyperlinked map than a story. Every brief story, every offhand comment, every character’s background, gets a full life and narrative, loves and dreams and hopes. His adaptation of Gaiman’s novel is both a riff and a tribute, a passion project that exudes love for the original text from its seams. But in its shaggy, life-affirming maximalism, it in fact – in my opinion – surpasses its source text by turning it inside out, throwing the hidden details into the spotlight

Laura’s stand-alone backstory episode, “Git Gone,” is perhaps the clearest example of the show’s particular achievement. This episode follows a well-known trope in fanfiction, in which the main narrative pauses and, in a brand-new chapter, gives a character who had little personality or presence in the original a detailed and moving backstory, deviating from the source text by fleshing out a person the source text had left a cipher. In the novel, Laura crucially propels the plot forward, but she exists only in terms of her relationship with and reactions to Shadow, and the writing of her character mimics the way certain men decide to love a woman without that woman ever consenting to be equally present in the relationship, the way one person can love another person while at the same time not allowing that person to be fully human. But Laura in the TV show is painfully human, with a recognizable inner life that is no one’s but her own. She is subject rather than object, brought to the forefront in the way that fanfiction would offer a secondary character a full humanity that the original text had not had space to grant them.

I yelled out loud with joy when Salim showed up again in episode six, “A Murder of Gods,” his taxi coming into focus in the parking lot of the motel. In the books, Salim’s story is a stand-alone setpiece. In the novel, the Coming to America sequences are separate, chapters that act as page-breaks between pieces of the main story. Some of them deal with gods who appear as characters in the book otherwise, but many of them introduce to characters who never enter the rest of the story. In the book, Salim is one of these. After one of the book’s more explicit sex scenes, he disappears, left to linger as a question, as an unfulfilled desire; we return to him only much later and only in a single sentence. But here he gets to be part of the big story because, presumably, Fuller finds him too interesting to let him go, and because – again presumably – it’s what the audience wants. We want more of Salim, more of his love story with the jinn. We want him to be a person with annoyances and frustrations and longings, a person who orders coffee at a bar and has a deeply personal relationship to his god. And because this is fanfiction, because this is the maximalist realm of fulfilled desire, we get to have that. We don’t have to leave Salim trapped in the amber of a single encounter, but can instead follow his newly invented and fully human story.

In fact, the TV show even does this for Shadow, the most cipher-like of all its characters. Although in some ways his story and presence only frame the brighter characters who move around him, Fuller’s adaptation extends far more humanity to him because it has the space, the slow-bursting capacious time, that the book necessarily doesn’t – it can linger on his house, his bedroom, his job before he went to prison, it can connect the dots of who he was and what he wanted and how he got here, making him into a person who has loved and been tender and made mistakes, a protagonist by whom the audience can enter the story not because he is blank but because he is recognizable.

Fuller’s universe has always been a maximalist one, even in the far more controlled psychological horror of Hannibal, but here that impulse toward maximalism is given absolutely free reign. Fuller operating with a sky-high budget and near-unlimited reputational goodwill turns out to generate the same kind of freedom available to an entirely anonymous individual writing fanfiction on the internet for free. If what if [x] but too much is exactly what you want from art, then this show is for you. Its fanfiction-maximalism offers the sense of a whole life, the difference between plot and existence, between a book and a county, the whole of it crawling with lives, each of which blossoms into an entire birth-to-death narrative, each one of them having loved something desperately, having wanted someone, having had jobs they hated and lied to people and tried to be better and failed to be better and left things behind and started over and failed again and gone around and around in circles in the tangled forward motion of their own small and limitless being.

This was what those unwieldy, unfeasible fanfictions did, the ones that spun out for hundreds of chapters, developed rabid followings and often came to nothing, the author realizing they had created something much too large to ever be completed, far beyond their sole creator’s ability to resolve the thread. But in an unfinished state, they promised a grand capaciousness, more life, that all of our small days, our wants and our failures, mattered, that they belonged within the big stories that the world had deemed good and acceptable. It’s no surprise that many of today’s #ownvoices authors got their start in fanfiction, a world that always offered humanity to people who had not by default been the heroes in traditional stories, and it’s no surprise that Fuller’s TV show spends so much more time on characters who are not white and not male than the source material first did, bringing these voices out of the margins and onto the center of the page.

Fuller, much like many of those largely anonymous fanfiction authors, is writing for a rabid fanbase rather than a general audience. His show is able to work like fanfiction because it is meant first and foremost for a small group of people who love it rather than for a large group of strangers it might hope to persuade to like it. But as fanfiction did, when it compelled me to fritter away the hours when I was supposed to be writing papers in college, it in fact makes something that’s more important, more widely applicable, than something constrained by the boundaries of marketability, accessibility, and commonly accepted good taste. There’s a palpable sense, as there was in so much early online writing, of the creator’s absolutely gleeful, borderline-sexual joy at their work as it unfolds, and that sense offers a capaciousness that, in its dream-like flights of fancy, is able to depict almost the full and horrible strangeness of real life.