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How fandom made the Good Omens miniseries better (and gayer) than the book
I'm just going to say it: I liked the Good Omens miniseries more than the novel. It's sacrilege among Book Folks, my people, to admit this, but sometimes recasting an old story into a new medium improves the experience. (Remember Legally Blonde, the Amanda Brown novel? Of course you don't.) There are several reasons why I preferred the show, but mostly it's because the novel didn't have Aziraphale and Crowley's queer-as-hell relationship — unarguably the best part — as the main focus.
So when I say Good Omens the show is "better" than Good Omens the book, what I mean is, it's gayer.
Good Omens isn't unique in its having fans who read queerness into the text. Fandoms have been doing this for years: Supernatural immediately comes to mind, as does The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What does make Good Omens unique is that this fan-created queer love story — a fairy tale for the end of the world — pretty much came true when the story was adapted from the page to the screen.
Consider the standard one-sentence summary of the miniseries, which goes like this: In the final days leading up to the final battle between Heaven and Hell, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley work together to thwart the apocalypse. Reviews may continue from there to praise the show's casting, humor, or Emmy-nominated music — but then, inevitably, every article says something like "at its heart, this is a love story," in reference to the obvious Crowley-and-Aziraphale-Making-Heart-Eyes-At-Each-Other moments throughout.
Here's the thing, though: I don't think it actually is a love story. Or rather, I don't think the book was.
A more accurate novel summary is this: Shortly after his 11th birthday, Adam Young starts displaying mysterious powers. As various supernatural forces gather around him, he and his friends (the Them) decide if their world is worth saving.
Crowley and Aziraphale are there from the beginning (literally), but they are far from the center of the book. Keaton Coleman did the math so the rest of us don't have to, explaining that:
by incredibly liberal estimates, either Aziraphale or Crowley is present for 3776 lines in the novel, or 111 of the 369 total pages in the 2007 HarperCollins edition… and only 60 of those 111 pages have both [Crowley and Aziraphale together].
Again, for emphasis: Only 60 of 369 pages feature Crowley and Aziraphale interacting with one another. That means for 309 pages, the book is about something else. That's 84 percent of the book in which Crowley and Aziraphale as characters, let alone as characters with any sort of relationship, don't even factor in at all.
You'd never know that, watching the series. Crowley (David Tennant) and Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) are obviously the central characters of the show; they're on all the promotional materials, and they get more screen time than anyone else, even the Anti-Christ himself. As Vrai Kaiser notes in an article that also talks about the influence of fanfiction on the text, "It shows the series' priorities when there's an entire new set of jokes about Crowley's demonic involvement with cell phones… while Adam's tomboy friend Pepper is still quoting the same '90s feminism talking points from the book." Other critics have similarly argued the series seems to drag when Sheen and Tenant are not on the screen.
Though I don't have the math to back it up, it's obvious that in this adaptation, Crowley and Aziraphale are way more than 16 percent of the story. They are the story.
And reading that story as obviously gay isn't even up for debate to me, even without gestures of physical intimacy or sweeping declarations of love (except, there is, even then: What else would you call Crowley shouting "We can run away together!" if not a declaration of love?).
Anyone who still questions this isn't paying attention. You can read about it in Tor. And The Geekiary. And Gizmodo. And Refinery29. And — well, you get my point. Reviewers have loads of evidence for their queer interpretation, from the subtle — noting the song "You're My Best Friend," playing when Crowley drives to Aziraphale's bookshop, was written by Queen's bassist about his wife and therefore not about platonic friendship at all — to the more obvious, like when Crowley endures physical pain to rescue Aziraphale from Nazis, or when the worst threat Aziraphale thinks of is that he'll "never talk to [Crowley] again," or when Crowley completely loses it when he thinks Aziraphale is dead.
And there's the way Crowley looks at Aziraphale when the angel says he gave away the flaming sword, and the way Crowley looks at him whenever Aziraphale indulges in human food, and the way Crowley looks at him when he invites Aziraphale to stay at his place when the bookstore burns down. And the way Aziraphale looks at Crowley when he wants the stain off his jacket, and the way Aziraphale looks at him when Crowley saves his books, and the way Aziraphale looks at him when Crowley pushes him against the nunnery wall, and the way Aziraphale looks at him when he says, "You move too fast for me, Crowley." Basically any time either of them looks at the other, which is all the time. These men-shaped creatures are in love, people.
These heart-pounding, wish-fulfilling, "OMG-just-kiss-already" moments are what really hooked me on the show. Partly, the appeal is about queer visibility, the chance to watch what is essentially a good-girl-meets-bad-boy rom-com that isn't heterosexual, but more than that, I love their love because it's (basically) right there on the screen. Even if it's not sealed with a kiss (which is troubling criteria in the first place for making a relationship real), there's a ton of canonical support for this couple. So many fan-favorite ships are never fulfilled even to this extent (I, personally, will die waiting for Legolas and Aragorn to figure it out). Plus, the will-they-won't-they anticipation of it all is really good fun.
Since I watched the show before reading the novel, I couldn't wait to dive into all the queer goodness surely waiting for me in the book (thinking, as Book Folks do, that novels go much deeper into relationships than adaptations). What was obvious, but unspoken, in the show would finally be spelled out! (Aka, I wanted to read all the gooey lovestruck thoughts in Crowley's head when he asks Aziraphale to run away with him.)
"Where is the queer love story?" I asked as hundreds of pages went by without any scenes of Crowley and Aziraphale together. It's there, sort of, if you squint: Anathema assumes they're a couple when she gets a ride in the Bentley and hears Crowley say to Aziraphale, "Get in, angel." Crowley often calls Aziraphale "angel" (it's literally true, but as TV Tropes points out, the name has certain implications), while Aziraphale frequently refers to Crowley as "my dear" or "dear boy." Still, it isn't at all as present as it is in the show.
I'm here for the supernatural gay love. I wanted to shake the book in my hands and shout at it. "Where the hell is it?"
I mean no disrespect to the book by this, mind you (and certainly no disrespect to Neil Gaiman — you're doing great, boo), but even though the novel is good, it's missing the vital spark I felt in the show.
So what changed?
In the nearly 30 years that have passed between the publication of the novel and the premiere of the show, how did Crowley and Aziraphale go from being "men-shaped creatures" that had merely grown "accustomed to the only other face that had been around more or less consistently for six millennia" to becoming the sweeping love story at the heart of the miniseries?
Partly the amplified queerness of the show can be attributed to the medium itself: screen adaptations have the advantage of visual and audial cues (like love songs playing in the background) unavailable in text-based stories. The chemistry between actors, too, is a big factor. As Jef Rouner notes, even if the on-screen relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley is supposed to be "fairly sexless and fraternal," that becomes impossible because "well, David Tennant plays Crowley, and there is just nothing sexless or fraternal about David Tennant, ever. Especially not when he is sauntering around in black skinny jeans."
Notwithstanding my own lifelong crush on David Tennant, I believe the series' overtly gay transformation goes beyond any actor's performance. Sure, it's on record in multiple places that Sheen and Tennant played the characters as being in love — in one interview, Sheen told Tennant, "Aziraphale just loves Crowley… My objective in this scene is to not show you how much I love you and just gaze longingly at you the whole time," and Tennant, laughing, answered, "Crowley absolutely loves Aziraphale; he hates that he loves him; it's really annoying for him" — but even then, where did they get an idea like that? Because it definitely wasn't from the book.
You, of course, already know where they got the idea. It's the same place I went when I found myself frustrated at the novel, wondering where all the gay was. I went to Tumblr, Reddit, Fanfiction.net; hubs of fan culture — they knew what I wanted: Crowley and Aziraphale kissing and cuddling and having sexy times, living in their love cottage. And so it was in fanfiction that I found the book I actually wanted to read, stories with Crowley and Aziraphale's relationship as the focus and not just a subplot of a larger ensemble.
Spend three seconds on those websites and it's clear the Ineffable Husbands undeniably rule this fandom — there's hardly a glimpse of Adam and the Them, Anathema and Newt, or Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracey to be found. This fandom is queer as hell, y'all.
The most exciting part about this is that the fandom had the power to shift the narrative of the original text. Think about it: The novel was not that gay and there were a lot of characters getting more attention than Crowley and Aziraphale. Fans write thirty years' worth of gay fanfiction and ignore the other characters. Then the adaptation comes out focusing almost exclusively on Crowley and Aziraphale and it's super gay. That's just cause and effect!
Need more proof? Michael Sheen openly admits to using fanfiction as inspiration for the role of Aziraphale. He knows what's up, even mentioning the ship in a Bustle interview: "There's so much fan fiction and fan art," he said. "I saw a picture…of me braiding [Crowley's] hair." Also there's the Reddit user who complained that "the sheer volume of 'Aziraphale and Crowley are in love' content" and "the persistent shipping of them" changed "the representation of these characters." This user went on to say that this was untrue to the characters and that fans shouldn't "force them to be gay." That part of the post is super wrong, but the observation that "the persistent shipping" of the Ineffable Husbands has "changed the representation of the characters" is spot-on.
This fans-causing-writers-to-reshape-their-text sensation has happened before, to varying levels of success (like when J.K. Rowling retroactively changes Harry Potter canon in response to fan questions). I've dubbed this the Jack Sparrow phenomenon.
In the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack (Johnny Depp) was supposed to be a side character, while the story centered around Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley). In fact, producers were so concerned about Depp's character they almost removed him completely. This is hard to believe, considering the resulting four sequels — only two of which feature Will and Elizabeth at all — are focused entirely around Jack.
Do you know who decided Jack Sparrow was the real "heart" of the Pirates universe? 13-year-old me, for one. And also this woman who spent thousands of dollars transforming herself into Jack Sparrow and later married his spirit. And, in general, the overwhelmingly positive response from thousands of fans. Not the Disney executives, certainly. They were just responding to what had already been decided without them. The character became so iconic and beloved in the Pirates fanbase that long after Bloom and Knightley left the franchise, Disney kept making sequels (too many, but that's another subject) starring Depp, because for a while it seemed like Jack was the only truly vital component of a Pirates film.
Good Omens the miniseries did the same thing, reacting and changing according to the interests and voices of the fandom (it just worked better than, say, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). The divergences the miniseries make from the novel are a direct result of what the fans decided, whether Gaiman knows it or not. That Crowley and Aziraphale are this close to being canonically gay is not because of any specific author(s)' writing. Gaiman and Pratchett might have created Aziraphale and Crowley, but in the years since the book's publication, the fandom wrote their love story. This show is the fruit of that labor — a celebration of fan culture that, I'd argue, is as much by them as it is for them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.