Books -v- Film

Book -v- Film: Neverwhere


Neil Gaiman is one of those writers who is as well known for his work in film and television as he is for his novels and short stories. A lot of his work translates very well from page to screen, thanks in part, I think, to his vivid and visual writing style (not to mention his work in graphic novels). Some of his most well known work on screen includes Stardust, Coraline, and the recent Amazon Prime series American Gods. All of these titles were adapted from his novels of the same names, and all have been well received by audiences. His most recent novel to be adapted to screen is Good Omens, which he wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett (Discworld). Good Omens, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen, is set to air in 2018 and is already greatly anticipated, following the success of American Gods.

Of course, Gaiman writes direct for screen as well. The 2005 film, Mirrormask, is one of my own favourites of his work. And let’s not forget the episodes he has written for Doctor Who.


But, as much as I could probably talk about all of the above for quite some time, there is one title that stands out when it comes to the debate of Books -v- Films.

And that is Neverwhere.

If you haven’t seen or read Neverwhere, I highly recommend that you do both. Be warned that the TV series will seem a little dated now (it was made in 1996 after all), but the vibrancy of the characters and the story more than make up for the ropey 1990s effects.

Neverwhere is a rarity in the world of screen adaptations as, technically, the TV series came first.

The series aired in 1996 and the novel was first published in 1997.

In actuality, Neil Gaiman worked on the two fairly simultaneously. It was originally devised as a TV series, but as it went into production, certain aspects and scenes ended up changing, purely for the logistics of filming.

In an interview with Claire White for The Internet Writing Journal in March 1999, Gaiman talked about the changes that were made, and some of the reasons behind them (“the location fell through… the episode was running too long… the actor broke his leg…”).

As well as fixing some of the logistical constraints of filming, writing a version of Neverwhere as a novel gave him the opportunity to share with the world more of the historical and geographical research into London itself that had informed the story significantly.

One of the things I notice most in the book is the sheer delight he takes in explaining the details of the world he has created and how they came to be. It is clear that Gaiman was inspired by his research into the city of London; into its early origins and its urban legends; into stories about how certain areas were founded and named. All of these details feed into the action of the story in the book and lead you to appreciate it on a different level from the series.

Having said that, if you did only watch the series without reading the book, I wouldn’t say that you were missing out. That is because the series has certain visual elements that help it to stand out on its own. You only have to look at the lighting effects used on the Angel Islington (Peter Capaldi) to see what I mean there.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Neverwhere, it is an Urban Fantasy that takes place mainly in the city of London Below, a fictional ‘underworld’ that co-exists beneath the London we know in the real world (London Above).


London Below is home to those who have ‘slipped through the gaps’, so to speak; people who have become lost in time one way or another, who now inhabit and survive in a city run on remnants of old magic and myths that the rest of the world has forgotten.

The story follows Richard Mayhew, a fairly plain and ordinary man who has recently moved to London (Above) from Scotland. At the beginning of the story, he is still very much finding his feet in his new city (only just gaining confidence in navigating the London Underground without the use of a map). One evening, as he and his fiancée are walking home, he stumbles upon a young woman, called Door. Or rather, she runs headlong into him. Door is in a bad way when she meets Richard. She is injured and on the run (though she won’t say from whom, or what). Despite his fiancée’s protests, Richard helps Door. He takes her back to his flat for shelter and patches up her wounds. But in doing so, he discovers that by helping someone from London Below, he has written himself out of his own life. He is no longer a part of London Above and is drawn deeper into the world of London Below.

As the book came about as a second incarnation of the story, a lot of the action and events in both the book and the TV series run parallel to one another. In fact, if you didn’t know that the series had come first, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a very, very faithful adaptation of the book.

What I find fascinating about Neverwhere is that even though Gaiman had originally devised the story for a television miniseries, he still felt there was more that he could tell in a different medium.

As I mentioned in my first post on this subject, books and films are sometimes compared to icebergs, insofar as a film is like the 10% that is visible above the waterline and the book is the other 90% below the surface – the internal thoughts of the characters, the backstory narratives that can be hinted at on screen, but not necessarily stated outright as they can be on paper.

Gaiman recounts in the 1999 interview with Claire White that his reaction to all of the changes being made to the TV scripts was to say, “It’s OK. I’ll put it back in the novel.” It was his way, he says, of “asserting control,” or maybe re-asserting control, over the story. With so many different people and elements involved in a television production, it is impossible for one person’s singular voice or vision to take centre stage. A TV series is the very definition of a collaborative process. The book, therefore became his way of saying,

“This is what I meant.”

This is something I am sure that many writers wish they could do when their work is being pulled apart and put back together in a different configuration during the process of adapting it to screen.

For Gaiman writing Neverwhere, this certainly seems to be the case. With the series coming first followed by the book, he was able to have the last word on the subject.


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