Under the streets of London: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere Neil GaimanMy first exposure to the work of Neil Gaiman, I can still remember watching the original Neverwhere series on the BBC with rapt enthusiasm. It was richly full of originality, blurring local folklore (or, at least, names) with bizarre new mythologies. The literal interpretations of Black Friars, Angel Islington and Earl’s Court, for example, were incredible flights of fantasy. Some 17 years later, I finally got around to reading the book. And how did it compare?

Since watching the show, I’d often heard how Gaiman wrote the novel because the TV series didn’t meet his vision, and wondered how much richer the novel would be. Let’s be fair to the show, it doesn’t have the highest production values – it’s mid-90s TV, not a blockbuster movie. In my mind it had a very theatrical element to it, skipping some of the detail that would really pervade the filthy underside of London. And that, more than anything, is where the difference between the show and the novel lies. With the show, you are presented with the world of London Below with no extra frills: reading about it, you can imagine so much more.

The story itself, though, is identical. The details of the plot, the nature of the characters and the events that befall them, are almost entirely the same. All that changes is how you imagine it. In the novel, the mythological aspects of London Below take on a grander and more grotesque scale: the chasm of Downing Street and the swamp before the Black Friars, and the sprawl of the Floating Market, are much more vivid and vast than the show could hope to have captured. But if you’ve seen the show, there’s little actually new.

Still, it’s a story worth revisiting in either medium. There’s no doubt in my mind that Neverwhere’s delicate blend of dark fantasy and reality had an influence on my writing. My original movie script Penguins and Seahorses largely took place in subways crawling with fantasy creatures, albeit following an entirely different mythology (it was mostly about alcoholism), and reading this novel now makes me wonder if I’m just a rampant plagiarist.

I digress. I’m sure the show is quite dated now, while the novel marches bravely on as a timeless classic, but if you’re looking for a solid contemporary fantasy adventure, you can’t go far wrong with either. That said, it’s an unsurprising result from Gaiman, as, if you’ve read his other books like the epic American Gods, you know the sort of incredible ride to expect.

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