“Good Omens” (1990), Gaiman and Pratchett

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, "Good Omens" back cover photo (Source)

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, “Good Omens” back cover photo (Source)

There are hilarious parodies that mock great works but still pay homage to them – films by Mel Brooks, Monty Python and Stan Laurel (Mud and Sand) come to mind.

And then you have your parodies that give half a nod to the original material while racing past it at ninety miles an hour, unnoticed, down Oxford Street in a completely different zeitgeist, dragging the delighted reader along chaotic paths wrought in the authors’ fevered minds, colliding with new characters, sinking hip deep into new as well as old familiar crises, and eventually coming together in a massive pileup at the end, transformed into something wonderful and completely different.

Then again, perhaps there can only be one such parody: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

However, it might not be to your taste, because it’s a parody of The Omen (1976) and so the writers – and Gaiman and Pratchett are very secular – have to walk all over some Biblical ground.

For reasons mentioned below, I think they do it respectfully, but you might find parts offensive. If so, I do apologize and promise to explore a story next week by G. K. Chesterton that mercilessly skewers a sect of my own religion of Buddhism.

Fair’s fair.

Now, let’s first look at the material the writers went after, because it’s been a while since it came out.

The Omen

There actually appears to be nil common ground between Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) and Gaiman and Pratchett’s account of, among other things, a small trout gamely trying to swim up the M6 toward Birmingham.

The original Omen was very serious. It was good, but it also helped make the Seventies a very depressing decade.

That was a different time. The more sheltered among us wouldn’t even watch George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead because it was so terrifying.

And then this came out:
 

This was Gregory Peck’s comeback film – and good for him! – but it shocked audiences in a way no subsequent “Omen” film ever could, for it was the first and they dropped it on a relatively innocent Fifties-raised culture.

It also made a surgically accurate strike on the core sensitive area for young women like me back then.

Our generation was the first to have other career options besides childbearing, thanks to feminism and the Pill. It wouldn’t be easy, but we could now try other paths.

But was it worth all the hassle?** It was so much easier to stay home and be a wife and mother, and yet that might not be fully satisfying in these new times.***

Apparently Damien made the same choice Adam does in "Good Omens" - to grow up neither good nor evil, but simply human.  OOOPS!

Apparently Damien eventually made the same choice Adam does in “Good Omens” – to grow up neither good nor evil, but simply human. OOOPS!

And then there was abortion. When something is illegal, people don’t have to think about it. Now we all faced that consideration because it was legal – the most gut-wrenching option of all.

In sum, we had a lot of angst based on what to do with our fertility, so of course they had to make movies about devil children.

The Omen went further than its predecessors, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1971), by reversing every good stereotype about children that moviegoers were still bravely clinging to in 1976.

Damien is the Antichrist – everything evil as opposed to all the good that is Christ – and [spoiler, for the one person in South Timbuktu who isn’t aware of the franchise] he wins.

AAAArgh!

The Omen wasn’t based on a novel. It didn’t have to be with a writer like David Seltzer, whose work earned him nominations for Best Motion Picture (Edgar Allan Poe award) and Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen (Writers Guild of America).

The movie won awards for its cinematography, score and acting. I suppose it earned them, but – brrr! That scene in the graveyard with the baby’s skeleton and the Rottweilers still haunts me. I only watched The Omen once.

Once.

Let’s move on to something happier. Hmmm, wonder if that’s what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett said just before they wrote Good Omens?

Good Omens cover

Good Omens

The comedy works here precisely because Gaiman and Pratchett make their respect for the Christian religion clear in various ways.

They dedicate the book to G. K. Chesterton, the writer and Catholic theologian who “knew what was going on” and mention him in the text.

Unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Christian God never makes a personal appearance, yet He’s there from the get-go, hidden the background, and His ineffable plan is mentioned several times. In fact, at the end, the angel…no, that would be a spoiler.

They also don’t trivialize the seriousness of the Omen subject matter or try to cover it up – they just briefly describe it and then carry on.

The setup for Good Omens is the same as in the movie, minus the jackal and infanticide, plus the Creation and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

I’ll have to be careful about spoilers here. Let’s just go with the Wikipedia description of the plot (emphasis added):

The book is a comedy about the birth of the son of Satan, the coming of the End Times and the attempts of the angel Aziraphale and the demon (Anthony J) Crowley to avert them, having become accustomed to their comfortable situations in the human world. A subplot features the growing up of the Antichrist, Adam, and his gang, and the gathering of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—War, Famine, Pollution (Pestilence having retired in 1936 following the discovery of penicillin), and Death….

I can’t stress enough that it’s a comedy. Religion aside, that’s about the grimmest plot any story could have…and yet Good Omens is truly funny.

Text from "Good Omens."  Image from Lakshani Suranga.

The ineffable plan in action. Without it, this would just be humanism. (Text from “Good Omens,” image from Lakshani Suranga.)

Of course, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are professionals. Between the two of them, they’ve won practically all the science fiction/fantasy awards and medals. Everything just really came together for them with this book.

This time the hospital nurses misplace the Antichrist baby, who eventually is named Adam and grows up in an ordinary family.

An angel and a demon realize what’s happened but don’t tell Heaven and Hell because they’ll get into trouble. Together and separately, these earthly agents of Good and Evil spend most of the book unsuccessfully trying to find the child again.

There are also other characters and subplots that have nothing to do with the movie.

Bless their hearts (sorry, Crowley), these two male writers even successfully address the choices young women like me actually made during and after the 1970s:

Then something very strange happened to [Sister Mary Loquacious]. … She’d discovered, under layers of silliness and eagerness to please, Mary Hodges.

She read about New Women. She hadn’t ever realized that she’d been an Old Woman, but after some thought she decided that titles like that were all one with the romance and the knitting and the orgasms, and the really important thing was to be yourself, just as hard as you could.

I love this book.

At the very end, the representatives of Heaven and Hell appear before Adam and demand a decision of him. It’s very difficult, but Aziraphale is moved to bring up the ineffable plan at a crucial point, and Adam makes the only decision he possibly could.

Like a Movie

Since the writers are parodying a movie, chapters in Good Omens consist of many small scenes that are heavy on visuals and dialogue, and the story proceeds via quick jumps in between scenes.

The book's soundtrack.  (Image: Wikipedia)

The book’s soundtrack source. (Image: Wikipedia)

There is even a soundtrack, thanks to the clever insertion of a rule that says “all tapes left in a car for more than about a fortnight metamorphose into Best of Queen albums.”

Since many fans of Gaiman and Pratchett also fit Queen’s core demographic, all the writers have to do is mention the rock group’s hits.

Most Queen songs have a powerful hook, so just a few words can call up the whole song.

I see a little silohuoetto of a man scaramouche scaramouche will you do the fandango…

Good luck trying to get Bohemian Rhapsody out of your head for the next few hours.

Delightful Details

There are also a lot of nerdy references in Good Omens, too many to list here.

I didn’t know until now that Freddie Mercury actually sang “silohuoetto” (yes, he did). This book is also where I first heard that G. K. Chesterton is cool (yes, he is).

I also discovered there is actually something called a “ha-ha.”

On and on it goes….

Some of Aziraphale’s collectible Bibles actually exist.

There’s a fleeting reference that appropriately conjures up an image of the Halifax Explosion (which was big enough to deserve the capital “E”).

In one scene, Pratchett even mines his early experience as a press officer for the UK’s Central Electricity Generating Board soon after the Three Mile Island accident in the US.

“Kraken.”

Well, if you’ve read Good Omens, I hope you’re inspired to pick it up again. If you haven’t yet encountered this parody of The Omen, check it out!

The book undoes all the darkness Richard Donner created (which he more than atoned for with Superman and Superman II), and it leaves you with a warmth in your heart and a smile on your face.

Thank you, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman!

Donner's Superman is the best, but if there is a point to "Good Omens" (a big "if"), it's that the most super thing of all is just a regular old human being, of any age, any condition, any background.  (Image source)

Donner’s Superman is the best, but if there is a point to “Good Omens” (a big “if”), it’s that the most super thing of all is to be a human being – each of us is a central, if mysterious, part of the ineffable plan. (Image source)


 
** Yes, it was worth it.

*** Yes, it turned out to be just as satisfying as it always has been.



Categories: Thursday Lit

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