It’s a pretty great time to be a Neil Gaiman fan. Technically, it’s always a great time to be a Neil Gaiman fan, but it’s almost certainly never felt more fun than at this precise moment.
Good Omens, The Sandman, and American Gods have all been adapted for television within the past five years, each with a rather astonishing degree of accuracy and faithfulness-–certainly to the spirit, if not always the letter of the author’s most popular works. Both Sandman and Good Omens will return for future seasons, a series based on Gods spin-off Anansi Boys is set to debut on Prime Video in the not-too-distant future, and Dead Boy Detectives, a show that’s focused on several DC characters created by Gaiman has been reclaimed by Netflix as part of their expanding Sandman onscreen universe. Honestly, it’s wonderful to witness, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that these adaptations have all been largely phenomenal, bringing worlds most of us had only imagined (or seen in a comic book panel) to vibrant, glittering life.
Yet, amid this very welcome Gaiman-is-suddenly-everywhere trend, we’ve somehow all managed to ignore the project of his that’s most overdue for a lavish, expensive on-screen reimagining: Neverwhere. An urban fantasy that follows the story of an everyday young man who finds himself transported to the mysterious world of London Below when he stops to help an injured girl who turns out to be more than she seems, Neverwhere is peak Gaiman, grounding its wildly fantastical story in a familiar world that feels all too normal and human, only with a dusting of the magical on top.
London Below embraces the lost elements of the city we’re all familiar with—bits of forgotten lore and history, broken objects, fractured or lost souls who have fallen through the gaps in our reality, whether by choice or accident—and mixes them with otherworldly literalism to create an intriguing underworld that exists just beneath the city’s streets.
In this realm, an Earl literally holds court at the Earl’s Court tube station, black friars are indeed in residence beneath the area known as Blackfriars, and the Angel, Islington is an actual angel. (Among many, many other things.) Full of larger-than-life characters and fascinating settings, it’s somehow still a story that feels as though it’s happening in the corners and crevices of our day-to-day reality, close enough to make you wonder whether you might be just a hairsbreadth from a dark adventure of your own.
But although Neverwhere was first published in 1996, it did not begin its life as a novel. In an odd (and uncommon) reversal, it was first a six-part BBC television series for which Gaiman wrote the screenplay alongside Sir Lenny Henry. The book that followed was Gaiman’s first solo novel (Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, hit shelves six years earlier) and was meant to serve as an official novelization of the TV show. It turned out to be a bit more than that. The novel expands and reshuffles some of the lore introduced in the television series, adds new scenes, and restores various elements of Gaiman and Henry’s original idea that had to be changed or cut for the TV version. (The author has spoken before about how the absence of specific things in the show was one of the reasons he wrote the book in the first place.)
To be clear, it’s not like the 1996 Neverwhere series is bad. Far from it, in fact. Sure, it feels more than a little dated now, but the show worked wonders with what was clearly a very limited budget, unabashedly embracing the high fantasy elements and sprawling, complicated fictional universe that have proven so popular today but which were frequently and openly sneered at in the late 1990s. (Sorry, guys, the nerds did inherit the Earth, eventually.)
Wildly imaginative and full of inventive, entertaining characters—Paterson Joseph’s over-the-top Marquis de Carabas, Peter Capaldi’s exquisitely coiffed Angel Islington, and the devilishly creepy evil assassin duo of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar are just a few of the reasons to tune in—it’s evident from the story’s opening frames that Neverwhere is something special, even if the final product doesn’t quite manage to live up to the scope of Gaiman and Henry’s vividly imagined original world.
The BBC Radio 4 adaptation from 2013 comes a bit closer to capturing some of that magic, bolstered by the specific, indescribable alchemy that is radio drama in general, the power of listener imagination, and a truly stacked voice cast that includes big name stars ranging from James McAvoy and Natalie Dormer to Benedict Cumberbatch, Bernard Cribbins, and Christopher Lee. But even at its most affecting, it’s hampered by the fact that it’s not the visual, onscreen version we all wish it was. (Just imagine Cumberbatch rocking that Capaldi-style Islington hair.)
Which is, of course, exactly why now is the perfect time for someone to try again. And, hopefully, give us the big, lavish version of this story that Gaiman’s work—and its fans—deserve. It’s hard not to look at Prime Video’s carefully detailed rendering of Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop from Good Omens or the glittering library at the center of the Kingdom of Dreams on Netflix’s The Sandman and not wonder how amazing the Floating Market, the medieval-style Earl’s Court train car, or the horrors of the Night’s Bridge might look if created by the same sort of design teams and special effects budgets. Part of the problem with the original Neverwhere is that it was originally lit for film, but shot on video and the production ran out of money before they managed to convert the final product. It’s why its visual world feels so oddly flat and seems so consistently at odds with the more imaginative and fantastical vibes of its own story.
Henry has spoken before about his and Gaiman’s issues with the original and the fact that the moment for a remake might finally have arrived. “We’ve both got problems with the show. It was a bit wobbly sets, it was shot on video and we would, of course, have liked it to look like a Bond film. What we were given to make it, I think we did really well,” he told Den of Geek in 2017. “I remember showing the trailer to the guy who was running BBC Two at the time, and it blew him away! But..I think now with things like Netflix and Black Mirror and the reboot of Doctor Who, they’d have a better sense of it now. Maybe its time has come?” (Gaiman, for the record, has indicated his interest in seeing a new version of Neverwhere as recently as November of 2023.)
Neverwhere is perhaps Gaiman’s most accessible piece of fantasy. Set in a world that looks an awful lot like the one we ourselves inhabit, it follows rules we understand and incorporates many of the familiar beats of both a traditional whodunnit and a classic adventure quest in which the hero must find a way to return home. And in the years since its original publication, Gaiman has steadily been adding to the world of Neverwhere, from restoring the cut bits from the show to his original novelization to writing a companion novella focused on the Marquis de Carabas called “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.” He has even reportedly been working on a sequel, titled The Seven Sisters, though progress on that has come slower than many of us would likely prefer. But there’s so much new material to explore, and the original, try though it might, only barely scratches the surface of this world and all the stories in it.
After almost thirty years, isn’t it time for us to give London Below another visit?