‘Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories’ Should Probably Be Better

The UK series of four Gaiman adaptations comes to America.
By  · Published on September 1st, 2017

The UK series of four Gaiman adaptations comes to America.

Anthology series are all the rage right now, with the trend lately to have not full seasons following a single story (a la American Horror Story) but individual episodes dealing with contained plots. Nothing new, of course, just the Twilight Zone model followed by Black Mirror and now the similarly premised Room 104 and The Guest Book. But one thing we surprisingly don’t see enough of is anthology series involving adaptations of preexisting short stories. They’re getting the idea over in the UK, though. Soon, the Channel 4-produced Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams will make its debut (Amazon will bring it to the US). And last year, Sky introduced Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, a four-episode series that is now making its US debut via Shudder.

You can stream them all in a row and imagine they’re more conjoined, like it’s an anthology film akin to the Creepshow features consisting of adaptations of Stephen King short stories. Likely Stories is a compilation of short films based on Neil Gaiman works otherwise unrelated. They range in origin from a 1985 Penthouse contribution to a 2002 piece published in McSweeney’s, with another found in a multi-author collection and another first existing in a comic book. Each short could be classified as horror, or at least as strange, one of them being a sort of light ghost story rather than something scary. If you’re a Gaiman fan, you might know the titles: “Foreign Parts,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Closing Time,” and “Looking for the Girl.”

Already being a fan of Gaiman’s work, especially these stories, could very well make you appreciate the adaptations more. Like the source material, they can be a bit vague in exactly what’s going on, but the themes and the atmosphere of the episodes are what matter. There’s certainly an issue of clarity at times, especially in the stories’ final moments, where it’s not so much ambiguity as faulty direction. But at least with “Closing Time,” even the source material has been confusing for a lot of readers. The rest are able to lean on obvious implication where the visuals or exposition are a bit fuzzy. Or, in some, there are the literal lyrics of Jarvis Cocker‘s supplemental original music. For the most part, though, Likely Stories seems like illustrated companions to Gaiman’s stories rather than short films that can stand on their own.

“Foreign Parts” starts off appearing to set up a macabre tale of body horror, introducing us to a young man (Captain Fantastic‘s George MacKay) who prefers isolation and masturbation to companionship and sex — yet he contracts an STD somehow anyway. There’s hint of something that could make for a good Black Mirror episode, actually, where a guy gets a virus from his computer while jacking off to internet porn. But that’s not this. There’s a scene where the main character says he’s physically changing, but it’s all more metaphorically handled, better suited for the page than the screen. However, MacKay is perfectin the role, even if his versatility is employed for a puzzling and kind of sudden denouement.

If you’re expecting gore in the first episode and wind up disappointed, you won’t be so much with “Feeders and Eaters,” which has a bit with a cat that is pure nightmare fodder. This time we get the story of another young guy (Tom Hughes), this one more of a player. He enters a cafe one night and tells an old friend (Montserrat Lombard) working there what’s happened to him, and thanks to “Foreign Parts” and his sickly appearance, we’re surely meant to think he has AIDS. But his story within the story is an account of something supernatural instead. The ending to this one could be a little more graphic since the kicker isn’t supposed to be vague at all, but otherwise it’s the most fully satisfying episode of the series.

Next is “Closing Time,” the episode based on a perplexing short story not made much clearer through visual storytelling. Again working with layers of narrative, we get a spooky coming-of-age tale told by a writer (Johnny Vegas) at a pub, an account of a supposed childhood experience involving a little house in the woods with a significant creepy imp-shaped knocker. Either the episode ought to give us less of the pub-set telling of the internal story or be longer in order to spend an ample amount of time with that inner story, but the writer’s tale feels rushed and so is ineffective in its terror. The atmosphere of both sections make up for that, to a degree, offering a strong sense of place, the latter adequately eerie if not frightening.

“Looking for the Girl” is the most coherent, though it’s almost too obvious too soon. Based on one of Gaiman’s earliest published writings, the short involves another story within a story, this one of an old photographer of nudes (Kenneth Cranham) telling of his muse. He first saw her in a Penthouse spread as a young man, and then he saw her again in another spread a few years later, but her age hadn’t changed. And then again… You can probably guess the outcome of this one just from the premise. Especially after a certain classic ghost story is acknowledged in the previous episode. Still, it plays out well enough for a straightforward fairy tale. It doesn’t feel too out place here, but it would have been more fitting as part of an old softcore anthology like the series The Red Shoe Diaries or the Inside Out films.

Keeping the four episodes more consistent than some other anthology works is the fact that all of them are directed by the same duo, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, who also wrote the script for “Looking for the Girl.” The other three are penned by Kevin Lehane, who wrote the very enjoyable horror comedy Grabbers. Between that career gem and Forsyth and Pollard having helmed the unique Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, I definitely had higher hopes for Likely Stories. I like bits and pieces of all four episodes but none of them fully, and as a whole I don’t think the series works as well as it should. Perhaps it’s the source material being ill-suited for translations to the screen. Gaiman is not always easily adapted. Yet there are so many more short stories of his that could be mined for another series. Maybe one without so much overbearing style.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.