Simon Rich is no stranger to adapting his own novels for the screen, so when it came time to turn his 2012 work “What in God’s Name” into a series (TBS’ renamed “Miracle Workers”), he admits it never even crossed his mind that someone else would write the scripts. The story centers on God’s decision to blow up Earth (so he can instead focus on his passion of opening a restaurant) and two angels’ determination to stop him.
Designing a Deity
In the years in between the publication of “What in God’s Name” and his adaptation of “Miracle Workers,” Rich turned out a handful of other novels — one of which he adapted into another television show (FX’s “Man Seeking Woman”). When approaching this project, he felt “pretty removed from the novel” and purposely decided not to re-read it before starting his writers’ room. He also didn’t ask his staff to read it.
“I wanted to make sure that people were completely untethered to the text and felt free to pitch whatever they wanted, even if it had nothing to do with the book,” he says.
While the story remained unchanged, Rich and his team were more flexible with the characters, often adapting them based on who was cast. Most specifically, this applied to God, who in the television series was played by Steve Buscemi.
“If you read the novel, the character of God is certainly in over his head and not an intellectual, but his characterization is different — you wouldn’t necessarily picture Steve,” Rich says.
In that version, God’s office is all decked out and he spends a lot of time with American pastimes, such as sports, Rich points out. But for the television series, after spending a day watching Buscemi’s movies to capture his “amazing, unique voice,” the character became a bit more disenchanted and eccentric.
The pivotal, plot-setting moment in the novel — when God announces he will blow up Earth — comes in the form of a company-wide memo he writes and sends to his angels. Naturally, for a visual medium such as television, Rich felt the need to adapt it into a verbal message.
Inspired by “The Simpsons,” Rich put Buscemi’s God on a pedestal and at a microphone in front of his whole company. “I did a Mr. Burns announcement and I even have kind of a power plant thing happening in the background,” he says. This also allowed for cutting to immediate reactions of the workers, focusing primarily on Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Craig (Daniel Radcliffe).
As in the novel, “the main thing I was trying to convey in that scene in the novel was God’s flippancy,” Rich says. However, he made a key change with God’s inspiration for the decision.
In the novel, God’s letter includes a line about Eliza being the one who “put things in perspective” and offered “persuasive arguments” that led him to the decision. Rich toyed with the idea of God giving her a shout-out in the scene in the series, as well, but ultimately opted against it.
“Everybody stared at her like, ‘What have you done?’ It was funny, and we shot it, but the reason I ended up cutting it was because it made the other characters seem too invested in saving planet Earth,” he says. “The reality that we were trying to get across was that nobody really cares about this planet anymore when this story begins. It isn’t until the end of the season when most of the workers become invested.”