‘The Sandman’: Neil Gaiman’s Twisted Dark Fantasy Is Finally Brought (Almost) to Life
In an episode of Netflix’s new drama The Sandman, two characters discuss a shared fondness for the works of William Shakespeare. One of them objects to a recent King Lear production that drastically altered the story, while the other assures him, “The great stories will always return to their original forms.”
The latter sentiment is the key to understanding both the assets and challenges of making a TV series out of a comic book long held as one of the medium’s greatest, but also one of its most unadaptable.
Written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by a rotating series of artists, The Sandman, which ran from 1989 to 1996, posits that there is a family of cosmic beings more powerful than any god, each with a dominion over some crucial aspect of human existence. Its title character, who tends to go by either Dream or Morpheus, is lord of all things that happen to us while we sleep, as well as all the tales we dream up in our waking hours. Through Morpheus, his siblings, and their poetic fantasy adventures, Gaiman spun a genre-defying yarn that helped bring female and LGBTQ readers into comic-book shops that had mainly been visited by straight males, while cementing the whole “Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” media narrative of the late Eighties and early Nineties.
The series was such a phenomenon that Hollywood has been trying to bring it to the screen practically from the moment it debuted. But Sandman has stubbornly defied adaptation for decades — its story too big and ethereal to be condensed into one movie, its hero a challenge to make as interesting in three dimensions as he is in the form of lines on a page. And as one attempt after another failed, Neil Gaiman grew so understandably frustrated with the process that he began to develop a reputation as a creator who wants all of his work translated as literally as possible. He reportedly had the original showrunners of Starz’s American Gods replaced because they kept trying to deviate from the text of Gaiman’s novel, even though those deviations were pretty much the only parts that worked at all for television.
Finally, Sandman has arrived in a filmed version, in a format better suited to hold its expansive narrative, and with Gaiman as a hands-on producer, developing the TV show alongside David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) and Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman). In many ways, the 10 episodes that are now streaming on Netflix represent the closest thing possible to bringing Gaiman’s earliest Sandman comics to life. And in others, it illustrates why it has taken so long, and why, sometimes, the great stories are not best served by remaining in the original forms.
With a few exceptions, the first season is a straightforward retelling of the first two arcs from the comics. We begin with a take on the “Preludes and Nocturnes” story in which Dream, played by Tom Sturridge, endures a century of imprisonment at the hands of amateur British magician Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance from Game of Thrones), who had been hoping to trap Death and is disappointed to wind up in possession of her more nebulously-defined little brother. After eventually escaping, Morpheus has to reclaim various powerful objects Burgess stole from him and begin rebuilding his kingdom, the Dreaming, after it has fallen into disrepair during his absence. In the second major arc, based on “The Doll’s House,” Morpheus’ pursuit of an escaped nightmare known as the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook from Narcos) intersects with both a convention for serial killers and a young woman named Rose (Vanesu Samunyai) who has unexpectedly developed powers that threaten both the Dreaming and the waking world.
But “Preludes and Nocturnes” was a weird point at which to start a comic book and an even weirder point at which to start a serialized TV show. Dream spends almost the entire first episode of his own show sitting naked and silent inside the glass cage in which Burgess has sealed him, simply glowering while other characters drive the action. And even once he is out and attempting to reclaim all that Burgess took from him, the depth of his loss and the import of his new quest doesn’t really land, because we haven’t yet seen him or the Dreaming at their respective peaks. He wanders around the ruins of his realm, visiting chief librarian Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong) and feuding Biblical brothers Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry), but it feels like the story is starting in the wrong place, only because that’s where Gaiman began it the first time.
Or maybe it’s just that Morpheus is a challenging character to put at the center of all of this. He is aloof, unknowable and largely unchanging. None of these are ideal traits in a protagonist. The comics got away with it simply because he was so visually striking on the page — ghostly pale, with an unruly shock of jet-black hair, wrapped in dark cloaks and other imposing accoutrements. And for large swaths of the comic series, Gaiman treated Dream less as the hero of the story than as its host, using him to introduce us to characters far more colorful than Morpheus ever allowed himself to be.
To a degree, the penciled-and-inked magnetism of Dream in the comics could be channeled by the right actor. He’d still be inert and frustrating in many ways, but put a performer overflowing with charisma into the role and things would largely work. Sturridge has the right look, but his performance, unfortunately, leans into all of Dream’s inherent flaws as a dramatic leading figure. What could play as an intriguingly mysterious persona in other hands instead comes across as mildly irritated and dull.
The series mostly does better when it comes to the people surrounding Dream. Vanesu Samunyai is a bit bland herself as Rose, who is essentially the main character of that second arc, but the supporting cast is otherwise loaded with actors who understand the assignment. Chief among these is Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death herself, a surprisingly gentle and warm figure who has learned that what people need most when they die is someone to provide comfort and understanding. Howell-Baptiste radiates so much joy in her lone half-episode appearance thus far that it’s hard not to wish that the series was more about her than her mopey brother. (To be fair, this was a wish expressed many times by Sandman readers, as well.) Gwendoline Christie is majestic and mischievous as Lucifer Morningstar, the ruler of Hell and one of the few characters in the story more powerful than Morpheus. Boyd Holbrook casually commands the screen in every shot he’s in, even though the Corinthian’s serial-killer milieu feels much more clichéd than when Gaiman first wrote these stories. David Thewlis is as unnerving as required as John Dee, a mentally ill man who has inherited one of Dream’s objects of power, and Jenna Coleman brings a welcome degree of mischief as Johanna Constantine, an expert on matters of the occult who realizes she has a family history with Morpheus(*).
(*) Though Sandman was published under DC’s adults-only Vertigo imprint, Gaiman periodically had Morpheus interact with characters who had originally appeared in the pages of DC’s more famous all-ages books. The show largely sidesteps these references so that, for instance, John Dee is a murderer but not (as he was in the comic) C-list Justice League villain Dr. Destiny. The comic features both Lady Johanna Constantine in the past and her descendant John Constantine in the present, but perhaps because Matt Ryan was playing John on Legends of Tomorrow as recently as last year, the show gender-flips him. The most amusing divergence involves Lucifer, since Christie is playing the same character who, in the form of Tom Ellis, helped the LAPD solve crimes for six seasons on the Fox (and then Netflix) procedural Lucifer, which was very loosely adapted from a Sandman spinoff comic.
That first year or so of the comic was more horror-leaning than the fantasy epic it would evolve into. Starting with these stories — including the harrowing fifth episode, “24/7,” based on a grisly issue of the comic where John Dee plays with the minds and bodies of six people in a diner — sets up false expectations for where the series is likely to go in success. But again, Gaiman clearly wants to stick to the original script wherever possible.
Or he wants to stick to it most of the time. Death’s first appearance, based on one of the most beloved issues of the entire Gaiman run, only takes up half of the sixth episode, and is paired with a take on a slightly later issue, where Dream convinces his sister to make a 14th-century English soldier named Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley) immortal, as an experiment to see how long any human might actually want to live. Though the two tales were originally not presented together, they make an outstanding pair in theme and tone, and suggest that Heinberg and the others might do well to mix and match stories and concepts from throughout the 75 issues (give or take some related miniseries) of the comic, rather than following their exact path in order.
Along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ superhero deconstructionist story Watchmen, The Sandman was long held up as the comic book least suited for transplantation into any other medium. Zack Snyder finally did a fairly faithful adaptation of the plot of Watchmen in a 2009 film that otherwise completely missed the point of Watchmen. Damon Lindelof’s 2019 HBO take on the material often deviated wildly in character and theme, but ultimately felt much truer to the experience of reading Moore and Gibbons’ work, only a few years before Sandman debuted.
Gaiman and company are certainly under no obligation to try anything as radical as Lindelof’s approach. For the most part, they have accomplished the impossible, by creating a filmed version of The Sandman that will feel recognizable and true to everyone who can instantly recall seeing their first Dave McKean-drawn cover, or their response to realizing that the friendly Goth woman sitting next to Morpheus at a park fountain was Death. And parts of the series work very well, particularly whenever Dream is not the central figure of those parts.
But their success in adapting the unadaptable only enhances our understanding of why it was such a struggle for so long to make this happen. Even with a more captivating lead actor, there are too many elements of this season that only seem to make sense because that’s how they were designed to appear in another format 30 years ago. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, Gaiman was so preoccupied with figuring out if he could directly recreate his original work that he didn’t stop to think if he should.
All 10 episodes of The Sandman are streaming now on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole first season.