The TV adaptation is incredibly faithful to Neil Gaiman’s original comics – and that’s as appealing as it is frustrating.
Shortly after the release of The Sandman in 1989, Neil Gaiman’s landmark comic book series, came the inevitable question that plagues critically acclaimed hits – how best to translate them to the screen? The series’ central family, known as “The Endless”, live in a living cinematic world; each limb represents a force of nature, including dreams, death and desire. But Gaiman’s epic story takes ages and a team of dozens.
His hero’s emotions are subtly described as inexplicable. All of this just couldn’t fit into a two-hour film, so The Sandman spent decades searching for a visual medium that could fix it. Has it finally found its footing as a Netflix series?
Netflix offers fertile ground for acclaimed genre adaptations that play to dedicated fan bases, such as The Witcher, The Umbrella Academy, and A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The usual policy of releasing entire series at once means, in theory at least, that the show feels less pressure to explain everything that happened in episode 1. The origin story of The Sandman is big.
The first part carefully gathers details about the universe of the hero of this Dream in the course of his search for the treasure.
The Netflix adaptation, created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg, embraces that pace, allowing things to happen with the care of a monthly comic rather than the stamp of weekly television. . It produced some very long highs – and some delicious lows.
I’m an obsessive fan of Sandman, which I vehemently argue is one of the pinnacles of contemporary literature and the best example of how wide and experimental the comic book genre can be.
For years I devoured any news of potential film adaptations, worried about how bad Hollywood would be. Gaiman at one point criticized the potential draft as “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but easily the worst script I’ve ever read.”
The rise of prestige television seems to offer the perfect solution that eliminates the problem of distilling a complex series into a few hours of plot.
However, this format presents another challenge: how do you retain an audience? Sandman devotees like myself will have a lot to enjoy in the Netflix version, but I wonder what the show will mean for newcomers.
The fantasy series is bright and shiny with an exciting ensemble that may be enough to attract audiences during these quiet summer months. But her hero is not easy to like, especially at first, and his motivations are often unknown.
This ambiguity is intentional – a large part of Sandman’s arc is about the audience understanding Dream (played by Tom Sturridge) as he does himself. But he relies on the viewer’s patience to sustain him through the process.
The first six episodes of The Sandman’s 10-episode season were largely adapted from the first volume of Gaiman’s comic book series. They are followed by Dream (whose other sobriquets include Sandman and Morpheus), who rules the Dream, a realm devoted to all human bedtime imaginings.
In the premiere, Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned by an occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) in the early 20th century. The story continues over the decades as Dream escapes and then works to rebuild his kingdom, searching for lost artifacts and collecting stray dreams.
During his travels, he travels to Hell to make amends with its ruler Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) and meets his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a cheerful and loyal guardian of all mortality.
If that summary sounds like a lot, know that it’s only scratching the surface. Dream and Death have five other siblings, and Dream’s own territory is populated by colorful characters, some friendly and some a little sinister.
Sturridge plays Dream, who is aloof and angry at first, his edges softening a bit over the course of the episode. In the comics, he’s a chalk-white, goth bean with a big tangle of shaggy hair inspired by The Cure’s Robert Smith.
This 2022 version is less model man than rock god, but Sturridge has gravitas and comes into focus especially when he’s with more spirited characters like Death and the witch-detective that is Johanna Constantine (played by Jenna Coleman and assumed the role) Jana Constantine in the books).
Where the series can’t compare to the comics is in its visuals; while the CGI in Sandman is fresh and ubiquitous, it fails to create an impressionist-style dream world like an illustrated comic book.
If a TV show was drawn by hand, it can leave a more dramatic impression. Instead, backgrounds with green screens of flaming feathers and impossibly tall palaces suffice. And while I appreciate the attention to detail in the plot and the effort to fit every bit of Gaiman’s story into the frame, fidelity has its limits.
In the fifth episode, Dream confronts John Dee (David Thewlis), a man driven to cruelty by one of Dream’s lost artifacts.
Their showdown is one of the most engaging and frightening issues of Sandman ever, but I found the TV edition strangely engrossing, perhaps hindered by trying to cram a few dozen comic pages into an hour of television.
At other times, the steady rhythm provided by the narrative fidelity is surprising. The sixth episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” shows Dream hanging out with Death, decompressing, and finally looking inward, showing just how engaging the show is without relying on a stage. – see The final four seasons reimagine “A Doll’s House,” Gaiman’s second installment.
At that point, both the book and the adaptation benefit from a narrower focus, sticking with the same group of characters until the end rather than jumping from dimension to dimension with impunity.
I imagine future seasons will trust the stories more, but a change for a show of this magnitude will likely require serious consideration.
I think that given its flaws, The Sandman will primarily appeal to megafans, but if it leans more on the richness of its characters, it might just appeal to a wider audience.
At its best, the show is solid fantasy entertainment that works as a great introduction to Gaiman’s writing. But the barrier to entry is high and the cost of jumping into such a complicated saga may be too high for some.