Not long after the 1989 launch of the sandman, Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic book series, came the inevitable question that plagues critically acclaimed hits: how best to translate this to the screen? The central family of the series, known as ‘The Endless’, lives in a vibrant movie world; each member personifies a natural force, including dreams, death, and desire. But Gaiman’s epic tale spans eons and an ensemble of dozens. The hero’s emotions can be gently described as unfathomable. None of that would easily fit into a two-hour movie, and so the sandman has been drifting for decades in search of the visual medium that could do it justice. Has it finally found its place as a Netflix series?
Netflix has provided fertile ground for expensive genre adaptations that play for devoted fans, such as The Witcher, The Umbrella Academyand A series of unfortunate events. The usual policy of releasing entire seasons at once means, theoretically at least, that a show is under less pressure to explain everything that happens in Episode 1. the sandman‘s original story is a big slow burn. The first part carefully collects the particulars of the universe of its protagonist Dream in the course of a treasure hunt. The Netflix adaptation, created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, embraces that pace and lets things unfold with the care of a monthly comic rather than the spiciness of weekly TV. It makes for some very high highs – and a few languid lows.
I am an obsessive fan of the sandman, which I would fervently argue is one of the pinnacles of contemporary literature and the best example of how expansive and experimental the comic book genre can be. For years I would devour any news of possible movie adaptations, worrying about how Hollywood might screw it up. Gaiman at one point notoriously denounced a potential version as “not just the worst” sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” The rise of prestige TV seemed to provide the perfect solution, removing the challenge of turning a complex series into a plot of few hours to distill.
However, that format poses an additional challenge: how do you keep the audience hooked? devotees of the sandman like myself will have a lot to cheer about with the netflix version, but i wonder what the show will mean for newcomers. The fantasy series is shiny and sizzling with an exciting ensemble, which may be enough to entice audiences during these quiet summer months. But the protagonist isn’t easy to love, especially in the beginning, and his motivations for much of the season are generally unknowable. That ambiguity is inherent in the design – so much of the sandmanThe arc is about the audience coming to understand Dream (played by Tom Sturridge) as he comes to understand himself. But it relies on the viewer’s patience to stick with him during that process.
The first six episodes of the sandmanThe 10-episode season is largely based on the first part of Gaiman’s comic book series. They follow Dream (whose other nicknames are The Sandman and Morpheus), who rules the Dreaming – a realm devoted to the imagination of all mankind before bedtime. In the premiere, Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned in the early 20th century by an occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). The story develops over decades as Dream escapes and then works to rebuild his kingdom, searching for lost items and collecting stray nightmares. During his travels, he travels to Hell to trade with his ruler, Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), and meets his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the cheerful and sober guardian of all mortality.
If that summary sounds like a lot, know that it just scratches the surface. Dream and Death have five other siblings, and Dream’s own territory is populated with colorful characters, some friendly and others quite evil. Sturridge plays Dream aloof and cranky at first, his edges only softening a little episode by episode. In the comics, he’s a chalky white, goth-y string bean with a big tangle of bushy hair, inspired by Robert Smith of The Cure. This 2022 version is a bit more male model than rock god, but Sturridge does have gravitas, and he starts to come into the picture especially once he’s with bubbly characters like Death and the wizard-detective Johanna Constantine (played by Jenna Coleman and of assuming the role of the books’ John Constantine).
Where the series can’t hope to compare to the comics is in its visuals; although the CGI in the sandman is opulent and ever-present, it cannot portray a dream world in such an impressionistic style as an illustrated comic. If the TV show was hand-drawn, perhaps it would leave a more stunning impression. Instead, the green backdrops of fiery plumes and impossibly tall palaces are just enough. And while I appreciated the attention to plot details and the effort to fit every bit of Gaiman’s story into the frame, fidelity has its limits. In the fifth episode, Dream takes on John Dee (David Thewlis), a man driven to cruelty by one of Dream’s lost artifacts. Their confrontation is one of the most arresting and gruesome sandman issues ever published, but I found the TV edition surprising, perhaps hampered by the attempt to stretch a few dozen pages of comic books into an hour of television.
At other times, the steady rhythm provided by the narrative fidelity is compelling. In the sixth episode, “The Sound of Her Wings”, Dream hangs out with Death, decompresses and finally looks inside, illustrating how involved the show can be without relying on spectacle. The last four episodes of the season commemorate “The Doll’s House”, the second part of Gaiman. At that point, both the book and the adaptation benefit from a tighter focus, staying with the same group of characters until the very end rather than bouncing from dimension to dimension with impunity.
I can imagine future seasons will be even more confident in storytelling, but a revamp for a show of this magnitude will probably require serious viewers. I think, given the flaws, the sandman will appeal mostly to megafans, but leaning even further into the richness of its characters may well draw a wider audience. At its best, the show is highly fantasy entertainment that acts 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.
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