As one of the most expensive properties Netflix picked up in 2019, “The Sandman” represents yet another pre-eminent release amid the backdrop of a very challenging year. The title, which turned author Neil Gaiman into a household name, is Netflix’s big budget franchise release for August. And it is one of the most imaginative and gorgeous creations to emerge from our current era of high-profile big budget fantasy titles.
The title, which turned author Neil Gaiman into a household name, is Netflix’s big budget franchise release for August.
DC Comics initially released the first of Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics in 1989. It was a landmark moment in the industry: the birth of the graphic novel. “The Sandman” is a story about “The Endless,” a group of metaphysical entities defined as Dream, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction. Their stories, told in a format not unlike modern Greco-Roman myths, created a comic that displayed a depth and maturity not normally associated with the genre. The rare graphic novel to hit The New York Times best seller list, it still stands as one of the few comics to receive critical acclaim, and to be treated as if it was intended for adults, not children.
Despite being released in a visual format, it is also an artistic work that’s long been considered rather unfilmable. And I don’t mean in the way “Game of Thrones” was once considered unadaptable; though it is also a fantasy series filled with implausible cities and magical creatures. Rather, it’s the tale itself that does not transfer easily to the televisual medium, like trying to turn Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” into a trilogy of movies or a 10-episode limited series. And indeed, various failed attempts at adaptation have wandered through development hell since the comic was completed in 1996. This is in large part due to the series’ lack of easily characterized protagonists and antagonists, but the structure of the stories themselves also presents a challenge. The story “24 Hours,” for example, is defined as much by the way the graphics are laid out — 24 pages, one per hour — as it is by the plot.
But Gaiman’s involvement seems to have been the key to Netflix’s artistic success. Having him on board granted the series’ writers license to translate to the screen as they saw fit; Gaiman himself is co-credited with writing the series premiere. The result is a show that is startingly faithful to the comic in tone and visuals but which alters it just enough to build a consistent linear narrative around which digressions can orbit.
Netflix’s snatching up of “The Sandman” from DC Comics does sever the series from Batman, Green Lantern and other DC heroes. But this is probably for the best. Unlike the graphic novel, the televisual medium is very unforgiving of these sorts of cameos, which today feel endless. And Netflix’s “The Sandman,” like the graphic novel, is far more than your average superhero production.
In the simplest terms, “The Sandman” is the story of the titular Lord of Dreams (Tom Sturridge), accidentally captured by Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) while on a mission to remove a Nightmare, Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), who is feeding on the horrors of the Great War. When he finally escapes 70 years later into a 1990s era U.K., he must retrieve his tools and rebuild his kingdom. Once he does this, he can restore the balance of dreams for humanity and rebuild both his world, known as “The Dreaming,” and ours.
Each episode manages to keep the corresponding comic book chapter’s scholarly treatise, and in doing so, each maintains its own tone and unique style.
In practice, the story is far more complicated. The Lord of Dreams’ travels take him to visit Cain and Abel, in which the first story of murder and betrayal plays out; he heads to hell and meets Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) and gets into a philosophical boxing match. Variations on familiar DC Film characters turn up, like John Constantine, here rechristened Joanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), and Doctor Destiny, here called John Dee (David Thewlis) in episodes in which the series debates the purpose of magical powers that go unused, and the dangers of arrogance.
Each episode manages to keep the corresponding comic book chapter’s scholarly treatise, and in doing so, each maintains its own tone and unique style, from psychological horror to period piece to high fantasy. However, the result is not as disparate as it sounds. Most of that is due to Sturridge, whose presence as the titular Dream is the show’s throughline. His elegance, and his ability to take a character that is little more than the anthropomorphic personification of our collective sleeping consciousness and turn him into an overly posh yet sympathetic anti-hero is remarkable.
Whether or not “The Sandman” is allowed to run long enough that, like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things,” it becomes a cultural juggernaut remains to be seen. But considering the current season barely covers the first tenth of Gaiman’s work, plans for more episodes are likely already in the pipeline. Netflix’s all-at-once release will sadly work against the show, especially with “House of the Dragon” and “Lord of the Rings” poised to go head-to-head in the next month. But even if the series never becomes more than a niche critical darling, the graphic novel at least finally has the adaptation it deserved.