As one of the most expensive properties Netflix bought in 2019, “The Sandman” represents another preeminent release against the backdrop of a very difficult year. The title, which made author Neil Gaiman a household name, is Netflix’s big-budget franchise release for August. And it’s one of the most imaginative and gorgeous creations to emerge from our current era of big-budget fantasy titles.
The title, which made author Neil Gaiman a household name, is Netflix’s big-budget franchise release for August.
DC Comics originally published 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, Fate, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction. Their stories, told in a format not unlike modern Greco-Roman myths, have created a comic that displays a depth and maturity not normally associated with the genre. The rare graphic novel to make the New York Times bestseller list, it remains one of the few comics to receive critical acclaim and be treated as if it was intended for adults, not children. .
Although it was released in a visual format, it is also a work of art that has long been considered rather unfilmable. And I don’t mean how “Game of Thrones” was once considered unsuitable; though it’s also a fantasy series filled with implausible towns and magical creatures. Rather, it’s the tale itself that doesn’t transfer easily to the television medium, like trying to turn Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” into a film trilogy or a 10-episode limited series. And indeed, various failed adaptation attempts have been through development hell since the comic book’s completion in 1996. Much of this is due to the series’ lack of easy-to-characterize protagonists and antagonists, but the structure of the stories themselves also presents a challenge. . The “24 hour” story, for example, is defined as much by the way the graphics are laid out – 24 pages, one per hour – as by the plot.
But Gaiman’s involvement appears to have been key to Netflix’s artistic success. Having it on board granted the show’s writers the license to translate onscreen however they saw fit; Gaiman himself is co-credited for writing the series premiere. The result is a show that’s first true to the comics in tone and visuals, but tweaks it just enough to build a cohesive linear narrative around which digressions can orbit.
Netflix’s removal of DC Comics’ “The Sandman” separates the series from Batman, Green Lantern and other DC heroes. But that’s probably for the best. Unlike the graphic novel, the television medium is very unforgiving of these kinds of cameos, which today seem endless. And Netflix’s “The Sandman,” like the graphic novel, is 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 suppress a Nightmare, Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), which is feeding on the horrors of the Great War. When he finally escapes 70 years later to a UK in the 1990s, 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 retain the scholarly treatise of the corresponding comic book chapter, and in doing so, each retains its own unique tone and style.
In practice, the story is much more complicated. The Dream Lord’s travels lead him to visit Cain and Abel, in which the first story of murder and betrayal unfolds; he heads to hell and meets Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) and gets into a philosophical boxing match. Variations on familiar DC Film characters appear, such as John Constantine, here renamed 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 are not used, and the dangers of arrogance.
Each episode manages to retain the scholarly treatise of the corresponding comic book chapter, and in doing so, each retains its own unique tone and style, from psychological horror to period piece to high fantasy. However, the result is not as disparate as it seems. Most of that is down to Sturridge, whose presence as the titular Dream is the show’s guiding light. His elegance and his ability to take a character that is little more than the anthropomorphic personification of our dormant collective consciousness and turn him into an overly posh but likable anti-hero is remarkable.
Whether or not “The Sandman” is allowed to run long enough that, like “The Crown” and “Stranger Things,” remains a cultural juggernaut, remains to be seen. But given that the current season barely covers the first tenth of Gaiman’s work, plans for more episodes are likely already in the works. Netflix’s simultaneous release will unfortunately work against the series, especially with “House of the Dragon” and “Lord of the Rings” set to face off next month. But even if the series never becomes more than a niche critical darling, the graphic novel at least finally gets the adaptation it deserves.