‘The Sandman’ Makes The Dreaming Real

Netflix’s live-action series is a stellar adaptation of the comics

The prospect of a live-action adaptation of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman and Sam Keith’s goth bible comic series from the ‘80s and ‘90s, occupies a special place in the minds and hearts of comic book geeks.

Often thought unfilmable and the subject of many development-hell failed projects, a true one-to-one translation from the books to the silver or TV screen has been, until now, only the stuff of dreams.

It gives me great pleasure and relief to report that Netflix’s The Sandman, with Gaiman in the executive producer role, delivers on its promise of an adaptation worthy of its existence.

Tom Sturridge is only one of the series’ superior casting choices.
The challenges of adapting ‘Sandman’

The Sandman follows the story of Dream of the Endless (Tom Sturridge), the monarch of the Dreaming. In other words, he presides over a kingdom that regulates and houses the dreams and nightmares of humankind. The Endless are a family of beings, each of which oversees an aspect of humanity. There’s also Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Desire (Mason Alexander Park), Despair (Donna Preston), Destiny, Delirium, and [REDACTED]. The events of the series begin with mortals inadvertently capturing Dream while hoping to trap Death. From the basement of a wealthy magus’ mansion, Dream waits, plotting his escape and his revenge.

For the uninitiated, what makes the successful live-action The Sandman so impressive is that the story depicted in the comics is sprawling, jetting across the ages at a whim and occupying spaces from anywhere between Heaven and Hell to the purely imagined and fantastical.

The pages of the then-Vertigo, now-DC Black Label-imprinted series brimmed with visual texture. Having now lived in the minds of fans for going on 34 years, delivering that exact imagery at 24 frames per second is non-negotiable. The density of the text — the real strong suit of the series — also demands faithfulness. It would be exceedingly probable to fuck it all up and end up with a mess of unsubtlety while eschewing crucial context of interconnected characters and occurrences that pay off later in the series.

The level of fidelity for this television series is stunning. The commitment to not only conveying the visuals of the comics, but in some cases improving upon them, is a triumph for the medium of television. Panels and dialogue leap straight off the page.

In fact, the number of significant deviations from the source material can be counted on your fingers. There’s the change of setting from the 1980s to the current day, Morpheus’ choice of fate for Alex Burgess, John Dee’s choice of fate for Rosemary, a disruption in Morpheus’ meetings with Hob Gadling, the nixing of DC superhero lore, and a more modest depiction of some characters who were nude in the comics. None of these changes are detracting or without their merit for addressing modern audiences, except maybe the Rosemary change.

Pitch-perfect casting

The casting of each role is perfection. Neil Gaiman received a flood of backlash over casting decisions for The Sandman, most of it steeped in not-so-veiled racism and misogyny. He deftly dismissed it well enough on his own, but I can’t stress this enough. There is not a single misstep in the casting choices of this series. Actual fans will be over the moon with how closely the roles—even the smallest of speaking parts—play to the comics.

First and foremost, Tom Sturridge is Dream of the Endless. He is Lord Morpheus. He is The Sandman. Always smoldering, always brooding, and divinely regal when he wants to be, Sturridge embodies ideal casting.

The targets of much of the gnashing of teeth from the lamest corners of social media, Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place), Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), and Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who), unsurprisingly understand the assignment, but also own their roles fully in a way that only these actresses could.

Thankfully, the series avoids becoming a CGI mess, and often employs obvious digital effects only for beautiful tracking shots of Matthew the Raven (voiced by Patton Oswalt) soaring through vibrant locales. The only possible misstep, depending on the eye of the beholder, is the VFX of Merv Pumpkinhead (voiced by Mark Hamill!), which, honestly, you try animating a live-action talking pumpkin head and see how that goes.

Stunning results

The degree of difficulty here places The Sandman squarely in the conversation for one of the best comic-book adaptations ever. There are no longer excuses not to nail a jump from the page to the screen (looking at you, Paper Girls).

We live in a pretty dark timeline, but we should count ourselves lucky that we live in the one with this adaptation instead of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt one.

 

 

 

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Pablo Gallaga

Pablo Gallaga is a former video blogger and recapper for Television Without Pity (RIP). You can probably find him at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. He will thwart your alien invasion by uploading a rudimentary computer virus to your mothership using a 1996 Apple Powerbook and no Wi-Fi.

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