‘The Sandman’ Gives Neil Gaiman Fans the Faithful Adaptation They Have Waited For
Published material with a massive following always faces the same questions about how accurate the screen adaptation will be. After many years of delays and false starts, audiences are finally getting an adaption of “The Sandman,” based on the best-selling DC comic book series by Neil Gaiman. Fear not, the cult author was indeed heavily involved with the making of this Netflix series, including the writing. Depending on how much of a fan you are, this will either be a long-awaited dream come true or a sleepy slow burner that adapts the material so accurately that some episodes play like visual audiobooks. The best overall element is the visual texture, which brings to life the surreal artwork of the graphic novels.
Who is the Sandman? He’s Dream aka Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), as known as the Lord of Dreams, who rules the Dreaming, which is the fantastical realm where dreams are weaved. The idea is that this is where we spend a third of our sleeping, imaginative lives. Dream seems pretty content living in comfort while granting us pleasant mental escapes. But he’s soon captured by Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones”), a wealthy Englishman and occultist, who wants to summon Death in order to bring back his son, who died in the trenches of World War I. He mistakenly entraps Dream instead. When Dream refuses to grant him his demands, like eternal youth, Burgess leaves him encased in a giant glass orb. Here our hero remains for over a century. Since he’s immortal it doesn’t seem that hard to endure the passage of time, even as everyone else gets older. Meanwhile, a “nightmare” named Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) takes advantage of Dream’s absence to go around causing mischief, such as not letting anyone have good dreams. Finally, in the present, when a guard falls asleep, Dream is able to enter his mind and carry out an escape. Now he has to rebuild the Dreaming and recover some of his lost items, like his essential sand.
“The Sandman” carries quite a heavy load of pop culture history on its shoulders. The comic book series was one of the first to be collected into graphic novels, which helped change the industry. It helped launch Vertigo as a major imprint in the ‘90s and since then Neil Gaiman has only grown in popularity as an author (his recent “Norse Mythology” is a pure delight). As a show, however, “The Sandman” is a visually rich act of total fan service. If you’ve never read a single issue of the comic book series and walk into the show cold, what you find is a rather meandering fantasy where the lead character never goes beyond a symbol. As played by Tom Sturridge in dark coats out of “The Matrix,” Dream is always a low-key tour guide who never seems to have layers beyond his dark, whispering persona. The pilot is one of the more stimulating episodes in terms of story, because it’s about watching time and lives pass by from behind a literal bubble. Once Dream escapes and finds the Dreaming a collapsed shell of its former self, he goes on a quest to recover his items and stops to meet different members of the Endless. These are yet more immortal beings ruling other realms, each with their own, particular style.
Gaiman, and co-creators David S. Goyer (a comics expert who has penned many movies in the genre, like “Batman Begins” and “Blade”) and Allan Heinberg (who penned “Wonder Woman”), admirably want to make a series that’s more about ideas. Fans may very well enjoy episodes like “The Sound of Her Wings,” in which the script follows down to the letter original issues where Dream has long conversations with his sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Much of this series is precisely all talk, even the third episode where Dream visits Hell and faces off with Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie, another “Game of Thrones” alumni) in a battle of pure wits. A realm like Hell is imagined with little sense of horror or intensity and more like a detour from a pleasant dark fantasy video game. Dream is meant to be tracking down his creations, who have escaped from the Dreaming, yet the chase feels more like a moody road trip as opposed to a thrilling hunt. The dialogue-driven format works best in the fifth episode, where scene-stealer David Thewlis, as Roderick Burgess’s younger son John Dee, takes a ruby stolen from Dream and sits around a diner making people drop their filters and tell others what they truly think. It’s a great episode about the nature of honesty and how we hold inside our most honest thoughts. Just watch how he ruins a date.
In many ways “The Sandman” is an adventure of vignettes, filmed with a lighter kind of visual richness akin to Bryan Fuller’s approach to another Gaiman adaptation, “American Gods.” There’s less of a visceral edge here. It features cute gargoyle babies and lacks a sense of humor. Some episodes explore engaging moral questions, like Dream facing a man who was given immortality but also traded slaves while enjoying his gift. Among his other tasks, he keeps “nightmares” in line and makes sure they don’t get too compassionate (an idea that isn’t fully fleshed out). For all the hype, much of “The Sandman” feels like Netflix fantasy productions meant to cater specifically to that sole demographic, like “Cursed” or “The Witcher.” It never aims for the breadth of themes and drama of shows like early “Game of Thrones,” where it breaks through the genre’s limitations. For Gaiman fans that have been waiting decades, it will certainly be a good time full of the comics’ memorable iconography (including Dream’s gas mask that looks taken out of an “Alien” movie). The final episode ties up everything nicely while leaving the door open for another season. Devoted Neil Gaiman followers get their wish, while newcomers will be left seeking other dreamlands.
“The Sandman” season one begins streaming Aug. 5 on Netflix.