Like a group of basement-dwelling occultists working to ensnare forces far beyond their understanding, Netflix has spent the last few years attempting to do the impossible. The streaming service wanted to capture the essence of Neil Gaiman’s seminal work Sandman and adapt it for a TV series. Impressively, considering the unfeasible task before Netflix, it succeeded.
Netflix’s Sandman is a love letter to Gaiman’s work, faithful when it has to be but unafraid to expand the canon beyond the comics when something wouldn’t work for TV. As a fan, it’s a dream to watch, but for those who’ve never seen Sandman, it appears to be an intoxicating and beguiling experience that leaves them desperate to learn more about this magical world.
Netflix’s Sandman adapts the first two volumes of Gaiman’s work – specifically Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House – and tells the story of Dream (Tom Sturridge). Dream, also known as Morpheus, is one of seven Endless – powerful beings best described as the incarnation of natural forces.
As his name suggests, Dream is the living embodiment of dreams, imagination, and unreality, but while he is incredibly powerful, he is not omnipotent. As such, when a greedy human attempts to capture Death using an ancient spell, he accidentally traps Dream instead. Stealing Dream’s tools, the human attempts to bargain with Morpheus, who steadfastly refuses to cooperate.
With Dream captured and his realm of nightmares and imagination left without a king, the world soon falls into chaos. Will Dream be able to escape his captors and fix the mess they’ve made? Well, we don’t want to spoil things for you, but know that you won’t be disappointed if you watch.
For the longest time, Gaiman’s comic was widely considered unadaptable. The books are vast in scope, taking place over literal aeons, and in worlds literally made of pure human emotion. This would be an ambitious universe for even the most imaginative of filmmakers to create, but the technicalities of creating Dream’s world of imagination weren’t the biggest problem.
The issue was that the books deal with themes you don’t traditionally see in adaptations of popular comic books. Sandman is about change, growth, and the power of storytelling, not superheroes battling colourful villains (not that Morpheus doesn’t meet a few bad guys on his adventure).
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Showrunner Allan Heinberg – who worked closely with Gaiman on the series – clearly understands the importance of maintaining those themes in this adaptation. After all, what’s the point in adapting something if you won’t be true to it? As such, he and his team have worked hard to ensure that Netflix’s version of the story is as faithful as can be to the books. This makes the few changes they did make far easier to swallow.
Don’t worry, though. These minor changes work to expand the story, not derail it. So there are no car chases, fist fights, or desperate last stands from villains in purple tuxedos. Instead, he maintains the book’s imaginative, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying tone.
Terrifying? Oh yes, this can be a seriously twisted series. Sandman, after all, owes a debt of gratitude to the horror genre and the show is no different. Some of the book’s most horrifying moments and characters are brought to life in vivid and grotesque detail. There’s literally a moment where a man is turned inside out, but that won’t register in even the top five scariest moments in this series.
Of course, even those who’ve never picked up an issue of Sandman knew Gaiman could write captivating stories. Sandman would always sink or swim on the back of its cast. The denizens of the Dreaming and the worlds of the books are so fully formed as to feel real, so casting the right actors was always going to be very important.
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Thankfully Netflix did a staggeringly brilliant job with casting. On paper Sturridge perhaps has the most challenging role, playing the detached inhuman Dream but he seems born to it. Not to diminish his work, but he embodies the mercurial and mopey Morpheus with such grace it looks effortless. He moves like Dream; he talks like Dream; he is Dream.
The extended cast is sensational as well. Honestly, Sandman is an ensemble piece, and we can’t shout out everyone in this article, or we’ll be here until Death comes knocking, but know that all involved bring something unique to their role. The two who deserve mention are Kyo Ra and Gwendoline Christie.
Ra plays Rose Walker, an important character from the book. Ra’s take on Rose is slightly different from Gaiman’s version in the book; she’s stronger and more capable. Honestly, she’s replaced the version in the comics for me in my head (a feat only accomplished by Mark Hamill’s Joker and Josh Keaton’s Spider-Man).
Christie, meanwhile, plays Lucifer. While there are probably some who will roll their eyes at the decision to make Lucifer a woman, it’s inspired casting. She brings such unexpected menace to the role. It’s disarming, especially if you only know her from Game of Thrones. So sorry, Tom Ellis, she’s the scarier Devil.
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Unfortunately, not everything in the series works. The books had an advantage to the show in that the landscape and magic of the series was limited only by the pencil work of whichever artist was working on it. As such, the stories had a natural artistic flare to them, with the Dreaming appearing different depending on which artist drew the book. This suited the slightly ephemeral nature of Dream’s kingdom.
The TV series, however, understandably needs a far more uniform and visually coherent style so as not to alienate the audience. This does sometimes mean you end up with scenes that feel a little pedestrian considering the otherworldly nature of the show. Still, the style that Netflix chose for the Dreaming isn’t bad, and it grows on you over time.
Basically, Netflix’s Sandman is how comic book adaptations should be done. It maintained the independent spirit of the source material but expanded on areas where there was room. There’s a passionate cast working on it, who all clearly understand their roles, and best of all, it feels like it was made by fans for non-fans.
The Sandman is streaming now exclusively on Netflix.
The Netflix Sandman series is a near-perfect adaptation of something unadaptable.