The Sandman: key information
– Releasing exclusively on Netflix on Friday, August 5
– Based on Neil Gaiman’s iconic fantasy comic book series
– Developed by Gaiman, Allan Heinberg, and David S. Goyer
– Co-produced by Warner Bros. Television Studios
– Stars Tom Sturridge, Gwendoline Christie, Boyd Holbrook, Vivienne Acheampong, and Jenna Coleman among others
– First season comprises 10 episodes
A live-action adaptation of The Sandman has been a long time coming. 33 years have elapsed since Neil Gaiman’s iconic and subversive comic book series was originally released, but a movie or TV show based on the British author’s beloved works has never materialized.
There are numerous reasons why – chief among them being Gaiman’s reluctance to attach himself to the myriad of ultimately failed attempts to bring The Sandman to the big or small screen.
Now, that three-decade long nightmare is over. The arrival of a Netflix TV show adaptation, one that Gaiman is fully involved in, has turned a wistful dream into reality. Given the plethora of previously futile endeavors to bring it to life, however, it’s an adaptation that’s been understandably met with equal parts excitement and caution among The Sandman’s devoted fanbase.
Diehards will be pleased to hear, then, that Netflix’s The Sandman is as faithful an adaptation you’re likely to see. For newcomers, it’s a riveting spectacle packed with fantastical drama, morally complex characters (played with real authority and nuance by its all-star cast), and an expansive, detailed universe you’ll long to get lost in. It’s not without limitations and its creative divergences from the source material may make long-time fans bristle. Overall, though, Netflix’s adaptation does an admirable job of juggling The Sandman’s multiple moving parts, enabling established fans and first timers to enjoy it to the full.
Mr Sandman, bring me a dream
The Sandman tells the tale of Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), also known as Dream/the titular Sandman, one of the seven beings known as The Endless and the King of the Dream Dimension.
Powerful though he is, when Morpheus visits Earth in 1916 to apprehend The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), one of the Dream Dimension’s escaped nightmares, he’s captured by amateur occultist Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) when a summoning ritual goes awry. After 106 years of imprisonment, Morpheus eventually escapes and returns home. However, in his absence, the Dream Dimension has fallen to ruin and, save for a few loyal followers, including librarian Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), it’s long been deserted by its inhabitants.
Determined to restore order, Morpheus embarks on a quest to retrieve the three items that give him his power – his sand pouch, helm, and dreamstone – and rebuild his empire. Morpheus soon learns, though, that his confinement has set startling events in motion that may alter the course of the universe itself.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not exactly. The Sandman is a dense, multi-narrative tale set across several time periods, as well as being packed with thematic resonance and a seemingly infinite number of characters and locations.
Given the complexity of The Sandman’s overarching narrative, then, newcomers may worry that 10 episodes’ worth of confusion, backtracking, and extracurricular reading might be needed to fully grasp the series’ complicated plot.
Thankfully, showrunner Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman) alongside Gaiman and fellow executive producer David S Goyer (Foundation), ease viewers into proceedings from the get-go. The series premiere is very much a set-up episode; introducing audiences to key characters and lays the foundations for more important storylines to come, some of which don’t pay off until later in the season. Early episodes equally do a good job of establishing The Sandman’s other worlds and realms without being overly expository, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in this universe without being subjected to information overload.
Once its overarching narrative is constructed, The Sandman’s multi-narrative approach really comes into its own. Playing out like an actual comic book series, Netflix’s adaptation switches between its numerous storylines – those centered around Morpheus, John Dee (David Thewlis) and, later in the season, Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai) – with satisfying regularity. Morpheus may be the protagonist of the piece, but the show’s narrative hopping gives it room to tell wider subplots, and contextualize its characters’ backstories and motives, in The Sandman’s comprehensive universe.
These alternating plots enabled the show to introduce the mind-boggling amount of supporting and side characters who exist in this universe, too. From Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie) and Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), to Lyta Hall (Razanne Jammal) and Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) – and more besides – The Sandman’s rich tapestry of human and ethereal individuals lend significant weight, drama, humor, and shock value to proceedings. The series’ occasional knack at making Morpheus a supporting character in his own story, such as the Constantine-heavy third episode, is an interesting narrative adjustment that proves Morpheus isn’t the center of this universe either. He’s merely a small part of its make up, albeit one whose choices and judgment hold significant sway in the grand scheme of things.
Topical themes and casting dreams
With its universe, characters, and major plot threads established, The Sandman sets about exploring its main themes and showcasing its cast’s undoubted talents.
Ultimately, it’s the story of one individual’s hubris – that being Morpheus – and their quest to become more humble, sincere and, strange as it is to say for a cosmic deity, human than before. It’s this thematic thread that runs through The Sandman’s overarching narrative and makes Morpheus such a relatable character.
Even though Morpheus isn’t a typical hero – after all, his reasons re-acquiring his magical items and restoring his kingdom are largely built on self-indulgent means – you can’t help but root for him. The trials he endures to re-acquire his power-based conduits, whether it’s taking on Lucifer in a reality-altering duel or forming an uneasy alliance with Constantine to aid her with a pressing errand, put Morpheus’ skills and humanity to the test in fascinating fashion.
It helps that Sturridge’s portrayal of Morpheus is suitably enthralling. The Irma Vep alumnus captures the brooding charm and haughtiness of Morpheus’ comic book counterpart, all the while bringing the right amount of heart and poignancy to scenes when required. It’s this character complexity, coupled with Morpheus’ internal struggle to become a more benevolent ethereal being towards humans – particularly in light of his experiences with the Burgess family – that makes his journey such a compelling watch.
Of course, a leading actor is oft-times only as good as their supporting cast, and The Sandman’s is at the top of their game.
Christie’s Lucifer, who’s more in keeping with the comics’ iteration of Hell’s ruler than the Tom Ellis version we’ve previously seen, is devilishly menacing. Thewlis’ Dee, too, is a politely callous, manipulative, and vindictive counterpoint to Morpheus – the pair’s dynamics with Sturridge’s protagonist demonstrating his vulnerability and occasional naivety as he searches for his vestments.
The show’s other major players also provide opportunities to explore other elements of Morpheus’ personality. The firecracker-style chemistry he has with Coleman’s Constantine, the affectionate-but-direct sibling relationship he shares with Howell-Baptiste’s Death, and the Batman-Alfred dynamic between Morpheus and Lucienne are just three fascinating examples of how The Sandman cultivates honest, human-like relationships amid its dark fantasy setting. There are countless more that are equally entertaining and suspenseful – Morpheus’ terse dynamic with Holbrook’s Corinthian and humor-laden exchanges with Michael (Patton Oswalt), his raven messenger, to name two – but dissecting them all would require a separate article.
As adaptations go, The Sandman devotees will be thrilled with how closely Netflix’s TV show sticks to the source material.
For one, the series pulls certain images right out of the comics. From Morpheus escaping captivity and Death’s scolding of Morpheus, to the latter’s confrontation with Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and that extensive diner sequence involving John Dee – if you know, you know – Netflix’s live-action interpretations of iconic Sandman panels are pleasingly accurate. In fact, the painstaking approach taken by the show’s chief creative team, to stick closely to the source material, is something to be applauded. Other adaptations, particularly those of a movie format persuasion, surely would have cut vital aspects of the story for the supposed benefit of their runtime.
That isn’t to say The Sandman TV series is a perfect adaptation. Sure, some alterations have been made to better reflect the world in the present. The non-traditional casting of Christie, Coleman, and Acheampong’s characters, in addition to the hiring of a Black actor in Howell-Baptiste to play Death, are welcome changes from how these individuals are perceived in the source material, despite the baffling criticism their castings were met with.
While those creative choices should be celebrated, there are other alterations that may not sit well with long-time fans. For one, given the license and copyright deals surrounding some DC comic characters, Netflix’s The Sandman can’t utilize specific superheroes or individuals who made cameos in Gaiman’s graphic novels. Those hoping to see Mister Miracle or Martian Mahunter – or even hear John Dee’s supervillain alias – in the TV adaptation, then, are sure to be disappointed.
Other subplots have been significantly altered or removed entirely, too. Without spoiling anything major, one minor story thread following Morpheus’ escape has been excluded, while events surrounding Lyta Hall and Jed Walker (Eddie Karanja) have been rewritten to fit the TV show’s narrative. These and other alterations aren’t deal breakers but, nonetheless, they’re significant departures from the source material that might frustrate diehards.
Deviations from the comics aren’t the only blots on The Sandman’s development. Overall, the show’s VFX and CGI elements are visually spectacular, which you would expect from a production of this scale and budget. However, there are times where the use of green screen technology is jarringly obvious; incidents that make The Sandman’s visuals feel slightly amateurish.
Those unfamiliar with The Sandman comic series are sure to be thrown for a loop at the midway point of season 1. Again, no spoilers, but episode 5 serves as the culmination of one major storyline and the beginning of another, which truly begins with episode 6 and ends with the season 1 finale.
As in the comics, these plot threads are intrinsically linked but, for viewers who haven’t read the graphic novels, it’s an abrupt stop to one storyline that had effectively been gathering pace. The subsequent stop-start nature of season 1’s midway point upsets the show’s rhythm – a complication that affects its pacing in its next back of episodes. Maybe The Sandman could’ve taken a page of Stranger Things season 4’s book and been released in two halves, effectively removing that pacing issue and allowing its two main storylines to simultaneously exist separately and alongside one another.
The Sandman is a compelling, near-faithful adaptation of Gaiman’s popular and convoluted comic series. Established fans will be surprisingly pleased with this richly detailed live-action interpretation that explore The Sandman mythos with aplomb, while newcomers are sure to marvel at its heady mix of fantasy, drama, horror, and noir thriller genres.
It’s not a faultless piece of work. Sandman novices may struggle with its pacing and at-times elaborate lore, while diehards may be peeved at what they consider to be unnecessary deviations from Gaiman’s original works and its occasional penchant for overly elaborate plot explanations. Some of its dialog is a little on the nose, too – we really could’ve done without two instances where a character says “our dreams really are coming true”.
However, given that, for the longest time, The Sandman was thought to be unadaptable, Gaiman, Netflix, and company have proven it was possible all along. It’s not flawless but, with the obstacles it’s had to overcome, Netflix’s The Sandman is an adaptation worthy of Gaiman’s iconic graphic novel series.
The Sandman launches exclusively on Netflix on Friday, August 5.