There have been numerous aborted attempts to adapt Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed The Sandman to live action for years. Netflix is the first to see it to fruition. Or one could argue it’s runner-up to Fox’s Lucifer, whose eponymous piano bar Devil & Mazikeen were spin-offs. David Goyer is one of the executive producers, which is worrisome. Allan Heinberg as the other executive producer & showrunner is less alarming. I wasn’t sure what to make of its trailers. Does it live up to its reputation of being Sleepwalker done wrong?
This ten episode series spans the first two volumes of the seminal series, “Preludes & Nocturnes” & “The Doll’s House.” These were The Sandman at its most hardcore horror & plot-driven. Readers who gravitate more towards the literary anthologies of later issues may find these a bit basic, but I appreciate a good horror introduction. It’s important for both Morpheus & Gaiman to excoriate the darkness at the outset before moving on to more fantastical genres & tones. I’d argue that the original vibe doesn’t entirely vanish but simmers until returning full force for the penultimate arc, “The Kindly Ones.”
This is a very faithful adaptation, which I’m in favor of. Since it’s not a movie like Watchmen, they didn’t have to compress all the supporting character beats & details that gave the series personality. It doesn’t fall prey to Netflixication bloat because there’s enough unique story happening in each installment. Not only is the pacing ideal, it lets The Sandman be The Sandman. It doesn’t sacrifice what made the comics so beloved, unlike much of Ms. Marvel. If you haven’t read the comics or seen the show yet, this blog is made of SPOILERS.
While the males are slavish visual translations of the comics characters, the women are instantly distinct. This wouldn’t stand out as much if they’d taken more liberties with the guys too. Why the double standard? This isn’t necessarily a negative on the whole, but it’s very noticeable.
As the titular character, Tom Sturridge looks like he stepped off the page. (It’s a popular theory The Dream King is Gaiman’s ultimate self-insert character.) Sturridge has very striking features that oscillate between handsome & disquieting. He is missing the spooky blacked out eyes though. Morpheus is broody & aloof, so it’s tricky to connect to him. Hale Appleman could’ve made him more empathetic, but they were committed to brittle. I generally prefer the characters around Morpheus. He makes a good horror host guest starring in others’ stories once the series becomes becomes more of an anthology. (That’s why Lucien from Tales Of Ghost Castle, Cain from House Of Mystery, & Abel from House Of Secrets live in The Dreaming too.)
The tale begins in 1916 when a coven led by Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) accidentally traps Morpheus of The Endless. They really wanted his sister, Death, but keep him as a consolation prize. He’s stripped of his three tools of office (a pouch of sand, a ruby, & a helmet). His imprisonment causes some big sleep disorders in the populace, but not nearly as many as you’d expect considering he’s the personification of a primal force. Once freed in 2022, Lord Morpheus has to recover his stolen belongings, hunt three fugitive dreams, & restore his crumbling kingdom, The Dreaming.
This keeps the initial WWI setting. After 1926, it shifts to the present without directly indicating 2022. I think it would’ve been slightly better if the bulk of the story was set in the original 1989. An Amulet Of Protection explains how Ethel Cripps is still lively (Niamh Walsh & Joely Richardson are perfectly cast as her at different ages.) but not why her son, John Dee, is equally youthful at almost a century. This is even more egregious with the formerly comatose Unity Kincaid. If they were adamant about keeping most of the story modern, they probably could’ve shifted the beginning forward to WWII.
As the fastidious manager of The Dreaming, Lucienne The Librarian is compassionate & diplomatic. Vivienne Achaempong & her Elven ears are more endearing than her comics counterpart. I’m glad her design was changed because it was sometimes difficult to tell Lucien & Cain apart in the comics. (Sadly Cain & Abel don’t keep the exaggerated devil’s haircut either.) Her tailcoat is constantly comically curved.
Boyd Holbrook has the right charming swagger as The Corinthian. He’s so upbeat & personable that he’s kind of the anti-Morpheus. He does waste an ice cream cone though. Eye sockets full of teeth are so creepy! Morpheus insists he’s gone rogue, but it seems like he’s just taking his programming to its logical conclusion. This walking nightmare is more involved in thwarting his maker & there’s an explanation why he can’t use his tools. Since The Corinthian was designed to be boogeyman of the early twentieth century, is he meant to inspire homophobia? Or is his orientation incidental to his serial killing & eyeball eating?
Instead of John Constantine, Jenna Coleman is playing Johanna Constantine. I thought Matt Ryan’s Constantie was too clean, but this takes it to a more egregious level. Johanna is very posh, from her accent to her chic coat. Regardless of gender, Constantine is supposed to be a working class Northerner. It’s a double standard that women are rarely allowed to be sloven in major roles. A cluttered apartment isn’t the same as her being physically unkempt. Johanna needs to get on the same dirtbag level as Stinky Raincoat Zeph from Killjoys & Pauline from Excision! Literally be more gritty!
Morpheus gets his sand back from Constantine in exchange for showing her & her girlfriend some mercy. When Sara & Oliver where mentioned among her exes, I instantly thought of Sara Lance & Oliver Queen. There’s another Astra Logue origin too. Coleman also plays her ancestor of the same name, Lady Johanna Constantine, which is confusing if you don’t realize they’re distinct people. When her casting was announced, I thought Coleman was only going to appear in the ancient flashbacks.
Matthew The Raven is another crossover character from Swamp Thing. (We need the rest of season one!) This version seems to have had a different demise. Patton Oswalt continues to sound exactly like himself, which may be a double-edged sword given how prolific he’s become. Mark Hamill shows more vocal range as Mervyn Pumpkinhead’s voice. Stephen Fry is perfect as Gilbert The Village Green, a chivalrous pastoral psychopomp inspired by author G. K. Chesterton. Jill Winternitz, Lourdes Faberes, & John Cameon Mitchell previous worked on the adaptations of Good Omens & How To Talk To Girls At Parties. Ann Ogbomo previously appeared in the non-Gaiman executive producers’ Wonder Woman & Krypton.
Tom Ellis doesn’t reprise Lucifer Morningstar. The role is now imperious Gwendoline Christie’s. Can we call them Luci? Their Mazikeen is Cassie Clare. They’re more fashionable than Morningstar appeared in the issues set in Hell. (Despair isn’t naked anymore either. She wears depression Crocs.) Dream dons couture to defeat Lucifer in a poetry slam battle! It’s debatable whether Legion did this scene better. Since this version of the duel was by proxy, did Lucifer lose on purpose? After all the trouble Dream went to recovering his helm, he doesn’t wear it much afterward. Newbies will expect the final scene sets up season two for another generic Hell invades everywhere story, but readers will know it’s “Seasons Of Mist.”
The Beeboverse’s “Elseworlds” crossover gave us Dr. Destiny without The Dreamstone whereas Wonder Woman 1984 had The Dreamstone without Dr. Destiny. Both are united here! I didn’t expect to see John Dee since he was pre-existing DC superviallain. This Materioptikon wielder is played by David Thewlis, who’d previously portrayed moustasche Ares. He doesn’t don his proto-Skeletor suit nor mention battling the Justice League. I love The Amulet Of Protection’s explosive liquefaction effect.
Rather than being held in Arkham Asylum in Gotham City, Dee is imprisoned in a non-gothic institution in Buffalo, NY. That means no Scarecrow cameo. Likewise there’s no Mr. Miracle, Etrigan, or Martian Manhunter. Unlike Vertigo purists, I liked the cameos of established DC superheroes in the early issues to give it an extra layer. Jed Walker’s toys suggest they may just be fictional in this adaptation. Lyta & Hector Hall (Razane Jammal & Lloyd Everitt) appear without reference to being legacy superheroes. Hal Carter may not be a Hawkman yet his name is perplexingly close to Carter Hall. Jed wears the Silver Age Sandman suit in his dream but there’s no direct reference to the Golden Age Sandman. I wonder if they’ll adapt Element Girl?
Focusing on his mother as a thieving con artist with a dysfunctional relation to him, it gives Dr. Destiny more depth. Much like Floronic Man, he makes a great usurper antagonist to the titular force of nature. Thewlis gives a wonderful performance where he’s both sympathetic & horrifying. The mounting tension in “24/7” is excellent, although it omits PBS giving suicide instructions. Rather than making dreams come true, Dee uses Dream’s ruby to enforce honesty to an absurdly terrifying degree. People need lies to give them hope to make them treat each other better. Their tug of war shatters the Materioptikon (Its best name is never uttered.), which allows Morpheus to absorb its power. So why’d he externalize it in the first place?
Rather than do the expected by casting Kat Dennings or Emma Dumont, Death is played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste. (The character’s original model was the late Cinamon Hadley.) She’s delightful in The Good Place, Barry, & the prematurely & ironically cancelled Infinity Train. Death is as effervescent as she is compassionate Dream’s big sister. This out of the box casting paid off!
It nails my two favorite issues, “24 Hours” & “The Sound Of Her Wings,” back to back. They make excellent harm & comfort companion pieces. Was the park bench photographer with iconic bangs behind Death talking to Dream a Caitlin Doughty cameo? Introducing Hob Galding (Ferdinand Kingsley) earlier makes an already great episode even better. Dream wears a tophat to one of their dates. Hob is very sad Dream missed 1989 & their tavern is getting demolished.
The make-up department undermines Death’s creative casting by making her look normal. Whereas they went the extra mile to make Sturridge even pastier, they didn’t do anything to make Howell-Baptiste look unquestionably like an Endless. All the siblings have an unmistakably unnatural pallor in comics. If they thought literally whitewashing her wouldn’t go over well, they could’ve gone the opposite direction by giving her gray skin like how Morpheus appeared to Queen Nada in the comics. (The coloring has been remastered to be less vibrant, so this may not look as striking in later versions. The Netflix version uses the later coloring without spooky eyes.) Gault proved this could look great. She doesn’t even have her wedjat eye makeup or black lipstick.
All The Endless in the comics have unnaturally white (or ecru in the Absolute Editions) skin. It’s a visual signifier that both unites all seven (Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair,
Delight Delirium, & Destruction) & distinguishes them from assorted other supernatural beings. They don’t blend in when interacting with humans. The Endless being an incredibly multi-ethnic family would help position them as universal personifications, yet so far all besides Death are played by pasty whites. Will the remaining siblings be cast more diversely or did they arbitrarily decide she was sufficient? It feels a bit like MCU Heimdall & Sif, but thankfully The Endless are all confirmed siblings.
In the comics, Desire is typically depicted with black hair & a red jacket. Here Desire has blonde hair & is introduced in a white jacket, which makes them look confusingly like The Corinthian at first. The hermaphroditic member of The Endless with androgynous styling is portrayed by nonbinary thespian Mason Alexander Park. I get what they were going for, but I’m not sure sure if it works that well. Since they’re presented sinisterly, it could read as transphobic. Maybe it would’ve been more otherworldly to splice performances by fraternal twin thespians together? Their kitty cosplay is on point regardless.
Brute & Glob are merged together into Gault, a shapeshifter with a cool cosmic treacle form. This fugitive nightmare from The Dreaming is more interesting because she’s trying to give abused Jed Walker comfort in superhero fantasies contrary to her purpose. Morpheus advises Hob Galding to get out of the slave trade because it’s not right to deny people freedom then punishes Gault for choosing to act like a dream?
Rose Walker of the day-glo dreadlocks is more assertive here. The second half hinges on her, & Vanesu Samunyai or Kyo Ra (she’s been credited under both names online) pulls it off in her debut. Her being a dream vortex is also much clearer than I recall it being in the comics. Not only does it threaten the newly rebuilt The Dreaming by causing dreams to bleed into each other & the waking world, it allows Lyta Hall to be impregnated by her husband’s ghost. Eddie Karanja also dodges child actor pitfalls as her brother, Jed.
The Cornithian is the replacement guest of honor at The Cereal Convention, which inspired Riverdale’s SlaughterCon. (I’ve seen people online give third hand accounts of season six with the details wrong, & I have the urge to “um actually…” all these randos.) After he accurately informs Rose that Morpheus means to kill her, The Cornithian means to use her vortex power to slay his maker. (A sexual assualt by Fun Time is shrewdly removed.) Instead he gets reduced to a baby skull & all the serial killers he inspired leave the convention with a case of the sads. That’s his sister’s job!
Unity Kincaid, Rose’s great-grandmother, sacrifices herself by absorbing the vortex & dying in her stead. It’s revealed that this whole dream vortex mess is Desire’s doing. Rose is finally reunited with her estranged brother & becomes an author. Lyta has her dream baby in reality, which is going to be crucial later.
The series leans into Morpheus being an unlikable protagonist. It gets away with this because multiple characters call him out on it. He’s responsible for his former lover, Queen Nada, being stuck in Hell for Centuries. No wonder Desire, Despair, The Fates, & The Corinthian plot against him. By the season finale, he’s taken some scoldings to heart. He acknowledges his friends & stops trying to run everything by himself. The Oneiromancer practically apologizes to Lucienne & Hob. He even becomes more amenable to change by reforming Gault into a dream.
The animated end credits change thematically with each episode. They were designed by cover artist Dave McKean. Don’t skip them. That way you can learn all the writers’ & directors’ names I didn’t bother to mention.
You’d expect it to be an HBO Max series, but Netflix made this Vertigo show happen. Since the new WB Discovery regime just unceremoniously killed Batgirl & Scoob! Holiday Haunt while removing previously released originals, maybe this dodged a bullet? David Zaslav even threw Chad season two into limbo mere hours before it was to premiere on TBS! Since they’re blatantly trying to game the system, is it possible the IRS will deny WBD’s tax write downs unless it can prove losses by actually releasing the movies? It’s an expensive trick to distract from the campaigns to save Legends Of Tomorrow & Batwoman.
This is probably the best case scenario of adapting The Sandman. Its Humanistic core remains intact, yet it doesn’t skimp on fantasy. The changes weren’t major & most are arguably improvements. It will probably appeal to fans & rookies alike. It’ll be great to see more of the supporting cast. Even if Netflix prematurely cancels it like it does everything I get invested in, at least we’ll have this season. It’s virtually a dream come true.