clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What You Need to Know Before Seeing ‘The Sandman’

Before the big-budget series based on Neil Gaiman’s comics hits Netflix on Friday, get a crash course on the DC source material, the earlier adaptation attempts, and the show’s vast potential

Netflix/Ringer illustration

In 1987, Neil Gaiman received a call from an editor at DC Comics named Karen Berger.

At the time, the British writer was not yet the massive name that he is today, and he was still new to the comics medium. Gaiman had a background in journalism, and he had previously pitched a number of projects to Berger, including a miniseries called Black Orchid and a series featuring John Constantine, along with several others that involved little-known title characters that Gaiman thought could be fun to try to rescue from creative limbo. Since many of the proposals were centered on characters who were already either involved in ongoing series or were in the process of being developed by other writers, DC decided that Black Orchid made the most sense for Gaiman. Soon after, Gaiman got to work on the three-issue series with Berger and artist Dave McKean, whom Gaiman had collaborated with on his first work, Violent Cases.

As Berger recalled in 1995, Black Orchid, like Violent Cases before it, “was technically solid but maybe, in a way, too precise,” and there was a distance in Gaiman’s writing that led to an emotional detachment with the characters. But Berger—and DC at large—saw enough in his early works that she wanted to see what he could do with another project. And so, when Berger made that call to Gaiman in 1987, she asked if he would be interested in writing a monthly series based on one of those forgotten DC characters he had campaigned to revive and make his own: the Sandman.

Across 75 issues that were published from 1989 to 1996, The Sandman became one of the most popular and widely celebrated comics ever created. The series, which Berger edited and which was illustrated by a rotating team of more than two dozen talented artists, inspired several spinoffs, as well as a number of Gaiman-authored short story collections and miniseries set in the Sandman universe. (In 2018, DC also announced The Sandman Universe, a new line of comics that would expand the world of Sandman as a part of the DC Universe.) And Gaiman, of course, has become one of the great storytellers of our time, producing works such as American Gods, Anansi Boys, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. Several of Gaiman’s stories, including American Gods and Good Omens, have been adapted into TV shows in recent years, and his award-winning 2013 novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane was turned into a play in London in 2019.

Now, after several failed adaptations, The Sandman is finally being brought to life as a Netflix series.

The series premieres on Friday, with all 10 episodes of its first season dropping at once. Gaiman developed the show along with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, and it boasts a terrific cast that includes Tom Sturridge as Dream, the titular Sandman, along with Gwendoline Christie, Vivienne Acheampong, Boyd Holbrook, Charles Dance, Asim Chaudhry, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Mason Alexander Park, and voice work from Patton Oswalt and Mark Hamill.

Ahead of The Sandman’s release, let’s lay out some background on the comics, a brief history of the long and winding road to their adaptation, and the tremendous potential—and daunting challenges—that the series holds for Netflix.

An Introduction to the Comics

The Sandman is many things, but perhaps above all, it is the story of the king of dreams. The titular character is a member of the Endless, a family of anthropomorphic beings, including (in order of descending age): Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. Like his siblings, Dream—who goes by many names, such as Morpheus and Kai’ckul, among others—is the ruler of his own realm, and he fulfills a duty to all mortal beings, embodying the natural force for which he is named. Just as his older sister, Death, welcomes the souls of the dead to the afterlife, Morpheus regulates the dreams—and nightmares—of all those who enter his domain when they go to sleep in the waking world.

DC Comics

The story begins with Dream being captured during an occult ritual performed by a group of humans attempting to imprison Death. Although they fail in their true mission, they’re satisfied with kidnapping Death’s sibling, and they keep him trapped in a basement for 70 years. His imprisonment creates all sorts of problems for humanity, with people all over the world falling into a deep sleep that they’re unable to wake up from, or never being able to fall asleep at all. His domain—the Dreaming—falls to ruin in his absence. When Morpheus escapes during the book’s modern-day setting, he sets out to undo the damage that was done while he was gone, and he begins to rebuild his kingdom, tasks that prove to be more complicated than he anticipated.

Although The Sandman is set in the DC Universe, home to the likes of Gotham’s Caped Crusader and Superman, Gaiman’s comic is not your average superhero story. As he recently told The Guardian, that distinction was by design, and he drew inspiration from an American science-fiction author so he could lean into his own strengths as a writer. “Roger Zelazny did a book called Lord of Light, where he did science-fictional gods who feel like superheroes,” Gaiman said. “It’s set in a world in the future where a bunch of space explorers have given themselves the powers of the Hindu pantheon. I thought: ‘I can’t do superheroes, but I could do god comics. I bet I could get that kind of feeling to happen, and it might feel enough like a superhero comic to fool people.’”

Especially in its early issues, The Sandman grounds itself with familiar characters and locations that readers and fans of DC Comics would recognize, featuring early guest appearances from Batman villains such as Scarecrow and Justice League members like Martian Manhunter, as well as a plotline involving Arkham Asylum. But as Gaiman finds his voice, the series becomes its own entity, and it’s all the better for it. The Sandman blends elements of horror, fantasy, mythology, and history into a sprawling epic that, most of the time, sets Morpheus as its protagonist. At other times, though, he’s more of a host; a gateway into another’s story. Some issues are like miniature horror movies, while others might depict the works of William Shakespeare. Sometimes The Sandman is simply a story about stories.

The Netflix adaptation is set to cover the series’ first two collected volumes—Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House—across its 10-episode first season. But with 10 volumes in total, not to mention all of the spinoffs, short story collections, and the prequel that Gaiman wrote when he returned to the series in 2013 (The Sandman: Overture), this season could be the first of many to come.

The Many (Failed) Lives of The Sandman on the Big Screen

That Netflix has managed to adapt The Sandman at all feels like a minor miracle. Given the tremendous success and popularity of the comics, it should be no surprise that Warner Bros.—the parent company of DC Comics—would want to turn the property into a live-action movie. Efforts to do so started in the 1990s, but The Sandman stayed mired in development hell for years, and at times seemed doomed to remain there in perpetuity.

The first attempt at adapting Sandman featured director Roger Avary, following the success of 1994’s Pulp Fiction (which he cowrote with Quentin Tarantino), along with Pirates of the Caribbean screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. But Avary was fired over creative differences with executive producer Jon Peters. Another draft in 1998, written by William Farmer (Jonah Hex), would later be remembered by Gaiman as “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” (In 2020, Gaiman also wrote that Farmer denied having written the things described in the reported draft, but that, regardless of whoever actually wrote script, the “Jon Peters people were so very proud of it.”)

The most recent, and perhaps most prominent, attempt at bringing Sandman to life on the big screen emerged in 2013, when writer-producer David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight) took on the challenge with Gaiman (attached as an executive producer), writer Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was set to produce, star in, and direct the film. Citing a disagreement with the studio, New Line Cinema (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.), Gordon-Levitt left the project in 2016. The news of Gordon-Levitt’s departure came the day after the announcement that Eric Heisserer (Arrival) had been hired to rewrite the script. But like so many before him, Heisserer, too, left the ill-fated production later that year, with the screenwriter suggesting that The Sandman would be better suited for television.

“I had many conversations with Neil on this, and I did a lot of work on the feature and came to the conclusion that the best version of this property exists as an HBO series or limited series, not as a feature film, not even as a trilogy,” Heisserer told io9 in 2016. “The structure of the feature film really doesn’t mesh with this. So I went back and said here’s the work that I’ve done. This isn’t where it should be. It needs to go to TV.”

Of course, Heisserer was not alone in believing that The Sandman would be more successful as a TV series, nor was he the first to suggest that. In fact, filmmaker James Mangold (Logan) had already pitched a series to HBO in 2010 that never materialized, and Supernatural creator Eric Kripke was once attached to a TV adaptation that never got off the ground either.

In a recent interview with, Gaiman spoke about the many attempts at adapting his beloved story, as well as why he, too, believed it made more sense as a TV show than as a movie. “I’ve been saying for 30 years that I would rather have no Sandman than a bad Sandman,” Gaiman said. “The problem with making a Sandman film is, the first question you get into is, ‘What do you throw out?’

“I’ve read lots of scripts that ranged from the appalling to ‘OK, they might be able to pull this off,’” Gaiman continued. “But you always read them going, ‘Well, it’s not quite Sandman. It’s taking some Sandman stuff from over here, and taking some Sandman stuff over there, and blending it together.’”

Perhaps The Sandman was always doomed to fail as a movie. With a 75-issue story that has a true beginning and end, it was never going to be able to fit into a single film, or even a trilogy. In the end, enough time had passed that TV became a true possibility, with successes like Game of Thrones and Watchmen proving that this sprawling, “unfilmable” epic could be undertaken during the streaming era.

In May 2019, Goyer approached Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman) about working on a Sandman adaptation, a prospect that was at first too daunting to Heinberg as a fan of the comics. (As he tells it: “Naturally, I said no. That’s not entirely true. First, I said, ‘May I have 24 hours to reread the books?’ Then, after rereading, I said no.”) But Goyer, who already had his hands full with the also-often-said-to-be-unfilmable Foundation for Apple TV+, made a convincing argument—which included Gaiman’s involvement with the project—and Heinberg agreed to come on board as showrunner. Within a matter of weeks, Goyer, Heinberg, and Gaiman had pitched The Sandman to streaming networks, and a deal was struck with Netflix. After years of lackluster scripts and films that stalled out before entering production, the Netflix series came together quickly. Now, it’s just a matter of whether it can live up to the hype and years of waiting.

The Endless Potential of The Sandman

Although Netflix’s Sandman series is the first live-action adaptation of the comics, another adaptation preceded it in audio form. Released in July 2020, Audible’s The Sandman broke the company’s record for preorders, quickly becoming its bestselling original title ever. Its follow-up, The Sandman: Act II, came out in September 2021, with a third volume still to come. The popularity of the Sandman IP has only grown over time, and Netflix could have a massive hit on its hands if it can capitalize.

But even in a TV format, it remains to be seen how The Sandman will translate to the screen. Along with Gaiman’s fantastic concepts, the series’ visual beauty—from artists including Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Kelley Jones, and J.H. Williams III in Overture, among many others—will be a major challenge to re-create in live action. The series will require a lot of CGI to capture the visual landscapes of settings like the Dreaming, and though it’s an inexact comparison, Netflix hasn’t had the best track record with live-action adaptations of classic anime series, such as Death Note or Cowboy Bebop.

Still, with a strong cast—which Gaiman helped assemble—and a hell of a story to build on, The Sandman has the potential to run for many seasons if it can win the approval and support of its source material’s massive fan base. Even as the comics series was running, it was able to attract a wide following that transcended the medium’s typical readership thanks to its progressive views on gender, sexuality, and diversity, and a number of strong female and nonbinary characters. The Sandman was far ahead of its time in that sense, which streamlined the adaptation process more than 30 years after the comics started. “The great thing about having done all that stuff back then is that there’s an awful lot less work to do now,” Gaiman told The Guardian. “There are moments when people yell at me for being woke online, and I’m like: ‘Have you ever read the fucking comic?’ People have criticized me for casting a gender-fluid, nonbinary actor as Desire, but they were in the original. Desire was always nonbinary; that was the whole point of the character.”

For fans of the comics, there’s as much to be excited about as there is to induce anxiety. Casting choices like Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar, the lord of Hell, seem apt; the character was imagined as gender fluid, and modeled after a young David Bowie. It also helps to have actors from massive franchises like Doctor Who (Jenna Coleman), Harry Potter (David Thewlis), Game of Thrones (Christie and Charles Dance), and a voice acting legend in Mark Hamill. Gaiman’s heavy involvement in the series, after decades of mostly distancing himself from every attempted adaption, may be the greatest indication of all that The Sandman could finally be ready for the screen. “We’re trying to be extremely faithful to [the] comics, and to their spirit,” Heinberg told Tudum, the Netflix-owned fan site. “Neil is very present, even though he’s based in New Zealand. Every script, every prop, every costume, all the sets, everything gets Neil’s eyes and his feedback. We’re working with a lot of the original art, and all the props are almost to the letter as they are in the comics. It does feel like you’re living inside the comic book when you walk around the sets.”

Preludes and Nocturnes is really just the entry point to The Sandman—something of a prologue to a vast and endlessly imaginative story that has only improved over time, as Gaiman honed his craft as a comics writer, and as new artists have added depth and beauty to the universe he envisioned. By merging Preludes and Nocturnes with its follow-up, The Doll’s House, these 10 episodes could serve as the perfect introduction to Dream and the Endless. If the series can survive this first season, with a large enough audience to justify its reportedly massive budget, it could provide a strong foundation for the franchise to build on in the years to come.