After a multitude of filmmakers and screenwriters failed for decades to adapt it to the screen, The Sandman earned the reputation of being “unfilmable.” But like so many recent projects based on source material that once shared the same damning label, the elusive IP has broken through at last. More than 30 years after its namesake comics began printing, the TV version of Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece is streamable on Netflix, where the first season (which covers the comics’ opening volumes) launched late last week. The question is: Does the series, which bears the name of one of the most revered comics ever adapted, live up to the outsized expectations?
After watching the 10 episodes that make up the show’s first season, it’s easy to understand why The Sandman took so long to get made. Given the comics’ mix of settings spanning dreams and the waking world, along with a story that features a number of eternal, anthropomorphic beings, demons, and nightmares, re-creating the original visuals in live action was a tremendous challenge. Just by existing, Netflix’s The Sandman has achieved what once seemed unachievable, and the first season showcases the series’ potential. But something has been lost in translation from the pages to the screen, even though—or maybe because—the show doesn’t stray that far from the pages.
Viewers who came into the series without any prior expectations might not feel any sense of disappointment, and there’s still plenty here for Sandman fans to enjoy; just witnessing Morpheus fashion his iconic helm for the first time or Merv (brilliantly brought to life by Mark Hamill’s voice work) interact with Morpheus or Lucienne is special. The cast is largely fantastic: Tom Sturridge—with his perpetually moody demeanor and commanding, yet almost ethereal voice—is about as convincing a Dream as Gaiman and the rest of the Sandman creative team could have found. David Thewlis (as John Dee) and Boyd Holbrook (as the Corinthian) make a menacing tandem of villains, while Vivienne Acheampong (as Lucienne) and Kirby Howell-Baptiste turn in standout performances and possess a wonderful chemistry with Sturridge’s Morpheus. It’s clear that there was a great deal of care and attention to detail involved in the adaptation process.
The show is remarkably—and at times, excessively—faithful to its source material, with episode titles pulled straight from the chapter names of the books and Gaiman’s words often spoken by actors exactly as they first appeared. The first season covers the first two collected volumes of the comics, Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, and with 10 episodes’ worth of screen time to work with, no major sacrifices had to be made to the narrative. However, there are still some notable departures, and clever ones at that.
The union between the eighth and 13th issues of the comic (“The Sound of Her Wings” and “Men of Good Fortune”) in the sixth episode, for example, is a smart way to tie together two stories thematically linked by Death. That episode (which is also called “The Sound of Her Wings”) forms a bridge between Preludes and Doll’s House, as the arc of the first volume naturally blends into the second. Throughout the season, some story lines are streamlined and some characters’ roles from the comics are slightly tweaked to better fit the TV format; the Corinthian, for instance, is present early and often. (In the comics, the character isn’t introduced until Doll’s House.) The rather forced and awkward early inclusion of DC Universe characters, including Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle, is scrapped entirely.
Given Gaiman’s involvement in developing the series, there’s a sense that Netflix’s Sandman is tightening the narrative in ways that the British author might have even originally preferred, while some elements have been updated to comport with modern times rather than remaining rooted in the late ’80s. “The comics were always the bible; sometimes they were more the Old Testament,” Gaiman recently told Vanity Fair. “We let things change, but the things that changed tended to change with the times, or with the need to make something into television.”
But in spite of the intriguing ways that The Sandman innovates and separates itself from the comics, the series sometimes feels too tethered to its origins. Along with the frequent usage of lines ported directly from Gaiman’s works, scripts often follow the path of the stories beat for beat, sometimes dragging out episodes—such as Chapter 5, “24/7”—long enough to overstay their welcome. Painstaking efforts have been made to re-create the major moments and splash pages of the comics, with mixed results. Even with all the technological advancements since Warner Bros. first tried to adapt Gaiman’s comics in the ’90s, there is no amount of CGI that can capture the visual splendor and creativity that was crafted by dozens of artists during The Sandman’s run. More so than its often shaky visuals, which mostly seem like a symptom of being produced by Netflix, the show fails to exhibit the novelty that made the comics so alluring in the first place.
With any adaptation, adherence to the source material can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when a story is as strong as The Sandman’s, not adapting it faithfully could do it a disservice, and devoted fans might miss absent elements of the original. On the other hand, sticking too closely to a book or to the comics can make a series feel as if it’s being limited by the very thing that inspired it.
As I watched the first season, The Sandman sometimes reminded me of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. The 2009 film was based on another critically lauded 1980s DC Comics series, from the British creative team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and it too was faithfully adapted for the screen despite once seeming unadaptable. It received a tepid response at the time (though it’s gained greater appreciation in recent years), but thanks to Snyder’s unmistakable stylistic tendencies, it didn’t exactly translate into a deconstruction and satire of the superhero genre at large—as the comic was—and instead felt more like a “gritty” superhero flick. (Rorschach’s opening monologue in the film, for example, re-created images and exact lines from the comics but felt over the top and dated in live action.)
Part of why HBO’s Watchmen worked so well, in contrast, is that it didn’t try to adapt the graphic novel. As showrunner Damon Lindelof put it, his series wasn’t an adaptation, but a “remix” of Moore and Gibbons’s work. The limited series used many of the comic’s characters and managed to capture its spirit, but it also built on that foundation to create something new that it could call its own. A healthy distance from the source material can ease in new viewers who aren’t familiar with it, while not forcing those who are to compare and contrast, thus fixating on all the unmistakable similarities to and deviations from the original.
The circumstances surrounding The Sandman are, of course, much different from those around either the Watchmen movie or TV series. For one, not only was Moore unassociated with either project, but he sees anything that DC Comics or Warner Bros. does with the IP as debasing and undercutting the value of his work to make more profit. Gaiman was very involved with the creation of Netflix’s The Sandman. (As he tweeted, more involved than he was with Starz’s American Gods, but less so than with Amazon’s Good Omens, for which he served as showrunner.) It’s obviously too late for the TV show to be a “remix” of the comics, but what it can do moving forward is allow itself a little wiggle room to be more than just an adaptation.
If the series continues in a second season, and perhaps beyond, I would love to see it experiment more and try to bend genres and traditional TV confines. One of the many things that are so exceptional about the comic is how varied and unexpected its stories can be—how they truly embody a dreamlike ethos with endless possibilities. That was a product of Gaiman and his team of artists taking risks when stepping into unfamiliar territory. “I had never written a monthly comic before, and wasn’t sure that I would be able to,” Gaiman explained in the afterword to Preludes & Nocturnes, written in 1991. “Each month, every month, the story had to be written. On this basis I wanted to tell stories that could go anywhere, from the real to the surreal, from the most mundane tales to the most outrageous. The Sandman seemed like it would be able to do that, to be more than just a monthly horror title.”
In the comics, Morpheus takes on all shapes and sizes, which we get a taste of in the first season of the Netflix series in his encounter with Nada in Hell or when he holds John Dee in the palm of his hand. Gaiman and the many wonderful artists he worked with on The Sandman and its adjacent works experimented and pushed the boundaries of the comic book medium, blending different genres and art styles in exciting, unexpected ways—especially for a time when comics were often looked down on as lesser forms of entertainment. The third volume, Dream Country, for example, is a collection of disparate stories that range from a spin on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a tale told from the perspective of cats, one of whom meets Dream:
It could be fun for the Netflix series to try something unconventional like mixing in animated sequences with its live action, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Osmosis Jones, or playing with the unique style of rotoscoping, as employed in Amazon’s Undone. And while minor changes to story arcs and some characters often worked well during the first batch of episodes, it could be interesting to see the show take other risks to separate it a little further from the source material—especially if Gaiman is on hand to help oversee and steer the new course.
If Netflix’s The Sandman gets the green light for a second season, which seems likely considering its acclaim from critics out of the gate, there’s still hope for the series to ascend to new heights. After all, Preludes & Nocturnes was an imperfect start to the comics series as well, as Gaiman admitted. “Rereading these stories today I must confess I find many of them awkward and ungainly, although even the clumsiest of them has something—a phrase, perhaps, or an idea, or an image I’m still proud of,” he wrote in Preludes’ afterword. “But they’re where the story starts, and the seeds of much that has come after—and much that is still to come—were sown in the tales in this book.”
The first season of Netflix’s The Sandman may be shaky at times, but it also stands as a reminder of why so many people tried to adapt this “unfilmable” work in the first place. Some visual obstacles may be too difficult to overcome, but perhaps Season 1 sowed the seeds of a bigger and bolder series.