The Sandman Captures the Spirit of the Comics in a Truly Magical Way
In 1989, Neil Gaiman took scraps from the pages of various DC Comics titles and constructed mythology that captivated readers all over the world, introducing us to a family called the Endless, anthropomorphized personifications of concepts that make up all there is. The third sibling in this dysfunctional family is Dream, the lord of all things outside reality, and he appears to most people as a wiry goth Brit with hair like ‘80s Robert Smith. Dream, or the Sandman, and all his family, friends, and foibles (sometimes one and the same) gained a considerable following and Gaiman’s series has since become one of DC Comics’ most reprinted titles.
Gaiman has spent the past 30 years zealously guarding The Sandman against mediocre adaptations and imitations. But this year, The Sandman debuts on Netflix with Dream played by Tom Sturridge, who uncannily looks like he leapt off the pages of the comics and whose voice sounds pretty much like how you’d imagine the character’s signature black and melty word balloons would sound like. Sturridge’s casting is spot-on, and with Gaiman running the show, pretty much everything else is.
The ten-episode season follows the first two story arcs of the comics, Preludes and Nocturnes and Doll’s House, which details how Dream was captured and imprisoned by an errant occultist named Roderick Burgess (GoT’s Charles Dance), his subsequent escape, and handling the potentially universe-ending threat of a dream vortex.
The long-awaited adaptation received tiny grumblings from a vocal minority who criticized the casting of Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Dream’s big sis Death. But Christie is an exquisite Lucifer, towering over Dream in austere robes and gigantic, leathery wings and generally being as menacing as they are polite. And Howell-Baptiste is Death. This is coming from someone who, for the longest time, held Chris Bachalo’s white-skinned, tank top-wearing, ankh-sporting goth girl in Doc Martens as the ultimate ideal. Howell-Baptiste embodies Death’s cheery, positive outlook and radiates the kindness that you would yearn for in, well, death.
The casting is simply perfect across the board, with perhaps the only thing missing from Sturridge being Dream’s eyes that reflect the cosmos. But it’s a small change that is done with purpose. While Dream in the comics is the series’ protagonist, he’s something of an ass, showing little compassion and sometimes even contempt for humanity. But Sturridge’s Dream is a more relatable character, as far as ageless anthropomorphized ideas go. His eyes communicate in a way that a cosmic void can’t and more importantly contrasts with the first season’s primary antagonist, the rogue nightmare known only as The Corinthian.
The casting is simply perfect across the board.
Boyd Holbrook plays the serial killer to end (or more accurately, begin) all serial killers, a nightmare who perennially hides his teeth-for-eyes behind stylish sunglasses. The Sandman and The Corinthian play a cat-and-mouse game as the lord of the dreaming seeks to bring back his creation just as it yearns to remain free to inflict its malevolence upon humanity. Holbrook is every bit as sexy as he is terrifying, The Corinthian is suave and has a swagger that’s far more seductive than Joe Goldberg of You.
The adaptation makes some changes for television, such as the creation of Gault, an escaped nightmare who isn’t in the comics but necessary to enable a self-contained story. In the comics, the story involves a golden age superhero called the Sandman who is manipulated by fugitives from the dreaming called Brute and Glob. Gault is a narrative stand-in for both characters but her story significantly more elegant and poignant than her comic counterparts.
But despite the beauty of dreams, The Sandman ventures into truly dark waters. The fifth episode titled “24/7” is such a disturbing change of pace and suffused with so much depravity that it’s uncomfortable to sit through. It’s so tonally dark and unravels so slowly that it takes away from the flow of the entire series. It isn’t until Dream makes an appearance towards the end that the world feels right again, but that might have been the point. The whole episode is intended to unmask the sickening truths we color over with dreams.
Aside from the incredibly heavy fifth episode, the entire series exudes a hopeful tone that’s surprisingly welcome. Morpheus, as Dream is also known, is ironically extremely slow to change in the comics and even up to the end, doesn’t change much. But Gaiman has allowed this Sandman to grow over the course of ten episodes in a way that his comic counterpart couldn’t even after 75 issues. The result is a Dream that’s far more sympathetic and cheer-worthy in an age where we need our heroes to be heroic.
This isn’t to say that Dream is suddenly Superman. He’s simply less of a jerk, but he’s still the same, emo, mopey sadboi who needs his big sister to come and knock sense into him. By the time Death shows up in the sixth episode “The Sound of Her Wings,” we’re ready for Dream to get out of his funk and get on with his Endless existence. It’s one of the most entertaining episodes, as we are also treated to the undying Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley) and his centennial meet-up with Dream.
But the fun doesn’t let up, barring the jarring change of pace of the fifth episode, as the final two episodes happen at a serial killer convention. That’s right, just like ToyCon but for serial killers who collect kills the way some people collect toys. The fact that it’s advertised as a Cereal Convention should tell you all you need to know about how tongue-in-cheek it all is despite the gruesome con attendees.
Gaiman fought long and hard to stop The Sandman from being made badly and of course, he was right. The Netflix adaptation is almost perfect in its translation from page to screen, capturing the spirit of the series in a truly magical way. One notable and exceptional change is the gender-swapping of the demon-hunting magician John Constantine, who goes by Johanna in this version, and played by a scintillating Jenna Coleman. There’s an unexpected and powerful sexual tension between Morpheus and Constantine that will have fans of the comics all sorts of confused. Coleman and Sturridge have so much chemistry that you simply want something to be there but as a comic fan your brain is yelling, “What’s happening?!?”
The Netflix adaptation is almost perfect in its translation from page to screen.
Coleman is so delicious in the role that the whole thing screams spin-off. But any tension, real or imagined, is immediately put on hold because Coleman visits her ex in the third episode “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” as Dream demands the return of his bag of sand. It’s a haunting, melancholy episode that only feels like an introduction to a character audiences will definitely want to see more of. Apologies to Keanu Reeves and Matt Ryan, but I’m pretty sure Coleman’s Constantine can kick the bollocks of both versions. Plus, she’s the only one who pronounces her name right.
There’s also the small but dramatically important change in episode four “A Hope in Hell,” which features what is basically a rap battle for the ages, where Dream faces off against the demon Choronzon to reclaim his helm. In the comics, Choronzon is his opponent, but in the adaptation, he pits wits against Lucifer themself. Instantly, the stakes are higher and the contest more dramatic, and it simply works. The little changes that Gaiman, who co-writes the show with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, made from page to screen all just work and it’s a rewarding experience for fans and non-fans alike.
The Sandman’s mythology is unlike anything on television, and Dream’s family is one of the most interesting cast of characters there are. If Howell-Baptiste perfectly captures Death and Sturridge perfectly embodies Dream, there simply is no other person in the world who could’ve played Desire than Mason Alexander Park. Park is Desire in every conceivable way, and they play Dream’s younger sibling with a syrupy deviousness that’s truly enjoyable to watch. Even their twin, Despair, is played with such deliberate, depressing ordinariness by Donna Preston that she highlights just how exceptional Park is. The casting is so incredibly perfect that you can’t wait for the next season to be introduced to the other Endless.
The Sandman is not only a series that fans have been waiting for for a long time, but because Gaiman’s stories have always been infused with so much hope—because what is a dream without hope?—in these uncertain times, it’s something we truly need.