Since 1989, Dream of the Endless has cut a distinguished figure in the world of comics with his pale gaunt frame, dark eyes, and spiky hair that appears to be the lovechild of Peter Murphy (Bauhaus) and Robert Smith (The Cure).
Now, over 30 years later, Neil Gaiman’s titular Sandman has finally made it onto the screen and out of development hell – reworked into a lavish 10- episode Netflix series that collects the comic’s first two volumes, Preludes and Nocturnes, and The Doll’s House.
The plot of The Sandman follows Dream, or Morpheus, one of seven beings known as the Endless. A dysfunctional family, they are the physical embodiments of natural forces, such as Desire or Despair.
Morpheus isn’t just the god of dreams and dreaming – he is the dreaming itself. In 1906, whilst performing an occult ritual, mortals set out to capture his older sister, Death, but end up summoning Dream instead. Over a century later, he escapes, hellbent on vengeance and restoring his realming of The Dreaming to its former glory.
The role of Dream seems to physically fit Tom Sturridge (Like Minds, The Boat That Rocked) as if it had been tailor made for him. While on the surface a dark, brooding figure, Sturridge portrays a man who is, underneath it all, carrying the weight of humanity on his shoulders. Even with the barest of gestures, he conveys Dream’s constant struggle to manage a deeply unstable realm whilst shouldering the emotions of the subconscious.
The Sandman, already fairly inclusive in its initial publication, has been revised to better encompass the broad spectrum of gender, race, and sexuality.
Every aspect of Sturridge brings the character to life, from the goth visuals to the Morpheus ‘voice’. One viewer commented that ‘it’s like he fused his vocal cords with the speech bubbles of the novels.’
Throughout his trials, Dream is supported by a diverse cast of characters: his elder sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), his faithful servant and librarian of The Dreaming, Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), and the occult adventuress for hire, Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) among others. The latter two are genderbent adaptations of characters from the original comics, and it’s refreshing to see how The Sandman, already fairly inclusive in its initial publication, has been revised to better encompass the broad spectrum of gender, race, and sexuality.
The Sandman is ultimately a story about stories. Each character has a well developed, enticing premise. They make you want to reach out and learn more, to learn how their story has become entangled with the god of dreams. And it is this facet of Morpheus himself that makes him so fascinating: he weaves in and out of the lives of everyone who dreams. He isn’t a protagonist, he’s a guide. The Sandman isn’t a linear hero’s journey, it’s about helping the dreamers navigate through their own stories.
Every episode loosely covers one issue from Preludes and Nocturnes or The Doll’s House. This approach has its benefits and its drawbacks. While it gives Gaiman a chance to flesh out the story arc of each issue and tweak it to better suit the television format, it can also lead to some pacing issues. As season one follows two volumes of The Sandman, it’s difficult to strike a balance between covering each story arc evenly. The first six episodes that span Preludes and Nocturnes feel slightly too drawn out, whilst The Doll’s House, in spite of its coherent narrative, is given less screen time.
The first couple of episodes in particular feel very slow. There is a line between drawing out anticipation and simply dragging the story down to a snail’s pace, and The Sandman crosses it a few times in those initial episodes. We as the viewers need something to happen, something to hold onto amidst building up atmosphere. For those who haven’t read the comics, an episode like 24/7 can seem very jarring, as Dream has very limited screen time, and it almost feels like a plot from a different show.
Moreover, trying to cover two volumes in one season (and thus, two story arcs) leads to a very abrupt shift in narrative. Fans of the comic may not register it, but for viewers unfamiliar with the storyline of the comics, it can be quite difficult to cast aside the characters and plots of the past few episodes in favour of getting to know new ones. And, given that The Doll’s House’s story arc has significantly less time to be played out, it’s hard to get an audience to invest themselves in time.
With that said, the upshot of adapting The Doll’s House in a shorter amount of episodes compared to Preludes and Nocturnes is that the story feels snappier. Each episode is action packed, building upon suspense until the tension is resolved in a grandiose climax befitting of The Sandman. If the first six episodes followed the pace of the last four, audiences would be drawn in significantly faster.
Whether it’s a breathtaking battle set in the depths of hell or a character ruminating on the mortality of human life, each scene rings with Gaiman’s distinct voice and is all the better for it.
It cannot be denied that the original graphic novel run of The Sandman is a vast, sprawling, and sometimes confusing blend of different story arcs and character exploration. For most, it would be difficult to know where to even begin with an adaptation. Comic books are notoriously tricky to adapt, and the end result might’ve been akin to the film version of Watchmen: long and laboured, no matter how faithful it is to the source material. It’s fortunate, then, that Neil Gaiman oversaw the show’s adaptation.
No one knows a story quite like its author. Whether it’s a breathtaking battle set in the depths of hell or a character ruminating on the mortality of human life, each scene rings with Gaiman’s distinct voice and is all the better for it. Combined with the acting talents of The Sandman’s cast, his work is more than elevated off the page and onto the screen. It’s one thing to faithfully adapt two volumes of comics. It’s another thing to then make these adaptations something you can believe in.
As such, for fans of the source material, it is indeed a dream come true. And it shows – in the weeks follow its release, The Sandman received 23.8 times the demand for an average Netflix series.
For those going in blind, there may be some hiccups in terms of pacing and timing that sometimes disrupt the flow of the story. But Gaiman’s storytelling is always a delight to witness.
In spite of its flaws, The Sandman brings to life a story about human nature, one that is at times so compelling that audiences may find themselves struggling to bring themselves back to reality afterwards. It’s almost like waking up from a dream.