“You mortals go about your work, your loves, your wars, as if your waking lives are all that matter. But there is another life which awaits you when you close your eyes… and enter MY realm. For I am the King of dreams… and nightmares.”
To call Netflix’s / WB’s / DC’s live action adaptation of The Sandman “Hotly anticipated” is something of an understatement. Neil Gaiman’s instant classic comic first went on sale 33 years ago, in 1989, and fans have been eager for a movie or TV version ever since.
I should know, I’m one of those fans. Sandman (the comic) was one of the titles that seriously got me into reading comics, after Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing, and Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer. I have a clear memory of reading issue 6 in the luggage section of the train back from Oxford to Banbury, and being utterly enthralled, lost in the hellish world of Dr John Dee’s terrorised 24 hour diner so thoroughly that I nearly missed my stop.
I’d heard of Neil Gaiman before, of course, though the only thing of his I’d actually read was Ghastly Beyond Belief, an affectionate collection of quotes from sci fi books and films he co-edited with Kim Newman. But as The Sandman progressed through its 75 issues, weaving a story about all stories throughout all history and all cultures, I came to look at Gaiman as almost a god in his own right.
That kind of reverence is not without its own problems. Chief among them is the kind of slavish faithfulness to the source material that often scuppers otherwise decent adaptations. I can’t help thinking of the recent adaptation of Good Omens. It’s an enjoyable adaptation, but the insistence that every single sentence of every tiny vignette in the book be lavishly realised with respected actors and lashings of FX diverts from the main plot, and often slows the pace to a crawl. (I will, of course, be watching the upcoming second season 😊)
Gaiman himself oversaw that adaptation, so I wondered whether The Sandman, which he also oversees as Executive Producer, would be similarly overly reverential to its source material. The trouble with adapting a beloved comic is the temptation to use the original issues as basically a storyboard, which was what Zach Snyder was guilty of with his movie adaptation of Watchmen. Doing that overlooks the fact that you’re working in a different medium, with different structures for storytelling.
Thankfully, after various false starts attempting to produce a movie version, the decision was made to produce The Sandman as a TV show, where the episodic structure more closely matches that of a monthly comic book. And that’s not all – this is no slavishly faithful adaptation of every word and every image; the plot has been streamlined, altered, and updated to suit its new medium.
And so, after many months of teasing, the whole first season of ten episodes dropped on Netflix last Friday. The temptation, of course, is to binge-watch the whole lot as quickly as possible. That’s been one of the reasons I’ve blogged far less of late – my old approach of reviewing a show episode by episode becomes far more difficult, and arguably less relevant, when people have seen the entire season and I’m still blogging on ep1.
But, pigheadedly, that’s what I’m going to do here. So here we go with the first issue / episode. Taking its title directly from the original first issue, Sleep of the Just is a slow-burning but effective introduction to the characters and themes of the story. Opening with a narration from Lord Morpheus himself over an expansive CG-rendered vista of the realm of the Dreaming, the ep is a straight adaptation of that first issue, with little changed. That could be an example of that overly reverential approach I mentioned earlier, but it’s actually needed here, as it was in the comic. Longtime fans like me may take these concepts for granted, but viewers unfamiliar with the comics need at least some exposition / explanation.
Thankfully it doesn’t dwell too much on that, and gets on with the story pretty sharpish. Obviously the most important aspect is the casting, and Tom Sturridge as Morpheus does not disappoint. He certainly looks the part – pale and rake-thin with a shock of jet-black hair, he matches the comics’ version of Morpheus to a T. But just as importantly, he has the presence and gravitas required to embody this unearthly, often wildly alien figure that is our central character. I had actually hoped that the producers might cast James McAvoy, whose stentorian portrayal in the Audible audio adaptations was spot on. But Sturridge is younger than McAvoy, which arguably fits the visual aspect of this character rather better.
If I was worried about slavish faithfulness though, this version reassured me pretty quickly with an important, and justified, change. Escaped nightmare and smiling horror the Corinthian is introduced right at the start, setting him up as a major antagonist where he wouldn’t be introduced until much later in the comic series.
This makes sense – until that second volume of the comic, The Doll’s House, there is no central antagonist for the ‘hero’ to struggle against. Introducing one gives the TV story more focus, and the Corinthian is later shown to be a guiding manipulator of subsequent events without actually changing them much from the comic. Boyd Holbrook is magnificently charismatic and terrifying in the part, his notorious predilection for eating the eyes of his victims set up right from the start. The fact that his own ‘eyes’ are actually teethed mouths is hidden by his usual shades, but when they are shown, it’s with a matter-of-fact minimum of fuss, rather than the hackneyed ‘shock reveal’. I rather like that.
As well as introducing us to the characters and concepts of the show, this ep has to get the story going by telling the story of Dream’s 100+ year imprisonment by Aleister Crowley knockoff Roderick Burgess. Charles Dance is perfect as the arrogant magus – basically he’s just repeating his Game of Thrones turn as Tywin Lannister, but that’s no bad thing. Even here, though, the adaptation gives him a more sympathetic motive than the comic – it’s 1916, and his son Randall has just been killed in the war, so he wants to make a deal with Death. Granted, though, he treats his remaining son Alex as worthless (shades of Tywin Lannister again).
Of course, he doesn’t get Death – who we’ll obviously be meeting later – but her brother Dream, who he imprisons in a glass bubble for the next century, after stealing his magical tools. Meanwhile, as in the comic, the disruption to the dreams of humanity causes a mysterious epidemic that came to be known as “sleeping sickness” (yes, it was a real thing). As in the comic, I presume this will have long-lasting repercussions for the story.
While this show doesn’t take the ‘comic book as storyboard’ approach of the Watchmen movie, it’s nevertheless nice to see some of the memorable images from the comic faithfully recreated onscreen.
Indeed, the show is meticulous in its visual style, inspired by (rather than just copying) the aesthetic of the comic. If you’re watching on Netflix, and have it set to skip the end titles, change that immediately. They’re a beautifully designed visual collage by mostly-retired artist Dave McKean, whose ‘found object’ collages made the original comics’ covers so memorable.
Obviously Dream eventually escapes, setting the story in motion. But we have far more of the pieces already in play here than in the original comic. I’m guessing the retcon was based on hindsight – the comics weren’t meticulously planned, but with knowledge of the whole, completed story, it’s easy to set things up more holistically. I think it works.
Overall, I found this opener to be faithful to the comic without the fatal flaw of copying it exactly, and it sets the scene nicely for what’s to come. As in the comic, at least the next few eps will be spent in search of ream’s lost magical objects, but from what I can tell, that quest will be over by halfway through the season and we can move onto other stories. This was a slow-burning but effective opener, with a beautiful visual style and some excellent casting. Let’s see what the rest of the season has to offer.