The Pitch: What if amorphous concepts like Desire, Despair, and Death had anthropomorphic representations, and had realms over which they ruled? What if, amongst them, one of the most powerful was Dream (Tom Sturridge), who oversaw the land to which all living creatures come when their eyes slip shut and their minds take flight?
That’s perhaps the simplest place to start when describing the premise for The Sandman, Netflix’s highly anticipated adaptation of the graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman, with artists including Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Shawn McManus, Marc Hempel, Bryan Talbot, and Michael Zulli.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of “sequential art” ever created, the ten-volume graphic novel series, despite many attempts over the decades by Hollywood, is only just now arriving as a screen adaptation, with the 10-episode first season executive produced by Gaiman alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg. And with Gaiman’s involvement, the result certainly feels like the best possible version of a TV show adapted from such a defiantly difficult-to-adapt source.
Well, Who Am I to Keep You Down?: The Sandman, for as many changes as have been made from the page (largely in the form of gender-swapped characters and race-blind casting), proves to be relatively true to the graphic novels, beginning as Gaiman began his original narrative: With Dream in a cage.
After a brief prologue in which Dream himself provides voiceover explaining the facts of his existence, the first major arc of the story begins, that being Dream’s imprisonment by a World War I-era warlock named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who strips Dream of his powers and keeps him away from his duties for decades.
Once Dream escapes his prison, his first task is to regain the magical items from which he draws his power, followed by a much bigger task: Restoring his crumbling realm known as the Dreaming to order. Essentially, imagine if the first Superman movie had started with a naked Superman locked up in a glass fishbowl for one hundred years, before going on a quest to get his cape and boots back and rebuild the Fortress of Solitude. You might thus understand why The Sandman has defied attempts at conventional adaptation until now.
A Wish Your Heart Makes: The Sandman features a pretty exciting ensemble cast, though it’s probably worth noting that the power of the ensemble is enabled in part by the limited screen time many of these characters have — some of the biggest names are limited to only a few scenes, or voice performances. But that still doesn’t lessen the fact there are some tremendous names here, including Gwendoline Christie, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, John Cameron Mitchell, Patton Oswalt, Mark Hamill, Jenna Coleman, and Stephen Fry, all of whom shine in their time on screen.
Also, the casting of Mason Alexander Park as Dream’s duplicitous sibling Desire isn’t just one of the show’s many great achievements, but an important reminder that Gaiman was writing gender-non-conforming characters well before terms like non-binary were coming into common use. And also, let’s just say this clear and plain: Fuck the racist haters, Kirby Howell-Baptiste is extraordinary as Death, bringing a centered wryness to the screen that really resonates with Gaiman’s long-standing depiction of her as a friend to everyone, there to hold your hand as the inevitable arrives.
Of all the actors involved, Sturridge has the most difficult burden and struggles with it accordingly — there’s no denying that physically he’s a dead ringer for the character, but like so many classic stoics, his limited dialogue and cool demeanor mean that it’s not immediately easy for the viewer to get inside his head (even with the occasional crutch of voice-over).
But in Dream’s lighter moments, Sturridge manages to draw out a compelling spark, and this first season is only meant to be the beginning of his journey. Dream might have powers beyond that of a god, but he is as fallible as any Greek or Roman deity, and it’s in those uncertain moments for the character that Sturridge’s performance works best.
It’s Never Quite As It Seems: One reason why this story definitely works a lot better as a TV show than it ever would have worked as a film is that because The Sandman was originally written as individual issues of a comic, its storytelling was by nature episodic. So while Season 1 compresses the first two compilations of the graphic novel (Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House) into 10 episodes, the adaptation actually works pretty well, with shorter tales covered in perhaps 10-15 minutes of screen time, while other, more substantial narratives run an episode or two.
What works best about this adaptation is the spine provided by expanding the role of the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), an escaped nightmare who proves to be a captivating villain for the season. The writers were wise to use him in weaving together some of the shorter stories included, as Holbrook’s innate charisma is exactly the unsettling touch needed to make his clean-cut sunglasses-wearing appearances crawl under your skin.
While provoking and boundary-pushing for their time, it’s hard to be terribly shocked by some of the more horror-driven stories, such as the episode “24/7” (which brings to life the haunting story of “24 Hours”) or everything to do with the “cereal convention.” But that’s simply because our societal standards for disturbing have ramped up over the years (just consider what Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal got away with on freaking NBC for three seasons).
There are some moments of clunky dialogue, largely resulting from an occasional indulgence in jokes and wordplay about sleep and/or dreams (do not drink every time someone says the word “dream” — pretty sure getting blackout drunk will not get you to the Dreaming).
But the one playing field on which The Sandman was always going to live or die was in how it attempted to depict the surreal nature of dreaming itself, and thankfully series directors Mike Barker, Jamie Childs, Mairzee Almas, Andrés Baiz, Coralie Fargeat, and Louise Hooper prove up to the challenge. There are times when the show leans a bit heavily on CGI to create some of these dreamscapes, but they by and large capture the familiar unreality of what happens when we drift away at night.
The Verdict: The big question that comes with adaptations is more often than not “Why?” Why this story, why now? In the case of The Sandman, it doesn’t necessarily feel like the world was clamoring for this to happen — instead, it more feels like Gaiman and his collaborators simply taking advantage of this opportunity. In 2021, Goyer told Collider that a streaming series was “the only way that the magic of what… Gaiman had done could be fully realized.”
Having now seen the full season, that feels like a very accurate statement. Sometimes, with adaptations, you have to accept that what you’re seeing is objectively the strongest version possible, given all the complicated social, logistical, and economic forces that lurk behind the scenes of every film or TV show ever made. It might not be perfect, but it’s the best we as an audience could hope for.
And in one very important sense, this Netflix adaptation succeeds tremendously in translating The Sandman to the screen: This has always been a strange story, eschewing genre conventions and narrative tropes in ways that at times feel as ephemeral and wild as dreaming itself can be. Some things have been changed from the page here, but a singular quality remains constant: The idea that the waking world can be just as odd as whatever our unconscious minds cook up.
Where to Watch: The Sandman Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.