Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’ re-creates Neil Gaiman’s world in its own image
To be perfectly honest, I expected Netflix's The Sandman to be as uninspired as its trailers and promotional stills made it out to be. I expected a series of few highs and fewer lows; an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road production born out of corporate groupthink. Naturally, as a long-time fan of the comic book series it is adapting, I dreaded and eagerly awaited this. I wanted to see just how bad it would be, just how much they "didn't get it". And so, naturally, I counted down the days to August 5. Naturally, I hooked up my laptop to my TV screen at 11 AM on that fated day, never minding the 12,000-word dissertation I have due a week from now.
I fired up the first episode, "Sleep of the Just", and a quarter of the way through I found myself foot-tapping, turning up the volume, dragging myself closer to the TV. I didn't even realise I was liking it. I was making notes in my head of what they were changing, what they were already doing wrong. It didn't occur to me that I was damn hooked, not until I hurried to load the next episode.
Now, let's take it one step at a time. "Sleep of the Just" adapts the very first issue of the first volume of The Sandman, known as Preludes & Nocturnes (1989). Here, we are introduced to Charles Dance's Roderick Burgess, an ageing sorcerer who hopes to cast and imprison Death. He succeeds, though not entirely. Burgess instead captures Dream (brought to life by a perfectly cast Tom Sturridge), and keeps the lord of dreams and nightmares trapped in his cellar. This causes a global epidemic of "sleepy sickness" (which actually happened) and many more consequences that we'll soon find. Dream is trapped here for 106 years, but the world he returns to is far removed from the one he left. Dream similarly has lost possession of his helm, pouch of sand, and ruby, without which he grows weaker by the day. The episodes that follow are his efforts to regain these totems and to reclaim his throne at the Dreaming. That is to say, this is the storyline contained within Preludes & Nocturnes. The Netflix show, however, makes the strange decision to conjoin the story arc of the first volume with that of the second, The Doll's House (1990).
The Doll's House, which was the better-selling volume at the time of release, follows an entirely different story, where Dream plays more of a background role. The cast of characters largely changes (which they do in each Sandman volume), as do the theme and even genre. In adaptation, the show hurriedly forges the two together, with the horror overtones of Preludes dissipating. Instead, however, there is a unifying feeling of giddy fun and procedural adventure throughout the season. The closest, in fact, the show seems to come to in spirit is the Harry Potter series of films—not only in mood and visuals but in music, with the John Williams-tinged orchestral cues bouncing in and out. This is unsurprising as in 2013, the then-president of DC Entertainment, Diane Nelson estimated the potential of The Sandman to be "as rich as the Harry Potter universe".
Netflix's Sandman is very apparently catering to a broader audience, and this might rub a few longtime fans the wrong way. Gaiman's comic book very famously employed harsh themes and graphic content, which feel sanitised in its live action counterpart, even in the episode "24/7", a season highlight, which depicts a high amount of violence and shock, but nevertheless falls short of the sheer brute force the comic packed.
Just as well, the TV show does at times look generic. In the comic books, there would be different artists drawing the story every few issues, and Dream's own changing appearance is one of the visual staples of the story. Here, we get Sturridge's Dream looking more human than the actual larger-than-life figures he was modelled on, in Robert Smith and Farukh Ruzimatov. The set designs, too, feel devoid of a truly distinctive touch. The story calls for a Tim Burton-esque limning of the world, eschewing realism, which unfortunately we don't get.
For longtime fans, really, I can see a few cocked eyebrows and suspicious glances. But while I do share in the sentiments, it is perhaps best to judge the new Sandman on its own merits. I can't fully criticise a TV show for not being like something else, especially when that wasn't even in its agenda. What we do have is an exhilarating, charming, flawed season of supernatural drama. If you didn't read The Sandman, watch The Sandman. If you read The Sandman, don't expect the same magic as in the pages.
Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. He is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, and has previously worked for Daily Star Books.