Why 'The Sandman' Adaptation Could Only Happen Now, And Only First On Audio

It seemed like an adaptation of The Sandman was trapped in development hell for nearly as long as the titular personification of Dream was imprisoned by his captors in Neil Gaiman's acclaimed graphic novel series (okay, that was 70 years, but the point still stands). Multiple attempts have been made to bring Gaiman's weird, fantastical world to the big screen, with Warner Bros. periodically planning adaptations throughout the '90s, and writers like Roger Avary, David S. Goyer, Jack Thorne, and Eric Heisserer coming and going, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at one point set to take on the role of Morpheus. But all those attempts had fallen through, until it seemed like The Sandman was doomed to "unadaptable" status, like so many others.

Then, along came a new decade and we have not one, but two Sandman adaptations on their way. But curiously, the first-ever adaptation of The Sandman wouldn't be a screen adaptation as fans had long expected, but an audio drama adaptation on Audible directed by renowned audio director, and frequent Gaiman collaborator, Dirk Maggs.

"Neil calls me the guy who goes in the minefield first," Maggs joked in a virtual roundtable press conference with /Film. Maggs was the first to adapt Good Omens, which Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, for audio, and had dramatized the radio play Neverwhere, based on Gaiman's TV series. Now he would be first through the gate for The Sandman, ahead of the currently in-the-works Netflix adaptation from Wonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg. But Maggs is not worried about the Netflix adaptation, though when it was first announced he may have been.

"I'm gonna absolutely level with you. We finally got this underway, and then they announced the TV version," Maggs said, comparing the two adaptations, both of which Gaiman is involved in, to "that moment where the Titanic leaves, if there's a little sailing boat in the way, the backwash and that thing just capsizes." But Maggs went back to rewrite the draft of the first episode and decided to stick to "what Neil wrote originally." Maggs continued:

"They can do what they like with the other version because we are absolutely the motherlode Sandman. And it's been the best experience ever because it stopped me from trying to be clever, instead I trust the author and that's been the best part of it."

But why now? Why did it happen on audio first? For Gaiman, who spoke about actually fielding those early requests to be involved in a Sandman movie, only to say no ("I remember the Warners exec, Lisa Henson, looking at me very puzzled and saying nobody's ever come into my office and asked me not to make a movie before"), the Audible audio drama was a perfect storm of elements.

"You needed somebody like Dirk Maggs, you needed something like, Audible, about who were very willing," Gaiman told us in a virtual roundtable. "You know, Dirk and I have been willing to do something like this and talked about it since 1992. But you needed Audible to have actually gone from a model where they just putting out audio books to the point where they're discovering that actually full cast adaptations, people love these things."

The hurdles that come with adapting Sandman are how film and movie adaptations, until now, "needed to go into very clearcut boxes," Gaiman said. "And Sandman was always something that I overflowed its boxes and became its own thing. I think it's so interesting that we're now at a point where we can make it." He continued:

"People have tried making Sandman movies and TV adaptations for 30 years, and actively tried making them for 25 years. And they've never worked. And they never worked because of special effects and what would have needed to do the special effects. They never worked because you were making something that was adult. And at a time when people would write Sandman movie scripts, and they go, but it's an R rated movie, and we can't have 100 million dollar R rated movie back then, so wouldn't happen. You needed to get to a world in which longform storytelling is an advantage rather than a disadvantage."

With audio, "we can do an awful lot for a lot less money and a lot less people than you can do for any picture project," Maggs added. "It's a very flexible medium, not only for the listener, but also for us as creatives. The trick is, the skill is in making it so that you are lost in it and you don't suddenly are jarred by something that really doesn't explain itself well."

Gaiman takes a major role in the Audible adaptation of Sandman, acting as narrator in addition to providing Maggs with background information and access to his original scripts for the comics, but he was noticeably excited to speak about the Netflix series during our roundtable. The Netflix series is still a ways away, but Gaiman is already immersed in the world of the Sandman and seeing it visualized by Heinberg and his team for the small screen has got him acting positively giddy:

"I get these emails of production design stuff on Netflix's Sandman, and I just want to show them to everybody and I know that I can't, they're incredibly confidential. But I look at them and I glow. The other day they sent me Lucifer's Castle and the Gates to Hell and all of these Hell designs and I'm just like this is amazing! It's like watching Kelly Jones' nightmares and Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg's nightmares just coming to life. We couldn't have done that even five years ago. Definitely not 10 years ago. The technology wasn't there, the budget wasn't there, the audience wasn't there, the delivery systems weren't there. The idea of spending and going off doing Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House as our first 10 episodes, nobody would've let us do that. The world wasn't ready. It caught up with us."


The Sandman is now available to purchase on Audible.