The Sandman Review: Still Dreaming Of A Great Neil Gaiman Adaptation — But Getting Closer

Neil Gaiman's works might just be impossible to adapt. There's an otherworldly magic, or eeriness, or strangeness, or silliness to his books and graphic novels that fail to translate in full to the big and small screen. Perhaps one adaptation might capture the whimsy of his work, but fail to bring that Gaiman edge to it. Another might nail his brand of eccentric comedy, but fall flat on other counts. Still yet another might lose the moody melancholy of Gaiman's original novel in order to craft something new and striking, only to fall victim to Gaiman's own ego (and your typical behind-the-scenes squabbles).

So there's an understandable amount of trepidation going into Netflix's adaptation of "The Sandman," based on what is inarguably Gaiman's first and greatest masterpiece. First published in 1989 and running for 75 issues through 1996, "The Sandman" is a mind-bogglingly imaginative work of fiction that tells the story of the anthropomorphic personification of Dream, one of the seven "Endless" that represent other concepts such as Death, Destiny, Desire, and Despair. Dream, also known as Morpheus or The Sandman, is millennia years old, wiser and more inhuman than we can comprehend — but one day he gets captured and is held captive for nearly a century, endangering the realm he rules over known as the Dreaming, and by extension, the world.

Reading the "Sandman" comic was like taking a peek into Gaiman's own weird, wild mind — there's a reason the titular character resembles Gaiman as he was in the '80s — and getting transported through surreal, sometimes beautiful and often disturbing, worlds. Though it has a reputation as a horror comic (and best believe, there are issues of "The Sandman" that get truly horrific), its genius was that it treated the boundaries of genre with the same disregard that Dream treated the boundaries of reality — leaping from fantasy, to science-fiction, to historical fiction, to mythology.

It was a comic where the possibilities felt endless, something like, well, a dream. The Netflix series feels like those moments when you wake from a dream and everything is a little dimmer, hazier, and everyone is dressed like Final Fantasy characters for some reason.

The limits of reality (and a sorely miscast lead)

As far as Neil Gaiman adaptations go, "The Sandman" sits squarely in the middle. The strengths of its source material buoy it through some of its weaknesses, but it has a fair number of those weaknesses — most of which rear their ugly head early on in the first season's 10-episode run. The main weakness being: Dream himself, Tom Sturridge.

Sturridge is wildly miscast as the King of Dreams, coming off less as primordial awe-inspiring entity, and more as a mopey emo boy with a bad haircut. Dream is a tricky role for anyone to play — it's less about the acting ability than it is about the aura one gives off: intimidating, inhuman, cosmic, and maybe even a little cruel. The star of "The Sandman" was always going to be a sticking point — the only actor who could feasibly play Dream might have been '70s David Bowie. As it is, though, Sturridge does his best growly voice to try to imitate the haunting way that Dream speaks (in the comics, his word bubbles were black and whispery compared to everyone else's standard white) and is suitably pale and gaunt-looking, but his performance mostly gives "Edward's constipated face in 'Twilight'" energy.

To go into whether the changes that the Netflix series made — moving the timeline to modern-day versus its original late '80s setting, changing the genders and races of several characters — work or not would veer too deeply into spoiler territory, and honestly, be a little too pedantic. But for the most part the changes do work, though some of the less-successful changes do feel like a symptom of what I like to call "the Netflix effect." A few elements are a little too clean, too shiny, too softened to make the same visceral impact that the a few brush strokes on a comic book panel could make. To put it plainly, there are images from the "Sandman" comics that have burned themselves in my brain; there are scenes from the "Sandman" Netflix series that left my brain as soon as they entered it.

I am hope

But not all hope is lost. "The Sandman" is slow to wake, but once it does, it starts to show potential to be the closest thing we might have to a great Neil Gaiman adaptation.

The first few episodes of the series are incredibly weak, to the point of being slightly embarrassing (this is where the Final Fantasy outfits come in, along with a number of bad wigs). But the show turns itself around at the halfway point, with the adaptation of the source material's most famous and most disturbing story, "24 Hours." When it pulls it off (admittedly in a tamer way than it could have), "The Sandman" gains a renewed confidence and starts to make the most of its strengths — namely, in its great villains John Dee (David Thewlis, wonderfully chilling) and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook, charismatic and venomous, with a vaguely Southern drawl that really works for the walking Nightmare), the latter of whom takes up the mantle as season-long antagonist, a streamlining choice that actually works for a scattered narrative such as "The Sandman."

But the real standout and, frankly the savior of the series, is Kirby Howell-Baptiste's Death. Howell-Baptiste gives a positively effervescent performance as the personification of Death, a sweet and kindly figure dressed as a cute goth girl whose appearance belies popular belief about the Grim Reaper. To be fair, the comic did this first, but the way Howell-Baptiste embodies this and the episode built around a day in her life are almost good enough to forgive the show's other failings.

The ensemble is admittedly spotty; the more seasoned genre actors are quite good — like Stephen Fry as the eccentric Gilbert, Jenna Coleman as the steely Johanna Constantine, Gwendoline Christie as a perpetually on-edge Lucifer, and Charles Dance as the arrogant occultist Sir Roderick Burgess. But some of the more green cast members are very obviously that — giving often wooden or stilted performances that more often than not feel like a mostly-British cast playing Americans and trying to hide their natural accents.

Despite some of its stumblings, "The Sandman" has against all odds, hope. The show clearly has belief in itself — especially with Gaiman on the creative team alongside co-creators David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg — and ambition to not only loyally adapt the comic but make key changes that streamline the story for TV. Will it ever be as great as the experience of reading "The Sandman" for the first time? No. But at least it dreams of getting close — and someday, if it continues on this path, it might.