“The trouble with stories is if you keep them going long enough, they all end in death,” says David Thewlis’s character in The Sandman. Evidently, the long-awaited adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s apocalyptic, epoch-spanning graphic novel is on the grimmer side of his output.
Fans of, say, the charmingly animated 2009 film Coraline or the live-action fairy tale Stardust (2007) — both based on works by Gaiman — may be in for a rude awakening. This is metaphysical with a capital "M". Superheroes? They’ve been sidelined.
The past few years have been manic for Gaiman, a creative who has truly benefited from the rise of streaming platforms. His fantasy-driven comics and books have largely been regarded as "unfilmable", partly due to the dense, sprawling narratives and partly due to the complex visual effects needed to realise his visions.
Projects such as Lucifer, American Gods, and Good Omens, the comic tale of angels and demons Gaiman co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, have all benefited from the deep pockets of streaming platforms.
The same can be said for The Sandman, which is released as a 10-part series on Netflix on Friday. Reviving an old DC Comics character, Gaiman’s series initially ran between 1989 and 1996 and was ranked alongside Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as one of the great examples of the published art form.
Or, as the esteemed novelist Norman Mailer dubbed this fantastical tale, it's a comic strip for intellectuals.
From 1991, potential adaptations came and went. But when an audio version became a bestseller in 2020, Gaiman knew it had crossed into the mainstream.
Developed with screenwriters David S Goyer (Batman Begins) and Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman), the new series covers story arcs from the first two Sandman volumes: Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House.
The result is a visual feast — with directors such as Jamie Childs (His Dark Materials) even taking its creator by surprise. “It’s fabulous. It’s astonishing. It’s really, really powerful,” Gaiman says. “And, occasionally, I find it sort of hits me emotionally in ways I wouldn’t have imagined when things that had just been in my head and on the page are up and moving around.”
At the heart of the story is Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), also known as Dream. He’s one of the seven Endless, a group of inconceivably powerful ancient beings, alongside such other entities as Death, Despair and Destruction.
In the early 20th Century, when a magus (Charles Dance) tries to summon Death with a book of incantations, he instead captures Dream, incarcerating him inside a glass prison. What’s more, this cruel tyrant’s wife, Ethel (Niamh Walsh), steals Dream’s “tools” — a pouch of sand, a helmet and a ruby — thus stripping him of his powers.
Imprisoned for 100 years, when Dream emerges, he finds his own netherworld has all but been destroyed, while chaos reins on Earth. To bring balance to this catastrophe, he must set out to find his precious tools.
It’s a journey that begins in London and an encounter with Jenna Coleman’s quasi-detective Johanna Constantine, before a descent into hell, where he finds Lucifer Morningstar (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie). He also must do battle with power-hungry being the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a slick customer with teeth where his eyeballs should be.
Gaiman is bullish about the adaptation, which takes some liberties with the original material. “What I like is that Sandman fans are going to be incredibly happy. And non-Sandman fans are not going to know what’s hit them,” he says.
Admittedly, he has faced criticism on Twitter from some followers who objected to certain casting choices, including black actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death — a character depicted as white in the comics. Gaiman’s reply on social media was that he didn’t care about people “who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining … that Death isn’t white enough".
Some elements of the show do falter. The choice of American comic Patton Oswalt to voice Matthew the Raven, an upbeat bird who accompanies Dream, feels ill-advised and hardly in keeping with Sturridge’s sombre, world-weary turn.
The baby golden gargoyle accompanying Abel — Asim Chaudhry’s character — is also a little too cutesy. But then when there is Thewlis, going full blast as DC villain John Dee, who spends years in captivity, albeit in an asylum, there should be little to vex fans.
In a story about time, ageing and mortality, The Sandman is a show that non-fans will need to adjust to. It has an almost anthology-style feel, as leaps are made from one story element to another.
As Gaiman puts it: “Episode three is modern horror, five an existential journey into the utter heart of darkness. Episode six will kiss it and make it better.”
At a time when Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings are readying two expensive prequel shows for HBO and Amazon Prime Video respectively, Netflix’s The Sandman has stolen a march on both.
The Sandman is on Netflix from Friday