ReviewNetflix drama review: The Sandman – adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series is well acted but fails to capture the original magic
- Strong performances from Tom Sturridge as Dream and Boyd Holbrook as Corinthian are undermined by the show’s disjointed narrative and tonal inconsistency
- Attempts to consolidate the comic’s weaving storylines leave the adaptation feeling flat and it rarely comes close to capturing the original vivid aesthetic
After decades wallowing in development and numerous false starts, the first screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s landmark comic book series The Sandman finally arrives, as a 10-episode series on Netflix.
Tom Sturridge plays Morpheus, the misanthropic Lord of the Dreaming, opposite an eclectic and wildly diverse cast that includes Vivienne Acheampong and Vanesu Samunyai alongside the likes of Boyd Holbrook, Gwendoline Christie, and Stephen Fry.
The result is inevitably a mixed bag, as stories and characters are consolidated to make for a more linear and coherent narrative, but at the expense of the comic’s signature style.
Created by Gaiman in collaboration with screenwriters David Goyer (Dark Knight Trilogy) and Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman), the show intertwines the first two volumes of The Sandman’s original run, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”.
Dream, as Morpheus is also known, is captured during a ritual by wealthy occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who was attempting to summon Dream’s sibling, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). After a century of imprisonment, Dream escapes into the present day, only to discover his kingdom, the Dreaming, is in ruins, and his magical totems have been sold off.
While he sets out to retrieve his sand, helm, and ruby and rebuild his domain, a powerful nightmare known as Corinthian (Holbrook) wreaks havoc in the waking world. At the same time, a young woman, Rose Walker (Samunyai) learns that she has inherited incredible power capable of destroying the very fabric of the universe.
The original comic book, published by DC Comics, ran for 75 monthly issues between 1988 and 1996. While Gaiman scripted every single issue, he collaborated with a number of different artists over the years. That, and the notion that The Sandman was always a “story of stories”, meant that the series had a somewhat episodic narrative, something that is only exacerbated by the transition to the screen.
The show’s restructuring attempts to give it a more clearly defined narrative backbone, but the constant shifting of focus away from Dream, and persistent introduction of countless supporting players, can’t help but make it feel disjointed and tonally inconsistent.
Ironically, Dream barely features in some of the best episodes, not least episode five, based on the notorious “24 Hours” issue, in which Burgess’ grandson John Dee (David Thewlis) uses the Sandman’s magical ruby to violently manipulate a diner full of innocent victims.
This is not to suggest that Dream is a burden within his own adventure. Sturridge’s relentlessly melancholic portrayal proves one of the show’s greatest strengths.
When the story begins, Dream is a godlike being who wields unspeakable power. He is vigilant, cruel, and merciless within his domain, and after a century spent in solitude, is determined to exact his revenge.
Over the course of the show, however, Dream slowly begins to develop a sense of compassion for humanity and his underlings within the Dreaming, and even for his enemies, which Sturridge sells with no small degree of emotional heft.
The sadistic, mischievous Corinthian, who escaped the Dreaming during its ruler’s absence, is positioned as the show’s primary antagonist, and Holbrook perfectly inhabits the grinning ghoul with razor-toothed mouths instead of eyes.
Dream must also contend with the aforementioned Dee, Christie’s Caesar-like Lucifer, as well as his own cadre of meddling siblings that make up the seven Endless: Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny, Delirium and Destruction.
Ironically, Death (Howell-Baptiste) is the friendliest of the bunch, while the scheming, androgynous Desire (Mason Alexander Park) potentially poses the greatest threat to Dream.
There is so much stuffed within the pages of The Sandman that a truly faithful adaptation would be practically impossible. The show lifts the more important and memorable incidents, and for the most part recounts them accurately, but rarely comes close to capturing the comic’s vivid, almost carnivalesque aesthetic.
Artist David McKean, who produced all 75 covers of the comic’s initial run, has created 10 kaleidoscopic credit sequences to end each episode, in a respectful nod to his original contribution, but it feels a somewhat hollow gesture, as the Netflix platform will automatically skip past them anyway.
Few of the other DC Universe characters who graced the comic book make their way into the show, despite it being a DC/Warner Bros. co-production.
Constantine does feature, albeit gender-flipped as Jenna Coleman’s Johanna Constantine, which actually makes sense after Dream encounters her 18th-century female ancestor during the “Men of Good Fortune” story, one of the show’s genuinely emotional high points.
Less surprising is that there is no sign here of Justice League alumnus Martian Manhunter, nor perennial Batman foe The Scarecrow, both of whom were present on the pages of the comic books.
The show must be commended for its inclusive and ethnically diverse cast, and for its gender-fluid and sexually ambiguous characters, but at times it feels that representation was higher on the list of priorities than creating a genuine spectacle.
The Sandman sets itself up for a second season and a potential war with Hell’s army of demons, and any fan of the comics knows there are many great tales still to be told.
Too often, however, a sense of wonder is lacking in The Sandman, and for a tale about the boundless nature of dreams that’s something people should lose sleep over.
The Sandman is streaming on Netflix.