The Sandman is one of the greatest and most important works in the graphic fiction canon. Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a host of the most talented artists on the comics scene at the time, the 1989-1996 series helped put the Vertigo imprint on the map and was one of the medium’s earliest crossover hits with the mainstream. A dark, weird, sometimes scary, sometimes funny fantasy epic, its many stories demonstrate the breadth of creativity that would make Gaiman a beloved author. Now, after decades of previous failed attempts, a television adaptation of the series has come courtesy of Netflix. Sadly, though shepherded by Gaiman as a producer and writer, the show carries the ethos of the comic but little of its verve.
The title character, Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), is the personification of imagination itself and the ruler of the Dreaming, where all humans go as they sleep. As the series opens in 1916, he is captured by a group of occultists, who steal his magical totems — a pouch of sleeping sand, an insectoid helmet, and a ruby — and then leave him imprisoned for over 100 years. Finally escaping in the present day, Morpheus finds the Dreaming a wreck and must set right all that’s gone wrong during his confinement. Over the course of the first season (which faithfully adapts the first two collected editions of the comic, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House), he sets out to reclaim his totems and recapture the living nightmares who have been wreaking havoc in the waking world.
The comic depicts a world in which belief and perception actively shape reality. From one chapter to the next, anything could happen. Morpheus is the father of Orpheus of Greek myth and a friend of William Shakespeare. Death is personified as a chipper goth girl who loves humanity dearly. In one issue, Morpheus and a demon engage in a battle of concepts; the demon puts forth a wolf, so Morpheus conceives a man on horseback to spear him, and so it escalates until the demon projects “anti-life itself” … and Morpheus wins with “hope.” The television adaptation recreates many of these plots. But simply translating the dialogue, design, and even the layouts of the comic book panels to the screen does not automatically maintain the spirit of the text.
One persistent issue is that the comics this show is based on were drawn in vivid colors and with a jagged punk rock sensibility by artists like Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III. The images are often dizzyingly busy, a mess in the best kind of way, like something you’re actually glimpsing through a dream. The paneling is creative and similarly disorienting. In one issue, when a character goes to sleep and the page transitions into showing the dreams of several other characters, the panels and text abruptly rotate 90 degrees — because she lied down, get it? Each dream is then rendered in a different art style, with various fonts and styles of writing in the accompanying text boxes, conveying the divergent points of view of the dreamers. The comic is legendary for Gaiman’s writing, but its brilliant artwork should never go overlooked.
In contrast, the show looks like … well, every other Netflix show. It has flat, frequently oversaturated lighting and coloring, workmanlike framing, and staid editing. Often the only thing that distinguishes the waking world from the Dreaming is an overabundance of CGI (perhaps the color filters might get a bit more forceful). The show has an uphill fight here; the page is an unlimited canvas for one’s imagination, with a reader’s mind working in tandem with the artist’s pen. On the screen, though, we are inured to spectacle. The crumbling castles, demons, and friendly gargoyles in this show look too much like what’s come before. Worse, in some cases, the creature design is aggressively less interesting than in the comic. The original version of Choronzon, a demon whom Morpheus battles for his helmet, is a purple creep with sunglasses and two mouths. The show’s version of the demon has some goopy antennae coming out of his head.
The show evinces a curious quality that feels particular to contemporary television adaptations, where it is somehow obviously sincere but still feels half-assed. It’s like a fan film, but one where we know everyone involved is capable of doing better than what we’re getting (particularly since the original author is onboard here). Sturridge has a good voice for the role but completely lacks any unearthly quality. The comic’s Morpheus is aloof, mercurial, and sometimes frightening. Fitting in with the folkloric sensibility of Gaiman’s storytelling, he feels like a god among mortals whose priorities and sense of morality are not always lined up with ours. Sturridge can’t do much to convey this besides purse his lips and glower a lot. Repeatedly, roles that are well-cast come up short; I could never have guessed that the great Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer, King of Hell, could be so disappointing.
Perhaps the element that most kneecaps this adaptation is how sterile it feels in comparison to its source material. The Sandman comic is the kind where you feel like every ink splotch and errant line has been dutifully kept on the page. The Netflix sheen means even clouds of dust look too clean. John Constantine, here reimagined as Johanna and played by Jenna Coleman, is one of the grubbiest characters in comic books, but all that’s been scrubbed away here. She sports a crisp, fashionable white coat that looks like it’s never so much as had a coffee stain on it, as opposed to the iconic trench the original character wears. “24/7,” an episode that adapts the issue “24 Hours,” which is one of the most horrifying stories in comics history, takes place in a diner that doesn’t even seem to have any cracks in the banquette vinyl. The disturbing, apocalyptic feeling of the comic is imitated but not felt. Time and again, The Sandman gives little compelling justification for its own existence, and simply reinforces what made the original books so wonderful.
The first season of The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix.
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