After the endless struggle to bring Lord Morpheus – the Sandman – to live action, Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book series finally gets its adaptation. This ten-episode series covers the books Preludes & Nocturnes and The Dolls House, at a rate of one episode per issue. But is it everything fans will have dreamed of?
This adaptation picks up with Lord Morpheus’s (Tom Sturridge) capture by an occultist sect in the early 20th Century, led by black magician Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance, in the first of many genius casting moves). Held in captivity for decades, Morpheus sets about rebuilding his kingdom and reclaiming his belongings – stolen at the point of capture. And that’s just the first forty minutes.
With a legion of fans keenly waiting on this adaptation, The Sandman comes with decades of heightened expectation. Those hoping for a panel-by-panel re-enactment of the books may be both thrilled and horrified by what has been done here. Pages of the books are indeed re-created with panel-perfect fidelity (particularly in episode one, and a later discussion on gargoyle naming conventions). Other aspects, however… are not.
Clearly those trapped in the early ‘90s won’t be pleased with the approach taken here (expect outrage from the usual quarters). However, the show remains true to the spirit of its characters, even if some liberties have been taken – most notably Patton Oswalt as a slightly irritating Matthew the Raven, and David Thewlis as a less decrepit John Dee.
It’s obvious where changes have been made for television convention, such as the choice to elevate the Corinthian (a scenery-and-eyeball chewing Boyd Holbrook) past his role in The Dolls House to series villain. It also switches out some more important DC characters, replacing John Constantine with comic book relative Johanna. Well, we were never going to get the real JC, Justice League or Arkham Asylum – not on this kind of budget. Like it or not, what is The Sandman if not a story about adjusting to change?
Elsewhere, chunks of the book are adapted with stunning precision. Dream’s capture, his journey to Hell and the always-horrifying 24 Hours are faithfully presented, sometimes line-for-line to Gaiman’s dialogue. While the budget occasionally fails to live up to the scale and spectacle of his imagination, the appropriate feeling and atmosphere are evoked throughout.
Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the comic book series may have an easier time of it. Separate from its source material, this is an ambitious and unpredictable work of dark fantasy, with no one episode quite like another. In the space of five episodes alone, viewers are taken to Hell and back, on a tour of the Dream lord's kingdom, and various generations of Earth.
But could any human being ever plausibly embody Lord Morpheus, Dream of the Endless? Sturridge certainly has the cheekbones and the hair, even if the alabaster skin and black hole eye sockets have been left out. Morpheus’s aloofness leaves him one of the less interesting characters in his own story, while the more colourful (the Corinthian and Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death), more commanding (Jenna Coleman as the other Constantine) and iconic (Stephen Fry, Thewlis, Dance) tend to steal any scenes they share together. Still, with eight books to go, we have plenty of time to warm to Sturridge’s Dream.
This is an ambitious, carefully curated undertaking, attempting to weave a series of complex and not-always accessible stories into a coherent narrative. Like trying to recall the details of a dream long after waking, this is no easy task. Against all odds, The Sandman succeeds better than one could have dared hope for, distilling the essence and soul of the Endless into Netflix-friendly chunks of TV.
The Sandman: Series One is now streaming on Netflix UK & Ireland